Recently, I had the honor of getting to talk to voice actor Ron Paulsen for about an hour. The point of the interview was to discuss the Animaniacs revival on Hulu and a little bit about his autobiography Voice Lessons, but the two of us discussed all kinds of corners of his career. Rob, an incredibly friendly guy who comes off like there’s nothing he’d rather do than talk with a fan, talked up everything from Pinky and the Brain to Metal Gear Solid.
Starting way back in the GI Joe days, Rob Paulsen has been doing the voice acting thing for decades and his list of credits and characters resembles the pages of a phone book. While he found out about the return of Animaniacs back when the rest of the world did, he later was happy to discover that Steven Spielberg insisted that the show could only return if the Warner Siblings, as well as Pinky and the Brain, were still voiced by the original actors.
As expressed in his book, Paulsen is skeptical about returning characters being recast. Which led me to wonder, what other roles of his would he like to get another shot at? The answer was surprising.
“I did a show years ago that I liked a LOT called Mighty Max,” Paulsen reminisced. “That was a really, really excellent show. Tim Curry, Richard Moll, Tony Jay, and yours truly as the main characters. It was dark [and] pretty intense.”
Mighty Max. Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time.
As many cartoons from the ’80s and early ’90s were about selling toys, Mighty Max was no different. Created in 1992, the toys acted as a boy-based take on Bluebird Toys’ Polly Pocket. While Polly Pocket was about a locket that opened up into a playset based on fashion and whatnot, Max’s playsets were in the shape of monster heads or sharks or coiled snakes or whatever. You’d get a cool-looking skull that you could hold in your little kid hand and open it up into tiny action figures in an adventurous environment.
All the while, the hero looked like a little boy version of Terry Bogard from Fatal Fury. Thank God for Super Smash Bros. making it so more people get this reference.
In 1993, the Mighty Max animated series started up, running 40 episodes across two seasons. Paulsen played Max, a snarky pre-teen who ends up getting roped into a prophecy about being the chosen one and having to wield a special red baseball cap that allows him to open portals through time and space (as one does). He’s joined by wise bird being Virgil (voiced by Tony Jay) and immortal, grizzled, badass bodyguard Norman (Richard Moll), who it turns out is the basis for legends like Thor, Hercules, Samson, and so on.
The villain of the show was the most base villain you could have on an early-90s cartoon: a skull-themed mastermind voiced by Tim Curry. Skullmaster had his own personal Bebop/Rocksteady-style henchman in Warmonger, also voiced by Rob Paulsen. Skullmaster’s big plan was to take over the world by killing Max and friends and stealing his magic cap.
What sticks in the minds of its viewers so many years later is how the show concluded. A two-parter featured Max looking closer at the prophecy he’s tied to and seeing in horror that his two buddies are fated to be killed. True to what he’s seen, Norman is eaten by a giant spider and Virgil is vaporized. When it looks like Skullmaster has everything won (to the point that he needlessly wipes out Warmonger, the only thing holding Max back), Max fully embraces his role and wrestles power from Skullmaster in a way that causes time to rewind.
Cut to Max’s origin from the very first episode. As he gets the mystical cap delivered, he suddenly remembers everything. Excitedly, he lets it be known that this time he’s going to do things right. Can Max overcome the prophecy now that he knows 40-episodes worth of events? Can he speedrun Skullmaster’s demise and find a way to keep his allies alive? He seems to think so, but we never find out.
A controversial ending to be sure, but still way better than the crappy SNES game’s ending where Mighty Max vs. Skullmaster is a lame cutscene made of stills instead of an actual boss battle. Imagine not having the time or budget to program a boss battle.
A few years later, the toy line was discontinued and there was nothing from the property for decades. It just lives in the mind of those who got to check it out during its brief window, or those like Paulsen who worked on it and remember damn good it was.
“I would love to get another shot at Mighty Max,” Paulsen says. “I don’t know if I’d still be appropriate for Max because there are a lot of young actors, and it wasn’t one of those shows that was so popular that you’ve got to have the same actors. It was an excellent show, but I think there are many folks in their 30s who could really nail Max, and I would love to go back as one of the other characters or maybe a new bad guy.”