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Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip is a lost TV masterpiece

Creator Genndy Tartakovsky discusses the making of the hour-long special

Dexter standing alongside versions of his future self in Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip. Image: Cartoon Network / Hanna-Barbera Productions

Even two decades after the finale of Dexter’s Laboratory, the landmark sci-fi comedy created by Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Primal), the series still maintains an avid fan base and a pillar of the Cartoon Network brand. On the brand’s HBO Max hub page, Dexter’s Laboratory sits prominently alongside Powerpuff Girls, Ed, Edd ‘n Eddy and Adventure Time.

However, one particularly interesting installment of the series, the 1999 television special Ego Trip, is not only conspicuously absent from the streamer, but has all but evaporated since it first premiered on air nearly 23 years ago.

Dexter’s Laboratory aired for two seasons between 1996 and 1998, and an additional two seasons from 2001 to 2003, gradually becoming one of the network’s high-rated original series and garnering three Annie Awards and four Primetime Emmy nominations. The series followed Dexter, a precocious and self-serious boy genius with an extravagant laboratory hidden inside his room, and his various misadventures with his bubbly older sister Dee Dee, and his occasional clashes with his rival Mandark. Tartakovsky oversaw the production of over 52 episodes before departing the series to work as a supervising producer on his colleague Craig McCraken’s series The Powerpuff Girls and eventually his next original series, 2002’s Samurai Jack.

Dexter holding the Neurotomic Protocore while glaring at Mandark in Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip. Image: Hanna-Barbera Productions/Cartoon Network

Produced following the conclusion of the half-hour series finale “Last But Not Beast,” Ego Trip was Genndy Tartakovsky’s final Dexter’s Laboratory’s production and the first Cartoon Network television movie ever produced. The hour-long film follows Dexter who, after foiling his rival Mandark’s plot to steal an immensely powerful device known as the “Neurotomic Protocore,” is attacked by a group of red robots declaring their mission to “destroy the one who saved the future.” After defeating them, Dexter is overcome with excitement at the thought of growing up to become such an important figure à la The Terminator’s John Connor that someone would go so far as to travel back in time to get rid of him. Impatient to experience his own future greatness, Dexter uses his own time machine to travel to the moment in which he becomes a legend.

Though produced for TV, Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip is an impressive feat of traditional hand-painted cel animation. The opening title sequence in which Mandark, adorning a cape, flamboyantly moves throughout his own Burton-esque laboratory before infiltrating Dexter’s own feels inspired by the silhouette animations of German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger. Ego Trip’s premise, that of Dexter travelling through time to meet various versions of his future self and in doing so inadvertently setting in motion a series of events culminating in him having to save the world, seems almost prescient in light of recent timeline-hopping fare like 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, and 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. On its own, Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip is a hilarious and entertaining self-contained adventure that easily sits beside the very best episodes of the series. A fact which makes the conspicuous absence of the special not only across streaming, but any home video format since it was initially released on VHS back in 2000, all that more peculiar. (Polygon reached out to Cartoon Network and HBO Max as to whether there are any plans to bring Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip to the platform, but neither was able to comment at the time of publication.)

Dexter and his future selves facing off against Mandark and his future selves. Image: Hanna-Barbera Productions/Cartoon Network

Despite it being described as such in animation circles, Genndy Tartakovsky asserts that Ego Trip was never intended to be the end of the series, only a stand-alone television special. “[Cartoon Network] had a desire to do a Dexter’s Laboratory movie,” Tartakovsky told Polygon in an interview last year. “I had never done long-form back then, and so I was like sure; I’ll do it.” Rather than films like The Terminator or Back to The Future Part II, Dexter’s Laboratory: Ego Trip was instead inspired by a Calvin & Hobbes strip of Calvin meeting his past and future selves, and was produced while working on the show’s second season.

As for why the special hasn’t been re-released since 1999, Tartakovsky offered one possible reason. “I don’t think people know about it, honestly. Like, as far as the people who run HBO Max and Cartoon Network, I don’t think it’s been on their radar since we released it. The executives who run the network have been replaced twice or three times over or whatever at this point, so it’s been lost in the shuffle of time. But I would love for it to be released, I don’t have any issues with it.”

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