Volton: Legendary Defender Review (Very Lite Spoilers)

I just finished watching the first season of Netflix and Dreamworks’ new attempt at rebooting Voltron, and I have to say I was impressed. This is no surprise, since the people behind the reboot are the same team and studio behind Avatar: The Legend of Korra, and they bring their trademark style of character, action, and humor to the project. So what did I like and didn’t I like?

Likes

  • The animation is beautiful, and they’re not afraid to mix different styles together and do tricks like dropping to black and white line drawing at certain dramatic scenes. They’re very in control of the medium, and even though we’re looking at a mix of CGI and 2D animation, it all blends very nicely.
  • The story is overall well written, and while it starts a little rushed it picks up quite well as it goes along. While each episode stands on its own, there is a clear overall story and progression, and they deftly avoid falling into the “Voltron fights monster of the week” trap. (In fact, I was shocked by how few monster battles there actually are.)
  • The monster battles that happen are extremely well thought out and well choreographed, not “fight>fight>fight>blazing sword>end” but requiring the characters to think each monster through as a problem, not just as an obstacle to their goals. (Which makes the monsters more scary and actually intimidating.)
  • They made Hunk, Lance, and Pidge into distinctive (and very loveable) characters who all have a purpose in the story and aren’t just sidekicks.
  • They’ve expanded Zarkon’s forces into an actual race, The Galra, and treat them like an actual military force and even gave them bits of their own language.
  • The shift towards an active role for the team instead of passively sitting there waiting for the next monster to attack.

Undecided

    • The original Voltron used Keith as it’s core anchor, and then slowly expanded on the rest of the cast as it went on. (It was following the formula set up by Gatchaman (aka Battle of the Planets/G-Force) and which is still used in Sentai today, where the Red Ranger is always the default hero/leader.) This new series is all ensemble, all the time, with no clear focal character except a character that the episode might choose to focus on. While this works okay, I found this results in the Hunk/Lance/Pidge trio getting the majority of lines and screen time, while the actual more heroic warrior characters of Keith and Shiro kinda get shafted in terms of story focus. Keith and Shiro start the season as enigmas, and pretty much end there too, in fact Keith is now reduced to being just another skilled but generic pilot, and a boring one. (Imagine a Legend of Korra where they spent 75% of their time on Mako and Bolin instead of Korra, and Korra just turns up to fight.) I’m hoping this is because Keith is now on a slow-burn towards hero-dom and it will be remedied in the following seasons.
    • The new Voltron design is okay, not great, not bad.
    • Every time they form Voltron, I keep having GaoGaiGar flashbacks, because the new Voltron combining sequence is a total GaoGaiGar “homage”. Watch…

Forming Voltron (however, this is the shorter version, there is a longer version which is even more like GaoGaiGar’s Final Fusion)

GaoGaiGar’s Final Fusion sequence for comparison.

Dislikes

  • I’m oldschool this way, but to me Voltron isn’t Voltron without this theme! (Which I’ve been humming since my childhood.) Instead we get a bunch of really lackluster synth music that’s functional but nothing exceptional.

Overall, it’s a very well done show, and in some ways is superior to the original. It kind’ve reminds me of the Thundercats reboot they did a few years back, although that show had a little more depth to it. This new Voltron series is just a simple and fun retelling of the original Voltron story, and I look forward to seeing where they go with it.

Rob

P.S. Here’s your useless Trivia of the day! The original Voltron series wasn’t supposed to be translated from Beast King Golion at all. It was supposed to be translated from another series called Daltanius, which also featured a robot with a lion component. However, during pre-production World Events Productions asked their Japanese partner to send them tapes of “the one with the lion” and Toei Animation accidentally sent tapes of Golion instead! WEP liked Golion so much they decided to translate it instead!

And now you know…the rest of the story.

Legend of Korra Finishes (spoiler lite)

And with tonight’s episode, Avatar: The Legend of Korra reaches it’s final conclusion with the end of Season Four.

It’s been a rocky road for what has turned out to be one of the best animated series Americans have ever produced. The show itself was only meant to last a single season, and then suddenly given three more when it turned into a mega-hit, which left the writers scrambling to continue a story they’d rushed to finish at the end of Season One. Then, once Season Two didn’t get the ratings of Season One, the executives at Nickelodeon lost faith it in to the point they pulled it from the air halfway through Season Three due to “low ratings”. (Low ratings on a show that they didn’t advertise, and which they threw onto the air during the notoriously low-rated Summer season. Surprise!) In the end, it only got a fourth season because it was already in the can when Season Three was stuck online-only, and because it still got great ratings in overseas markets.

Despite all this, the writers and producers of Avatar: The Legend of Korra managed to produce a fine show. A series with unique characters that grew and had a life of their own, a setting that actually changed with the story, and some amazing heroic action sequences that could be mind-blowingly good. Korra started as a unique lead, a hotheaded “female jock” who didn’t fall into the stereotypical “strong female lead” traps, and changed as the series went on into a balanced and considerate person. She suffered, and grew from her suffering, and since the theme of the show was “change and transformation”, she exemplified those ideas in the best possible ways.

Each of the villains represented a different philosophy- equality, harmony, anarchy, and order taken to a radical extreme (mostly in the pursuit of power) and that gave the show a thoughtful edge that challenged the preconceptions held by the main character and the audience. It forced Korra to expand her way of thinking about the world, and in doing so also made the audience question as well. Even if it was all in the service of some great action/adventure stories, it gave the show a subversive depth you rarely see on TV anywhere, much less on a Nick cartoon.

It wasn’t a perfect show, of course. There was the horribly rushed ending during the last 15 minutes of the first season, and then the second season didn’t come anywhere near the quality of the first in terms of writing. (It was very much a generic “evil villain wants to take over the world because he’s evil” plot.) And, while the third and fourth seasons were amazing (and even managed to make the second season look better in retrospect of what we learn later), there was a lot of character randomness as the writers struggled to make characters designed for one season work over four seasons. (This was especially true of Asami, but more on her shortly.) There was also the decision to “break” the link between the Avatar and her past selves during Season Two that I maintain was a big mistake that even the writers felt later on. But, what’s done is done.

And, in the end, it all came together in a spectacular fourth season that echoed real Chinese history, with Kuvira standing in for Shang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist Army. The finale played to the show’s strengths, and the whole thing showed how Korra had really changed the world and herself through her actions and choices. If Korra hadn’t come along, the ending never could have happened, and that’s the mark of a good story- where everything fits together.

Everything except one small piece…

SPOILERS from here on in! Don’t read if you haven’t watched the ending yet and care.

So, first, let me say that I don’t care who Korra ended up with. I’m not a (relation)shipper, and don’t often invest in character romance stories or pairings. In fact, Korra could have ended up with Kuvira, or Tenzin, or even the Ghost of Uncle Iroh for all I care. That said, I didn’t like the pairing of Korra and Asami at the end, and in fact it pissed me off.

When I first saw it, I actually smiled. Both because it was nice to see Korra start a new relationship, and because I was impressed a Nick show would end with such a LGBTI friendly ending. It took guts to end the show that way, and they must have worked hard to slip that past the Suits. (I wouldn’t even be surprised if it’s edited for later airings after a flurry of “concerned parents” write like crazy to Nickelodeon.)

However, something bugged me, and after a bit of thought I realized what it was.

You see, one way to see a story is as an argument. The whole story is an argument for why it ends the way it does. It sets up evidence and puts into motion events that produce the ending we get. A perfect example of that is Varrick and Ju-Li. Varrick starts as a heartless capitalist rogue with Ju-li as his assistant, and then after he loses everything she still sticks with him. When he loses her too and goes on a journey of self-discovery he comes to realize that she is the most important thing in his life, and eventually appreciates her and asks her to marry him. (Something the Varrick we first meet would never have done.) She also grows in her will to be a person, and in doing so, earns his love by not just being his assistant, but by being his partner. You can think back and examine the trail of evidence, and reach the conclusion that this was the proper ending for their story.

Not so for Korra and Asami.

When Asami was introduced, it was as a romantic rival/femme fatale/non-bender character who represented the new technological age and stood between Korra and her love-interest Mako. She was intricately tied into the story for Season One, since her father was one of the main villains, and so when Season Two came around the writers struggled with what to do with her and ultimately stuck with the romantic-rival role. Finally, partway through Season Three, she took on the “best friend/confidante” role, and that’s where she sat until literally the last second of the story when it’s implied she and Korra are starting a romantic relationship.

Now, over-viewed like that it doesn’t look so bad, but in actual presentation there was zero clues or hints of anything romantic between the two of them until the very very end. Like nothing. After more than two seasons of chasing a man and being passionately in love with men, and being heartbroken about losing men, they suddenly decide to run off together. How does that work? This would be like if at the end of Harry Potter, Harry and Ron suddenly decided to run off together after spending the whole story chasing girls. It’s a valid ending, but is it the valid conclusion to the argument the story makes?

Now, you could make an argument that Korra wasn’t emotionally in a position or ready to take on a relationship like this until the end of the story. She’s a changed person, and as a result she’s ready to try something new and go in a new and more balanced direction. That would be fair, however, it takes two to tango, and Asami was never shown to have any romantic interest in Korra either. If she had, I could have bought the ending, but we’ve never had even the slightest hint that Asami also likes women, and every piece of evidence in the show tells us the opposite.

So there’s the problem, we have not one, but two characters making total left-turns at the end of the story out of the blue. I can only guess that the writers/producers wanted to do something controversial, or perhaps please the Korra/Asami Shippers by giving them the ending nobody expected to get. Then again, it was the ending that nobody expected because it didn’t make any sense, not because it was socially radical.

For the record, I was rooting for Korra and Bum-ju. (It had just as much evidence to support it.)

Rob

Legend of Korra: Season One Ending Thoughts (Spoiler Lite)

I just watched the finale for the first season of Legend of Korra, and I have to say I truly have mixed feelings about it.

As I mentioned in my previous review, Korra is a heck of an impressive show. It’s been a great series in so many ways, and I think this is what makes the finale such a let-down for me. Over the course of the season the creators have taken such care in developing the characters and nuturing the story along. The pacing of the show, and the themes they’ve been weaving have been a beautiful display of animation artistry.

Then it’s like they suddenly noticed they just had 2 episodes left and panicked.

“Oh crap! We’re out of time! We have to end this!”

And suddenly all that artistry went out the window in the name of just getting the darn thing finished and the major plotlines resolved.

Now, there is a possible reason for this. When Korra was originally planned, it was supposed to just be a single season, or at least that was the official announcement. I have a slightly different theory based on what I just watched.

I think the producers wrote this show to be the first of several seasons, and the pacing and presentation clearly represent that. But, somewhere during late production on the show, Nickelodeon (the company paying for it) suddenly decided that it was only going to be a single season show. (This was very likely around the time that the Avatar live-action movie bombed horribly in the box office.) I think they decided that the whole Avatar franchise was done, and basically decided to cut their losses.

So they told the producers to wrap it up, and suddenly there was a mad rush to get everything done story-wise before the last episode. This would explain a great deal of the way the show is paced and presented, and that there seems to be a lot of unfollowed threads in the show as presented. (For example, what happened to Mokko and Bolin’s coach? The guy they clearly intended to be a major character and likely alternate mentor to Korra? He just vanished after an episode or so.)

So the producers scrambled, crammed the whole thing into a single season, and then presented it to the suits at Nickelodeon. It was only then that the suits actually realized that they had a huge potential hit on their hands, and their reaction was –

“Make more!”

“But, you just forced us to finish it!”

“I don’t care! Make more! Here’s money!”

So, they’re making more. Although lord knows why, because they tied things up at the end of the first season so well and tightly there really isn’t a whole lot of room left. Maybe they’ll do a time jump, I don’t know.

All I know is, that last episode was a mess, and I’m sorely disappointed in the sheer amount of wasted potential. For example, the Equalists actually did have a point, and they clearly also had a large social following among non-benders who were tired of bender rule. (However beneficient they are.) They could have at least given us a look into what life was like for non-benders, or even better, worked toward an end where Korra helped bring benders and non-benders into a more equal relationship. (She is supposed to bring balance to the world, after all. Wouldn’t that apply to non-benders too?) Amon’s real goals were selfish, but his stated goals were noble in their own way.

At the end of this story, Korra and Amon may as well never have come to Republic City, and if they hadn’t both come the world would have been almost exactly the same as it is. Think about it. Nothing has really changed in this setting, not a single thing. They both came, did their thing, and left. But had no effect on the setting at all, except for their few friends. Ang literally reshaped his world, what has Korra done?

Maybe they’ll fix that when they get to second season. Who knows?

Rob