Even when the Highlander franchise met with limited success, nobody in charge of it seemed to know how to handle it. Case in point: Highlander: The Animated Series and Highlander III. Both came about in 1994, when the TV series had hit its stride and made the franchise popular again. The logical thing to do would have been to produce films based on the series and establish some continuity in the property. Instead, we got the exact opposite.
I’m analyzing the animated series and the third movie at the same time for two reasons. First, they were both released in 1994, right around the time Highlander: The Series was in its awesome third season. Second, there’s not a lot to say about them. Yes, they are bad (well, as far as I can tell…more about that in a bit), but they aren’t catastrophically bad. Mention the animated series to a Highlander fan and they might not even know it exists. Mention Highlander III and you might get a laugh at how bad the film is, but nowhere near the seething hatred you’d find from the other sequels. These additions to the franchise aren’t good by any means, but they also aren’t terrible.
Highlander: The Animated Series
The animated series came first, hitting the air on September 18, 1994. And before I discuss it, I have a confession to make: I don’t really know that much about it. I saw part of one episode when I was in high school and immediately changed the channel. I tried watching it again in preparation for this discussion, but couldn’t bring myself to go through with it. My reaction has very little to do with the plot. Instead, it’s the quality of the cartoon that continually chases me away. I mean, take a look at this opening:
Be honest: would you want to watch this show based on the opening? The animation sucks. The narrator sounds like he’s just plain bored. Quentin MacLeod looks like a douche. The setting isn’t familiar at all. The villain looks like he’s dressed in a dark green condom. For the longest time, I couldn’t get past the opening. When I finally did, the episode I looked up started with two characters riding what looked like tauntauns from The Empire Strikes Back. After I finally got past that, I sat through a third of the episode that had nothing to do with immortality and was just as poorly voiced and animated as the opening. Eventually, I gave up on it. I’ve been unwittingly suckered into viewings of The Quickening, Endgame, and The Source. I’ve seen so much shitty Highlander that I just don’t have time for it anymore. If the animators and actors can’t be bothered to put together a decent show, I can’t be bothered to watch it. Honestly, the only interest I might have had would have been an academic one anyway, as I would really like to know who got the bright idea to take a franchise about ancient warriors traveling around the world and hacking people’s heads off with swords into a Saturday morning cartoon in the first place.
Fortunately, Wikipedia is ever my ally, and has told me a bit about the animated series. And, like Highlander III, it doesn’t sound that bad…it just doesn’t sound very good, either. The story is set in another post-apocalyptic future (because it worked so well for Highlander II, apparently) in which the remaining immortals choose to throw down their swords and take an oath of nonviolence so they can preserve mankind’s history. One douche named Kortan doesn’t take the oath and conquers the world, unchallenged because any immortal who goes against him is destined to fall. But after 700 years of Kortan’s reign, a boy named Quentin MacLeod becomes immortal. Not bound by the oath, he can challenge and defeat Kortan.
Like I said, the plot setup isn’t terrible. But it’s also not Highlander. There’s no sense of history, especially since the title character hasn’t even lived longer than an average mortal yet. The post-apocalyptic setting is jarring, taking us out of any established reality we know and turning the whole story into some weird sci-fi epic. And since the show is made for kids, it was decided that Quentin wouldn’t take heads but would rather be able to gain the quickening of other immortals nonviolently. Essentially, the good immortals can give Quentin their quickening, becoming mortal while still transferring their knowledge and power into Quentin. For the cartoon, this probably works fine. In the context of Highlander, it doesn’t make sense. If immortals could just transfer their life essence nonviolently and become mortal, then why didn’t Connor do that when he first met Ramirez, thus gaining his wish to grow old and have children with Heather? Why did Methos try to get Duncan to chop his head off when they first met in the series instead of just giving him the quickening to help him defeat Kalas? Immortality is a curse in Highlander, and it’s something that many immortals would love to give up. Thus, pulling in that plot element makes no sense in the larger scope of the franchise.
The biggest sin of the cartoon, from what I can tell, is that they chose to kill Connor MacLeod. Connor takes the oath of nonviolence with the rest of the immortals, but isn’t about to stand by and let Kortan take over the world. Since anyone who breaks the oath is destined to die, Connor seals his fate through challenging Kortan.
On the bright side, Connor goes down swinging and fighting the good fight. On the other hand, it just sucks to see him die. Yes, I’m biased because he’s my favorite MacLeod, but the guy also made Highlander what it is. Killing off Connor in any continuity is like
dropping a bridge on Captain Kirk replacing Spider-Man with a clone …well, it’s just not right. The series has an immortal mentor for Connor named Ramirez (no, not that Ramirez…the creators gave us a suspiciously similar replacement in hopes we wouldn’t notice). Why not toss the Ramirez wannabe and pair Quentin up with Connor as a mentor? Is it really that hard to show some respect to the character that made the franchise so popular in the first place? (Don’t answer that, Highlander: Endgame.)
Anyway, Highlander: The Animated Series provides bad animation, bad voice acting, and a bad setting. Its somewhat interesting premise is not enough to make me want to slog through the rest of it.
A couple months after the release of the animated series, Christopher Lambert returned as Connor MacLeod in Highlander III. This movie has two separate subtitles: either Highlander III: The Sorcerer or Highlander III: The Final Dimension, depending on the cut. Personally, I prefer calling it The Sorcerer, since there is a sorcerer in it, while there is nothing involving dimensions or finality in this film.
Again, the logical thing to do with a movie would have been to link it to the popular TV series. Connor had already shown up in the TV show; this could easily have been an adventure he was having while Duncan was dealing with the events of the show, thus expanding one continuity. Instead, Highlander III has nothing to do with the TV show. But on the bright side, it also has nothing to do with Highlander II. Instead, it’s an alternate sequel that takes place eight years after the original Highlander and deals with Connor facing off against another old enemy from his past. It’s good immortal versus bad immortal again…no aliens, no apocalypse, nothing. And you know what? It doesn’t suck. Mind you, it’s not very good, but it doesn’t suck.
Highlander III’s problem is that it comes off as a low-budget remake of the first film. I don’t know how a movie can be a low-budget remake when it was made on a budget exceeding twice the amount of money the first one used, but it is. You could play a drinking game to the similarities between Highlander and Highlander III and die of alcohol poisoning before the end of the film. An evil immortal kills Connor’s mentor, check. The police are looking to bring in Connor as a suspect in a series of beheadings, check. A scholarly-inclined woman learns Connor’s secret and has a long sex scene with him, check. The bad guy kidnaps Connor’s loved one and speeds through New York City in a game of chicken designed to terrify said loved one and throw Connor off his game, check. And so on.
Two big things separate this movie from the original Highlander, aside from the fact that the script, directing, and acting is all worse. First, the movie makes use of illusion magic. Connor’s mentor is a Japanese sorcerer named Nakano who is skilled in the art of illusion. When the evil immortal Kane takes Nakano’s head, he gains that power and uses it against Connor. As I’ve mentioned before, magic and Highlander don’t really mix unless that magic is specifically linked to the immortals in some way. Second, the evil immortal is played by Mario Van Peebles, and he is hilarious. I mean, everyone else in the franchise has tried to rip off Clancy Brown’s performance as the Kurgan, but only Mario Van Peebles managed to make it entertaining. Mind you, Kane is not menacing in the least. He is, however, funny as hell. The role is taken so far over the top that it’s comedy in and of itself.
Overall, Highlander III suffered from a lot of problems. Changes in the script removed a lot of interesting character moments, such as the return of Rachel Ellenstein, the woman to whom Connor left his antique shop in the first film. Brenda from the first movie is only briefly mentioned as having died in a car crash, which goes back to my problem with romances and other major plot points in a film getting undone in a sequel just so they can do the same thing over again. Connor also gains an adopted son, which is an interesting idea that has zero payoff. The son gets no development and, as near as I can tell, is only in there because the writers decided to rip off the Kurgan’s car scene from the first movie but said, “No, if we have Kane drive around New York City terrifying Connor’s girlfriend, fans will suspect we’re out of ideas. Instead, let’s do the scene in the exact same way, but use Connor’s…um…adopted son! Yeah! Gold!” And, perhaps weakest of all, is the way the movie connects with the first film. See, it turns out that Connor didn’t really win the Prize; he only thought he did. In reality, one of Connor’s old enemies was trapped in a cave-in 400 years ago and missed the Gathering. So when he breaks free, Connor has to fight to be the last one. Again. If they’re going to ignore Connor gaining ultimate knowledge at the end of the first film, why not just link this whole damned thing to the series?!
The movie’s biggest problem is that it was made with a budget of around $34 million…more than twice that of the original film, and yet it never did anything new with the budget. We get some illusion effects and big quickenings, but that’s it. The movie was basically an apology to Highlander fans for the atrocity that was Highlander II. It tried to focus on the fundamentals of the franchise, but didn’t have the same heart as before. It turned out to be little more than a watered-down remake.
I will give Highlander III high marks for two things. First, as I mentioned before, it is hilarious. The comedy is probably unintentional, but it’s there. Mario Van Peebles is just so bad that he’s somehow good. As a result, the film can be appreciated in the same way that one might enjoy a bad action movie like Commando: just total cornball hilarity.
Secondly, this movie does provide one thing that the franchise has never explored before: it gives us an actual fight on holy ground. Kane attacks Connor in a Buddhist temple, to which Connor immediately points out that they’re on holy ground. Kane, being a stupid bastard, doesn’t let up. The resulting combat is, like much of the movie, hilariously over the top, with Connor and Kane swinging at each other from trapezes for part of it. But then Connor’s katana shatters (don’t worry, he reforges it) and the statue of the Buddha becomes illuminated in fire. Even Kane realizes that if you do something to make Buddha pissed, it’s really bad, and he runs away. If there was ever going to be a fight on holy ground in the franchise, that is the way to do it. It is mysterious, ominous, and demonstrates definitively why even the bad immortals won’t fight on holy ground. There’s some magic there, but it is linked to the immortals in some way. We never get a full explanation of what happened or why, but we know that fighting on holy ground means some very bad juju. That one scene, in my mind, makes the movie worth watching for Highlander fans.
And so that’s a look at Highlander: The Animated Series and Highlander III. As near as I can tell, there wasn’t any behind the scenes issues that plagued these projects; they just weren’t very good. For behind the scenes chaos, though, it doesn’t get much better than the spinoff TV show Highlander: The Raven, which I will jump into next time.