Mighty Max was a short-lived cartoon (one year in the early 1990s) which deserved far more recognition than it got. It shares with ROM:Spaceknight the distinction of being inspired by a toy line, but the toy line in this case was rather more successful than the show.
The basic plot of Mighty Max was relatively simple, if peculiar: the eponymous Max is a young boy – specific age not given but he appears to be maybe 13-14 – whose mother is an archaeologist. The latter is important as this is why he's able to read the heiroglyphs on a strange bird-man statue he receives in the mail one morning… heiroglyphs that tell him to go to a specific location, and address him by name, even though he can tell the statue is very, very old. He is so startled that he drops the statue… which shatters, revealing what appears to be a baseball cap with his initial "M" emblazoned on the front.
Following the instructions, he is chased by a monster and rescued by a strange birdlike creature called "Virgil" who claims to be the last survivor of Lemuria, and tells Max that as the "Cap-Bearer" he is the prophesied "Mighty One" who will find a way to defeat a monstrous demonic being who is simply called "Skullmaster". In this quest Max will also be assisted by both Virgil, who has an immense store of knowledge, and the tremendously strong and skilled warrior "Norman", who is sworn to aid "the Mighty One"… and the power of the Cap, which can open portals to nearly anywhere under the right conditions.
Max, while in no way a coward, doesn't initially want any part of this ridiculous "Mighty One" gig. However, there does seem to be a true element of destiny in this, and he finds over time that he just cannot drop it. In addition, despite his occasional attempts to evade it, Max is really a courageous young man with a sense of personal responsibility and honor and won't allow people to be menaced when he can prevent it.
On the other hand, Max… isn't exactly what one thinks of when one hears the title "The Mighty One". He's a wisecracking thirteen-year-old boy who's fast on his feet, snarky, and sneaky when he has to be. Max solves problems with tricks, quick wits, and sometimes dumb luck when he has to; he's not a fighter like Norman nor a genius like Virgil, but he has street sense, quick wits, and the continual optimism of someone too young to really believe they're about to die.
The show featured a lot of excellent talent, with perhaps the most memorable standout being the inimitable Tim Curry as Skullmaster – a scenery-chewing villain who was also not at all stupid and willing to use any tactics to win. Rob Paulsen, perhaps best known as Pinky from Pinky and the Brain, was the voice of Max himself, with Virgil played by Tony Jay (Shere Khan from TaleSpin and villain Claude Frollo in Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Richard Moll (of numerous live and voice-acting roles) playing Norman.
The combination of all these talented actors gave to Mighty Max a great deal of energy and realistic interaction that is often missing from cartoons with less well trained and experienced actors. Subtle as well as obvious emotional interactions played out through the voices made all the characters much more real – and you could care about them a lot more.
While most of the episodes had something to do with Skullmaster's plots, not nearly all of them did, which gave the show more depth than it might have had if they merely concentrated on the single main plotline. Max faced adversaries ranging from mad scientists to werewolves and aliens, and didn't always do so alone; his mother proved more than capable of dealing with threats and even of understanding his destiny as the Mighty One (even if she did expect he'd still keep up on his homework), and it was not infrequent that his friends Bea and Felix would get involved and help Max out on his adventures.
While still subject to the limits of a children's TV show – and with a somewhat-educational tag to every episode – Mighty Max managed to have an overall much more serious, and occasionally grim, tone that was startling in an American cartoon aimed at kids. In episode 13, "The Maxnificent Seven", the recruited heroes including Hanuman, the Indian Monkey King, get killed off in a heroic sacrifice to allow Max time to perform a crucial task (shattering one of Skullmaster's most powerful magical tools), and the series ends with near-total defeat (but the episode ends with hope that things will be set right).
Alas, Mighty Max also shares one other thing in common with ROM: Spaceknight; it has never been re-released and is not available for purchase. It's a shame, as I would very much like to own the series. If you ever get a chance to view it, though, don't miss out; this is one of the best American cartoons ever produced.