In 1991, iconic animation studio Hanna-Barbera pulled back the curtain on Mer, an alien world overrun by environmental evil. The only thing that could stop the encroaching darkness and the ruthless pirate lord who sought to control it was a ragtag group of unlikely heroes: an orphaned prince of a once-great kingdom, the last of his line; a veteran pirate whose obsession with treasure hides a heart of gold; a mysterious eco-mancer with ties to the realm beyond that of mortal men; and whatever the hell a monkey-bird is. These were The Pirates of Dark Water.
The animated series arrived at an interesting time. The toy-first focus of 80s cartoons was still a cash cow thanks to original IP like Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and My Little Pony, and adaptations/reboots like G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, just to name a few. And yet, the race was on, whether studio and network execs knew it or not, to make the next great franchise that would rule the airwaves. The world was still a year or so away from the industry-changing arrival of the early ’90s animated series comic adaptations, notably Batman: The Animated Series, with X-Men and Spider-Man not far behind. (We were blissfully unaware of the glut of such shows that were to come, like WildC.A.T.S., Ultraforce, and the like.) This is all to say that the transition from the ’80s into the ’90s was a prime time for creative powers to either reinvigorate an existing title for the decade’s extreme appetite for content, or to dream up something original that could be the world’s next great franchise.
Enter David Kirschner, the creator of both notable toy-first properties like Rose Petal Friends as well as world-famous original ideas like An American Tail. Kirschner would also go on to produce the Child’s Play franchise (for a wild departure from animated kid-friendly tales), write/executive produce the I-still-can’t-believe-it’s-real Poochinski TV pilot, write the story of Hocus Pocus, and shepherd the contemporary Curious George franchise, in addition to a panoply of ’90s animated series and movies. It’s a wild list. And among those titles, easily lost within Kirschner’s filmography, is a creator / EP credit for the ambitious, bold, and hopeful animated adventure series, The Pirates of Dark Water.
The show had everything you could want in an action-adventure story: Well-drawn characters (both literally and metaphorically speaking) attempting the impossible against increasingly astronomical odds, all while dabbling in fliratious relationships and being pursued by an unstoppable force seeking nothing short of our heroes’ annihilation. Pretty strong stuff for an early ’90s cartoon. Animated TV storytelling up until that point had been largely episodic, with exceptions like the original Transformers movie and cartoons with a 65-episode syndication order that launched with a five-part intro miniseries.
Kirschner’s The Pirates of Dark Water borrowed that five-episode plan, despite not having a production order of that magnitude. The mini-series introduced the heroes of the show — Ren, Ioz, Tula, and Niddler — and their seafaring adventures to recover the lost Thirteen Treasures of Rule in order to dispel the titular Dark Water from the world and restore the once-proud but now ruined kingdom of Octopon. That ambitious narrative would also embrace serialized storytelling, which was both a blessing and a curse for Hanna-Barbera and the pirate crew. After two seasons and only 21 episodes, The Pirates of Dark Water was abruptly canceled, leaving nearly half the treasures uncollected, half the world overrun by Dark Water, and abandoning what few toys and video games there were on store shelves.
Cut to 2021, 30 years after the bold, bright, and adventurous animated series hit the (air)waves. A long-running and still-updated fan site, run by the dedicated Smitha, has done its best to keep hopes alight that the show may one day see a reboot or at least a resolution. Mainly, it’s a repository for FAQs and Q&As for fans who stumble in looking for a hit of nostalgia or newcomers who somehow find PoDW for the first time. Artists like Alex van Caloen are also keeping the spirit of the series alive with original artwork inspired by the world of Mer and its colorful characters. But while Warner Bros. is happy to continue selling the series via print-on-demand DVDs and digital episodes through a number of their subsidiary sites and other markets, that’s about as far as they’ve gone toward reminding fans that The Pirates of Dark Water exists, unfinished. Kirschner is still active in the business, overseeing new installments of aforementioned Hocus Pocus, Child’s Play, and Curious George franchises, so clearly keeping one foot in the past isn’t a problem for the folks involved as long as the numbers work out in their favor.
So what, honestly, are the hopes for a new Pirates of Dark Water seeing the light of day? Well, 30th-anniversary avoidance aside, it’s actually Disney who is making the best case for Warner Bros. to kickstart their own high seas adventure ASAP.
In 2003, the Mouse House opted to float a big-budget, waterborne, pirate-themed adventure movie based on their theme parks’ decades-old attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean. Pretty dumb idea on paper. Waterworld had capsized less than a decade earlier, thanks mainly to the huge expense of filming movies with a substantial water component. Johnny Depp was still a household name though far from a “face of a franchise,” while Orlando Bloom‘s career was just in the process of skyrocketing thanks to The Lord of the Rings and Keira Knightley‘s claim to fame at the time was bending it like Beckham and looking just enough like Natalie Portman to land a decoy role in Star War: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
That gamble worked out pretty well for Disney, all things considered; the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise alone is now headed towards $5 billion worldwide when taking the upcoming sixth film and its spinoff into consideration. And that’s not even factoring in the rest of the PotC licensing deals. Never one to let lightning strike just once, Disney is now hoping to spark success again with their new ride-inspired, franchise-launching adventure movie, Jungle Cruise, powered by the absolute force that is Dwayne Johnson. Disney’s about to boast two water-based franchises inspired by 50+-year-old rides while Warner Bros. has been sitting on their own original untapped IP for the last 30 years.
We know that WarnerMedia isn’t averse to revisiting existing IP for contemporary reboots. Yes, they do tend to stick to Scooby-Doo, DC Comics, and Tom & Jerry more often than just about anything else, Harry Potter included. But HBO Max is prepping the animated prequel Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, tapping into a franchise that’s older than Pirates of Dark Water, with the stellar team of writer/showrunner/EP Tze Chun, co-executive producer Brendan Hay, and EPs Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey, Sam Register and Dan Krall on board. They’re also launching Space Jam: A New Legacy this month, just about 25 years after the original launched long-running memes about a sequel that never seemed to be within reach.
Jonny Quest should be a pretty easy win for the studio, but a modern re-do has been in the works for some time; the live-action movie’s latest director Chris McKay is bullish about his Indiana Jones-like action-packed take on the property, but Warner Bros. has yet to greenlight it. A reboot of Animaniacs is already loose in the world while a planned update of Tiny Toon Adventures, dubbed Tiny Toons Looniversity, is on the way. This is all to say that the top brass do look back on past successes, but also that Warner Bros. seems unwilling to take some big Disney-sized swings with their own IP.
A Pirates of Dark Water reboot could prove me and other doubters wrong. If done right, it could please shareholders in the process, too. The cast of characters are mainly people of color, heroes and villains alike, and they come in all shapes, sizes, powersets, and persuasions. There’s an overwhelmingly dangerous environmental catastrophe that’s slowly eating the world as they know it, and only the most evil of evildoers are aligned with the Dark Water’s nefarious intent. Classes divide the waterlogged world of Mer much the same as our own world. Magic and mystery hide in plain sight or within coves and islets, or deep in the world’s jungles or the waters of Mer itself, with untold places to explore. And adventure is found around every corner as the wind whisks the pirate crew of The Wraith off in search of treasure to drive the Dark Water back into the deep, staying one league ahead of the Pirate Lord Bloth and his massive ship The Maelstrom whenever and however they’re able. (Plus, if someone very clever designs the perfectly adorable baby monkey-bird, Warner Bros. might just have their own Baby Yoda on their hands. Lliterally.)
You could honestly lift the exact setup and story of The Pirates of Dark Water from 1991 and apply it to today’s world without missing a beat. It might even be better for having stood the test of time for some 30 years. And in doing so, Warner Bros. would be giving one of the most valuable gems of animation’s past a chance to shine. All they have to do is embark, once more, on The Quest.
KEEP READING: Hollywood! Adapt This: THE PIRATES OF DARK WATER
The upcoming major motion picture promises audiences “perfectly executed shots to the dingdong.”
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