So for no reason whatsoever, I decided to spend a few weeks casually watching the Earthworm Jim animated series that aired in 1995-96. I remembered it from when I was a kid (it ran on the Kids WB block), but I only ever caught an episode here and there. Revisiting it now, though, I think it may very well be the most accurate video game-to-cartoon adaptation ever made. Or at least a contender.
The plot of the Earthworm Jim cartoon is the same as in the game (and summarized succinctly in the theme song). When the evil alien Queen Slug-for-a-Butt (Andrea Martin) ordered Professor Monkey-for-a-Head (Charlie Adler) to build an all-powerful Super Suit powered by the Battery of the Gods, the space villain Psy-Crow (Jim Cummings) accidentally dropped it on Earth while making the delivery. If you need to reread that sentence again, I understand.
Anyway, after it landed, it was found by Jim (Dan Castellaneta), an ordinary earthworm, who now uses it to fight super villains. He’s joined by Peter Puppy (Jeff Bennett), a dog who is possessed by demons that transform him into a blood-thirsty monster whenever he gets hurt, and Princess What’s-Her-Name (Kath Soucie), the “ugly” twin of Queen Slug-for-a-Butt and alien freedom fighter. Other villains include Evil the Cat (Edward Hibbert), Bob the Killer Goldfish (Cummings) and Evil Jim (Castellaneta).
Earthworm Jim is sort of a forgotten treasure of that early Kids WB line-up. It got drowned out by all the Amblin/Spielberg shows that hogged the spotlight (Animaniacs, Pinky & the Brain, Freakazoid) and with only 23 episodes under its belt, it came and vanished without much notice. I don’t think I ever saw it in reruns anywhere, either.
But if you’re a fan of the original Earthworm Jim 1 and 2 from the 16 bit era, then I think you’ll appreciate how accurately the show reflects the story, characters, humor and aesthetic of its source material. Doug TenNapel, creator the game, evidently worked on the show (and even lent his likeness as a guise of the Great Worm Spirit) so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it didn’t stray too far from his vision.
The game’s sense of humor translates well into the cartoon. The original game had a different theme or gimmick in almost every level that made it feel spontaneous. One level you were racing, another you were bungie-jump battling, another was an escort mission, one involved baiting monsters to free roadblocks, and so on. The show interprets that spontaneity in the form of “randomness”, with an irreverent, self-referential attitude that fit right in with its Kids WB company. However, Earthworm Jim was random, but not “ran-dumb”. If something weird or inexplicable happened, it was geared to serve a purpose in the story and sometimes even the most pointless of gags would ultimately payoff in later episodes (Death appears for a few seconds in one episode for a quick zinger when Jim escapes certain doom, only to return in later episodes as an ensemble character).
I think the only thing that happened in the show that never received any sort of explanation within the series was the cow falling on people at the end of every episode. And yet the presence of the cow made perfect sense to anyone who had played (and beaten) the first game.
Earthworm Jim distinguished itself from other superhero satire shows like The Tick and Freakazoid by injecting variety into its half-hour structure (without resorting to multiple 7 or 15-minute stories). The cold open would have nothing to do with the plot of the full episode and was just a funny excuse to see Jim and Peter escape from a deathtrap. The second act would always begin with a vignette focusing on a villain who wasn’t being featured in that episode, showing what they did in their down time. These little breaks and asides, while they distracted from the A-plot also gave you something different and fresh to look forward to.
Unfortunately, the second season slightly revamped the structure of the show, eliminating the unrelated cold opens and villain vignettes in favor of a full half-hour story. The plots in the second season were still fun and the humor remained consistent, but I preferred the variety of the first season, personally.
It’s also one of those shows written with a broad demographic appeal. Gags reference things little kids aren’t going to get, but adults might find pretty funny. Stuff like mocking The Seventh Seal (Death remarks on several occasions how he hates chess and Swedish cinema) or jabs at UNICEF (because who doesn’t deserve it more than UNICEF, am I right?). A few jokes are pretty brutal, like during one episode where the heroes visit a geriatric superhero’s house. Peter finds a letter from President Truman that reads, “Thank you for your offer to end World War II, but we have this new bomb we’d really like to try out”. Yikes.
There’s also a surprising continuity to the show that builds its world slowly but consistently. In an early episode, Jim’s suit depowers and he has to get the Battery of the Gods reenergized. In a much later episode, Psy-Crow asks Professor Monkey-for-a-Head to just make a new suit, but he can’t because there was only one battery. Or in a season 2 episode, Psy-Crow and the Professor attempt a coup on Queen Slug-for-a-Butt and ultimately fail. Two episodes later, the Queen drags Psy-Crow before her for punishment.
The continuity of the series isn’t strict and the plots aren’t serialized, but everything is carefully story edited and consistent. Not that it takes itself TOO seriously, mind you, as episodes often end with villains being imprisoned, only to be free without explanation an episode later. And Princess What’s-Her-Name can’t seem to settle on whether she dislikes Jim, is apathetic toward him, or is his genuine friend.
As for the aesthetic, the art design on all the alien planets endeavors to recreate the levels as seen in the video games. Heck (the homeworld of Evil the Cat) is rendered as twisty, lightning-blasted mountains connected by spiraling bridges, just as in the game. And Bob the Killer Goldfish’s underwater base on Planeta de Agua has all the glass tubes and guard-cats of its inspiration.
Yet despite getting nearly everything right, purists of the Earthworm Jim video games seem to hate this show for some reason. I don’t know why. The biggest complaint I’ve observed, and just about the only thing the cartoon got “wrong”, is Jim’s voice. In the games, he has a thick Southern accent (provided by TenNapel) and in the show, he’s manic and exuberant and highly emotional about everything (with no accent to speak of). To be honest, I absolutely loved Castellaneta’s rendition of Jim, accent or no accent, and his line delivery winds up eliciting most of the humor for the character. He’s got this furious lust for life that’s almost infectious and even when he’s babbling lame non sequiturs, you can’t help but laugh.
The cartoon seems to be blamed for killing the franchise, too. I think because the games that came out before the show (Earthworm Jim 1 and 2) were great, while the games that came out after the show and drew inspiration from it (Earthworm Jim 64 and Menace 2 the Galaxy) were heinous pieces of shit. But how the hell is that the cartoon’s fault? Aside from Doug TenNapel, I don’t think the show and the games shared any creatives. Yeah, the later games incorporated elements from the cartoon (voice actors or characters like Evil Jim), but that still doesn’t somehow mean the cartoon is bad or inaccurate to the source material. It just means the people who made those games sucked.
Still, I’ve watched a lot of video game cartoons and even the most entertaining ones stray miles away from their source material. I’ll cop to watching the Ruby-Spears Mega Man and the USA Street Fighter cartoons as guilty pleasures, but I won’t argue that they’re not wildly inconsistent with their games.
But Earthworm Jim? This show absolutely nails it. More than that, even if you’ve never played the games, it stands on its own perfectly well. The humor isn’t nearly as contemporary as in other Kids WB shows of the era (many Animaniacs episodes have aged as well as milk) and the fun comes from the stories, not the pop culture references. Shit, they even make fun of their attempts to stay contemporary in reruns with a President of the United States who always introduces himself as “one of those generic Presidents they use in cartoons so they won’t seem dated”.
If you want a fun, weird, short cartoon to get you through a couple weeks, then Earthworm Jim is worth a look. The whole thing is on DVD (and for cheap). And it’s the only kid’s cartoon I can think of that features children deadpanning lines like, “I yearn for the sweet embrace of the grave.”