Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
Genndy Tartakovsky's Influence
Cartoon Network made history when they launched their very first original series, Dexter's Laboratory. The show was created by Genndy Tartakovsky, who pitched the show when he drew a ballerina dancer and a short, blocky boy. The series was based on his childhood relationship with his brother, Alex. Thanks to its simplistic art style, creative stories, and cast of beloved characters, the show was a success and ran for two seasons. The results gave Tartakovsky a break and became a supervising producer and director of selected episodes on The PowerPuff Girls.
Soon after, Genndy went back to work on Dexter one last time before moving on to his next ambitious project, Samurai Jack. It was Cartoon Network's first-ever television movie based on the series and was intended as the series finale. However, once Genndy was done, the series was renewed for two more seasons with radical art changes and Chris Savino taking creative control. Regardless, the movie on its own was still a big feat for the show itself. But, how does it hold up? ...Good, not great.
When a curious Dexter (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh) travels through time, he must team up with his future self to defeat a tyrannical Mandark (voiced by Eddie Deezen).
An Unoriginal Yet Epic Adventure
The concept of Dexter traveling through time is nothing new. For those that are familiar with the show, there have been a couple of episodes where they experimented with this idea. One episode involved his sister Dee Dee traveling back to the past and inadvertently warning her brother about an upcoming failed experiment.
Another episode involved Dexter bringing a caveman to the present shortly after discovering fire where the latter causes havoc out of fear. Even the synopsis sounds standard and formulaic. The prime motivation of Dexter traveling into the future in the first place was because he believed he "saved the future." In fact, the title Ego Trip gives a hint of the character's personality, which we'll talk about later.
However, thanks to the execution, the concept does give it a movie feel where each time period that Dexter visits has an interesting and creative background which all builds up during the third act. They would provide puzzle-like pieces and would eventually add up to foreshadow or make things predictable...especially towards the ending. Without giving spoilers, let's just say the ending is a mix of "deus ex machina" and "deja vu." It definitely felt big when Dexter has to face his rival Mandark on a new level of action sequences. Speaking of the action sequences, it is also an evident factor that makes his adventure feel like a movie rather than a regular episode. The movie also provides some humor, most particularly either through visual gags and the character interactions between Dexter and his future selves. Of course, there are also some callbacks and references to the show, rather it would be some of Dexter's inventions or the characters' catchphrases, which are a nice touch.
It may sound simple enough for an episode, but there was some effort to make it feel like watching a movie.
Television Animation with Creative Effort
At first glance, the animation quality doesn't look different in comparison to the show. It does stay true to the source material where the character designs keep their flat, simplistic styles and the character animations are limited, since this was still Hanna-Barbera studios before officially changing to Cartoon Network at the time. But, since this is a television movie we're talking about, the best thing about it is definitely the creative use of visuals and the animators did not hold back once on its scope.
While the character animation still has that television quality, there was definitely a boost whenever the characters would go into a fight scene. There is no better example than in the beginning when Dexter makes his grand entrance by sliding down a giant pipe and uses a giant wrench as a weapon against Mandark's attempted theft. Let that imagery set the mood for the forthcoming action sequences throughout the movie.
The character designs for each future version of Dexter and Mandark fit their personalities, such as "Number 12" being skinny and Overlord Mandark being so large and in charge that he relies on machinery to make him move. On a side note, since the titular character is a boy genius, we get to see some old and new inventions, like his giant fighting robot Robo Dexo 2000 and the Neurotomic Protocore, an energy source that would either be used wisely for prosperity or mistreated for misery upon the world. That device would be considered the MacGuffin of the movie.
When Dexter travels through time, the backgrounds of each period are artistically exquisite. The first timeline has a futuristic setting where a normal-looking suburban neighborhood is easily toppled by tall buildings and flying cars a la The Jetsons. We also get to see Executive Mandark's office building where his employees get to live, work and sleep into their own cubicles while he lives a more, luxurious lifestyle, including a vibrant garden with peacocks and a golf course.
In the second timeline, we enter the far, distant future where it is a clean, white Utopian society where science and knowledge are beneficial through the core's positive power. The citizens can travel through bubbles and would visit a museum dedicated to Dexter's inventions.
The final time period is a dystopian wasteland where the colorists use the color red to heavily emphasize the negativity that Mandark plagued upon the world. While Mandark is in charge, society becomes so dirty and unintelligent that they can't even make fire. Some may theorize that the use of these backgrounds would later be influential for Samurai Jack. Think about it: Jack gets sent into the future where the evil Aku has taken over the world and Jack must set things right. With a bigger scope and creativity, the animation truly helped make the experience feel like a Dexter's Laboratory movie.
Two Characters; Multiple Versions
Now, the characters would be a bit complex to talk about since Dexter and Mandark are the focal characters of the movie. Starting with the titular character himself, Dexter is a highly intelligent child who has a secret laboratory without his family knowing. Because of his curiosity and belief that he saved the future, his personality makes him more self-centered and not even once questions about his family or Dee Dee for that matter. On one hand, it is kind of understandable since he is gifted with high knowledge of science and wants to prove himself among the world. On the other hand, the point of his character is that he is a kid with a mad scientist complex and always gets his comeuppance whenever his inventions would backfire. Nonetheless, he still shows a sense of justice and likability when he learns that his invention was given to the wrong hands. We then get introduced to his three future selves. The first is a young adult version of himself called "Number 12" where he is a wimpy, coward who constantly gets abused by Executive Mandark and goes through an arc to stand up for himself. The second is an elderly version of himself who is the Utopian ruler but is amnesic and would travel in a small UFO. These two Dexters would also supply the comedy whenever their personalities would annoy present Dexter. The third and final Dexter is a muscle-bound action hero who would often rebel and fight against Mandark's machine men. With all four Dexters together on screen, they do show some great, no pun intended, chemistry, despite sharing their egotistical nature.
Then, we have the antagonist, Mandark. He has been Dexter's rival who tries to outsmart him and has an obsessive crush on Dee Dee. But, in this movie, he is more sinister and desperate than ever before, especially when he tries to steal the Neurotomic Protocore. Even his future versions have their own personalities. Executive Mandark is a wealthy yet cruel businessman who would occasionally strip his employees down to their underwear and electrically whip them for "almost being late for work". ...No comment.
In the far future, Mandark has become nothing but a disembodied brain in a jar as a museum exhibit who often complains all day. And finally, we have the Overlord Mandark. Once he took control of Dexter's invention, the negativity drove him mad with power and created the desolate world, and relies on his machine minions. As intimidating as each Mandark is, there's NO denying that Eddie Deezen's performance would still get a laugh whether this was meant to be taken seriously or not.
It is worth noting that is also Christine Cavanaugh's last role as Dexter before her retirement and Candi Milo becoming her successor. Whether young or old, she definitely knows how to make her character sound like an entertaining mad scientist who is also a child. In fact, she won an Annie Award for her performance. Jeff Bennett also provided an enthusiastic voice to make Dexter sound more macho and serious than before.
As for the other characters, don't expect much screen time out of them. Dexter's parents make a cameo at the beginning for an innuendo joke. With Dee Dee, again, without spoilers, her role seems more...coincidental than she would normally do. Not to mention she only has ONE line.
Solid Cartoon Network Movie
Overall, Dexter's Laboratory: Ego Trip is a solid, first impression for Cartoon Network's first television movie. Even though the story seems simple and recycled enough for an episode and Dexter's self-obsessed nature would rub off some people, the movie itself is still entertaining with inventive visuals, elevated action scenes, diverse characters, and skilled performances. While it had not officially ended the show, it had accomplished a historical moment in the network's history. It also helped Genndy Tartakovsky reach new levels in his career afterwards. It is recommended for those who enjoy Dexter's Laboratory or time travelling stories in general. As of 2020, there is no DVD or Blur-ray made available. It is best to watch it online or find it on VHS, which is a very rare item to find nowadays. It is not a spectacular feat, but a lot of effort could lead to something great.