Back to the Past: 10 Tartakovsky classics to watch between new Samurai Jacks

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Apr 21, 2017, 5:30 PM EDT

In every medium, there are artists who are so talented and so prolific that they end up defining an entire generation. And whether they knew his name or not, for avid cartoon watchers of the '90s and early '00s, Genndy Tartakovsky was that artist in cartoons.

While he may be recognized now as the guy behind Hotel Transylvania, the Russian-born Tartakovsky got his start as an uncredited animator on Batman: The Animated Series and worked on 2 Stupid Dogs before he started cranking out his own works. First was Dexter’s Laboratory, about a genius boy inventor and his wild science fiction adventures, that showed off Tartakovsky's adept touch for humor and his influences from comic books and classic cartoons. He became one of the driving forces behind the adorable superhero show The Powerpuff Girls alongside its creator, and his frequent collaborator, Craig McCracken. And of course, he won four Emmy Awards for his artistic action series Samurai Jack, which recently returned from cancellation on Adult Swim after over a decade off the air.

Tartakovsky's resume is long and varied, and if you were young at any time during the past 25 years, he probably created or worked on something that you loved. Now, while we're all dealing with the grueling week-long waits between episodes of the concluding season of Samurai Jack, it's the perfect time to go back and dig up some of my favorite episodes, shorts and animated movies by the creative dynamo. So get out of my lab, take a swig of Chemical X and draw your sword, because we're jumping right into the best Tartakovsky works of all time!

Of course, with the hundreds of episodes under his belt, there's bound to be a few favorites that we missed. Let us know your favorite Dexter, Powerpuff, Jack, Titan and Star Wars moments in the comments below!


Dexter's Laboratory Season 1 Episode 3: Dexter's Rival/Dial M For Monkey: Simion/Old Man Dexter

It doesn’t get any more Dexter than the episode that introduces his nemesis, Mandark! The main story of this episode is directed and storyboarded by Tartakosky and proves that every nerd’s worst enemy is an even bigger nerd. This episode begins with a clash of titanic minds unlike any other as Mandark tries to get Dexter to give up the lab game for good. Dexter nearly folds under the pressure until he unleashes his greatest weapon, and the natural enemy of all laboratories: Dee Dee.

The B-story features Dexter accidentally turning himself into an old man in order to stay up late to watch a scary movie. It's a nice contrast to the first story, because the first is a science problem solved with family, while the second is a family problem solved — sort of — with science, which are really the two basic types of stories that Dexter tells. Throw in the best Dial M for Monkey segment of them all, a Rocky and Bullwinkle-style educational gag, and you've got yourself one of the greatest episodes of Dexter's Laboratory of all time.


Samurai Jack Season 4 Episode 6-7: Scotsman Saves Jack, Parts 1-2

Any episodes with the legendary Scotsman is going to make it into the Samurai Jack hall of fame, but this two-parter is really the culmination of the pair's hilarious rivalry/friendship, and it's a thing of beauty. The Scotsman — voiced by the incomparable John DiMaggio — recognizes Jack working aboard a ship, but it quickly becomes apparent that Jack has lost his memory. The Scotsman then becomes determined to retrace Jack's steps and help his buddy back to normal. The set-up provides Phil LaMarr more opportunities than usual to show off his comedic chops as a befuddled Jack, making this one of the funniest Samurai Jack stories of the run.

This pair of episodes also takes you on a whirlwind ride through the show's world, showing off the beauty and strangeness of the setting that Tartakovsky — who co-directed these episodes — and his team created for the show. It's also a fun inversion of the pair's normal dynamic, in which they normally fight and then help each other, but in this one, they help each other and then fight over who gets to help the other one. Not to mention the best use of bagpipes in anything, ever.


The Powerpuff Girls Season 1 Episode 11: Just Another Manic Mojo/Mime For a Change

Tartakovsky storyboarded and co-directed the lead story in this episode with show creator Craig McCracken, and it is easily my favorite episode of The Powerpuff Girls. How could it not be? It's all about Mojo Jojo!

Mojo only wants to eat his breakfast, but he doesn't have enough eggs! So he must brave the inconveniences of the crosswalk and the grocery store before he returns to annihilate everyone he passed on the way. However, his plans of breakfast and casual destruction are interrupted by a ball hit through his window ... by none other than those cursed Powerpuff Girls! Mojo attempts to seize the opportunity to defeat his enemies but is thwarted every step of the way by the girls' ability to annoy him with everything they do. There's plenty of fist-shaking and muttering of "curses" in a classic Looney Tunes-esque setup that provides for zany scenes and big laughs.

But if you want your episodes focused on the Powerpuff Girls, then the second story has you covered as they take on the dreaded Mr. Mime (a villain beaten to the name by the Pokémon by less than five months in the U.S.). Mr. Mime is cleverly a clown who is hit by a runaway bleach truck and loses all his colors ... and gains the ability to drain the color from everything else. This leads to Bubbles trying to solve the problem Harold and the Purple Crayon-style but ends up resorting to a musical number instead. This story ends with one of the most brilliantly abrupt bait-and-switch moments I've seen in a cartoon, which makes this whole episode a must-watch.


Sym-Bionic Titan Episode 1: Escape to Sherman High

Tartakovsky's most recent show for Cartoon Network was also his shortest-lived, so there probably aren't as many of you that have seen this show. But if you haven't given the high school drama meets giant robot battles zaniness that is Sym-Bionic Titan, you really ought to give at least the first episode a shot. Because just as the protagonists of this show unite heart, body and mind to form the titular giant mech, so too does this show combine those elements of Tartakovsky's previous works. All the heart and feels of Powerpuff Girls, the brainy sci-fi of Dexter's Laboratory and the world-building and high-flying action of Samurai Jack are all present in this show, making it all the more tragic that it was canceled after only one season.

The show follows an alien princess, her bodyguard and their robot companion as they flee to Earth in order to hide out from the evil forces that have overtaken their homeworld. They each have their own personal suits of battle armor that they can call upon, but when the need arises they can unite to form one giant robot — usually in order to combat a giant monster that has been sent to Earth to find and kill them. Between all this they attempt to blend in as normal high school teenagers, and the pathos that arise out of that are surprisingly genuine. While not as highly regarded as his other series, Sym-Bionic Titan is worth your time if you're a Tartakovsky fan.


Dexter's Laboratory: Ego Trip

What’s better than one Dexter? How about four Dexters? That's right, this television movie — directed, written and storyboarded by Tartakovsky — features Dexter teaming up with his wimpy teenage self, buff heroic adult self and his clueless elderly self to save the future from Mandark. Dexter's rival gets his hands on Dexter's Neurotomic Proto-Core invention in the future and uses it to take over the world, leaving the Dexters no choice but to join forces to stop him — all of him.

Ego Trip is Tartakovsky's finale for his boy genius creation, as the series would shift animation styles in following seasons as Tartakovsky moved on to other projects. It certainly has a bigger scale than your standard Dexter episode and has a sense of finality to it, despite the series continuing for a few seasons afterward. It's got all of the great gags and nutty pseudo-science that fans expect but turned up to eleven.


Star Wars: Clone Wars: Chapter 5

The better episodes of Tartakovsky's criminally under-recognized and de-canonized micro-series Star Wars: Clone Wars are the episodes that don't bother featuring Obi-Wan and Anakin. They take a random Jedi, put the spotlight on them and throw them into a fascinating action sequence. This episode features my personal favorite background Jedi (who gets totally jobbed by Palpatine, by the way), Kit Fisto, on a mission to defend the undersea people of the planet Mon Calamari.

The ensuing battle feels both true to Star Wars and a completely unique experience to the franchise as Master Fisto wields his lightsaber against droids riding underwater speeders and uses the Force to create bubble blasts. Plus a bunch of Admiral Ackbar's people launching a trap of their own against the droid army while riding some crazy dragon-eel things. A great example of Tartakovsky quietly fleshing out the Star Wars world with some of the most beautiful animation and efficient storytelling to ever grace the television screen.


Samurai Jack Season 1 Episode 7: Jack and the Three Blind Archers

This episode is at the top of my list of "Best Episodes of Samurai Jack that Begin with a Serene Nature Scene Being Shattered by an Army Marching." The opening spectacle of three lone archers atop a tower fighting off a robo-barbarian horde immediately seems like it will be hard to top, but when Jack inevitably takes them on later in the episode, the episode pulls it off by making less into more.

Jack uses his strategic mind and mastery of his senses to combat the seemingly unstoppable archers, showing why he's both a deadly warrior and a compelling protagonist. This episode is filled with action and it all builds character and drives the plot forward without needing much dialogue — exactly where the show excels. This episode is one of the first stand-alone episodes full of confident experimentation that would become the norm in later seasons.


The Powerpuff Girls Movie

It's the story of the first time the day is saved by The Powerpuff Girls! Genndy Tartakovsky was the art director for the 2002 theatrical release, and it's great to see what he can do with traditional animation styles on a bigger budget. Tartakovsky's fingerprints are all over the super-sized action sequences, whether it's the lightning-fast game of tag the girls play early on or their battle against the horde of primates at the climax.

Despite not lighting the box office on fire, this is a laugh-out-loud funny movie with fantastic visuals, a great plot that adds depth to the rest of the series and plenty of gut-bustingly funny moments. Sugar, spice, everything nice and plenty of Chemical X made for a pretty special and satisfying origin story for the girls — and especially for Mojo.


Star Wars: Clone Wars: Chapter 12-13

If you've watched Samurai Jack before, then you know that no one does "lone warrior versus endless robot horde" like Genndy Tartakovsky. And he proves it once again in this two-part Clone Wars short focused on Mace Windu.

In a near-wordless (mostly just a handful of obligatory "Roger roger"'s from the battle droids) pair of shorts directed by Tartakovsky, Mace Windu stands alone against a sea of droids as a child looks on from a nearby hilltop. Master Windu really cuts loose, using all manner of lightsaber techniques and Force-wielding hand-to-hand combat, making for one of the most engaging and awe-inspiring action sequences I've seen in a cartoon.


Samurai Jack Season 4 Episode 11: Tale of X9

X9, an early model of killer robot who was given an experimental emotion chip, wants nothing more than to retire and play his sax to his dog, Lulu … sweet thing. But Aku won't have that. He takes Lulu hostage and forces X9 to take one last hit: Samurai Jack.

In my opinion, Samurai Jack is one of the rare shows — animated or otherwise — that actually improves as it goes on, and this episode is a prime example of why. One of the final episodes of the show, and it was still churning out masterpieces. The inflection of noir tropes is spot-on, and there's some truly stunning animation because of it. The story is equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious, and it manages to do so without showing the show's protagonist for more than the first half of the episode. "Tale of X9" was storyboarded, written and directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, and it is undoubtedly one of the greatest episodes of any cartoon ever.