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Sandokan is a late 19th century fictional pirate who bravely scoured the waters of the South China Sea in 11 novels by Italian writer Emilio Salgari. The pirate, nicknamed ‘The Tiger of Malaysia’, would go on to be portrayed in a number of live action films and animated series. One such show, that I remember sticking out during my childhood was that of the 1992 cartoon Sandokan, created by Spanish animation company BRB International.
What made this version of the character linger in memory? Well, this animated series played on RTE2 in Ireland and although never popular, many people, if shown a picture of this Sandokan, can remember at least seeing him once. After all, this take on the pirate stood out from the crowd. The show’s writers, Doug Stone and Dave Mallow, decided to play up the famous nickname, and in fact, anthropomorphise the characters. Yes, they actually gave us a tiger pirate. The animal here, loosely based on the novels, is a usurped prince, fighting to regain his rightful place from the Rajah who overthrew him.
Although nothing incredibly groundbreaking when it comes to animation, and coming across as far less fluid than later animated Sandokan adaptions, there is a sweetness to the 1992 series, a charm that fits in with those other BRB works, such as David the Gnome and Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds. The show has a simple concept, never really delving outside of its comfort zone. This is not a bad thing though as the story never tries to be anything more than a swashbuckling adventure of good versus bad. In fact, it’s this simplicity that allows the series to have a sense of beauty. This Sandokan boasts an animation style which recalls mid-to-late 80s classic cartoons, such as 1987’s Treasure Island.
The series’ music perfectly complements the action and emotions of the story, adding suspense to scenes reminiscent of old pirate movies like Errol Flynn’s 1935 vehicle Captain Blood. This is true of the protagonist too, a character that one can route for throughout the narrative. That’s right, Errol Flynn is channeled through a cartoon pirate tiger.
The 1992 Sandokan series was later released as a condensed animated movie in 1995 called The Princess and the Pirate, a good entry point for readers that would like a taste of the show without committing to 26 half-hour episodes. In fact, there’s very little difference between the film and the series, just going to show how much filler material is present in the latter, the show opting for a Saturday morning style of episodic storytelling rather than a proper serialised narrative. Yet, this too actually serves its purpose, enabling its writers to create many short adventures with zero consequence, the perfect call back to the novels on which they are based.
Yes, this version of Sandokan was never anything special. The voice acting is far from perfect. The story is subpar. The thing is, where it struggles, it manages to make up for elsewhere in heart. Its scenes have a beautifully drawn style and the character designs feel authentic to the source while also being unique to the series. Sandokan 1992 is worth checking out for nostalgia at least, and if not, surely a smile.