Voltron: First Impressions

voltronConfession: I don’t really remember Voltron. I remember that there was a Voltron cartoon, and I’m pretty sure I watched it. I also remember that Voltron was the cartoon that kept airing when what I really wanted to watch was Tranzor Z, and that I couldn’t figure out what happened to Tranzor Z and why it didn’t seem to be on TV anymore. (Not until much later did I learn that Tranzor Z, which is the American corruption of Mazinger Z, only had a short and unsuccessful run in 1985, never to be heard from again, and largely overshadowed by the other mech hero, Voltron.)

Mazinger Z/Tranzor Z. You can understand my confusion.

Mazinger Z/Tranzor Z. You can understand my confusion.

At any rate, I did have a Voltron action-figure which did, à la Transfomers, disassemble into five separate lion toys, and even though I don’t remember the plot of the original cartoons, I have a fond place in my heart for the very idea of Voltron. I was therefore ecstatic to learn of the collaboration between DreamWorks and Netflix on the new series: Voltron: Legendary Defender. The first so-called “season” was released last week, on June 10, and as of this writing I’m coming off the first three-episode pilot arc, feeling very excited for the rest of the season and (hopefully) future serials. I’ve only got one gripe so far, and this is it:

What’s Not Working So Much for Me…

Okay, so maybe I’m nit-picking, but this is always a consideration for me when it comes to cross-cultural and intergalactic communication in fiction. How is it that our heroes and these alien species who predate humans by tens of thousands of years can so readily and easily understand each other? Apparently, everyone in the galaxy speaks English and always has, or at least whatever they are speaking (while the audience is hearing English) is the same language across the board. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like the introduction of the uninspired “common tongue” into Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.

What’s so annoying about a discrepancy like this in a speculative world is that it’s so easy to resolve. Maybe the aliens (who are older and more advanced) can speak the languages of these lesser, more simplistic humans. Maybe there’s translation technology that the characters wear in their ears or have in the room. Maybe a little bit o’ that TARDIS funk rubbed off on them during their transit and it just happens in the mind. Anything! A geek audience is already willing to accept any number of simple solutions to this problem, so it’s annoying when none is provided, and the audience is expected to either invent their own continuity or just ignore the issue completely. It’s just lazy writing.

What’s Kicking Ass Already After Episode #1…

Humor. The jokes are well-timed and funny, and they do not diminish the other tones of the show. From my very first viewing, I was complimenting the show in my mind, thinking: “the humor reminds me a lot of Avatar.” I actually did not realize until I did a little extra research later that Voltron’s frontrunners are, in fact, Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery, both of whom have worked on Avatar and The Legend of Korra. There are a number of overlaps between crew and studio of these various Japanese-esque productions, so it makes sense that they have a similar sense of humor and quality.

Animation. The animation is great for a number of reasons. First of all, it is spot-on anime style. I remember there being some criticism of Avatar for its pseudo-anime renderings, especially among some of the die-hard anime fans, and I worried that this new Voltron might suffer the same due to its association with the American-based DreamWorks and Netflix studios. At least in my opinion, the style of Voltron is indistinguishable from “proper” anime.

The O.G. Voltron.

The O.G. Voltron.

Complementing the faithful style of the artwork, the quality of the animation is top-notch. Quite unlike classical anime, Voltron’s animation is very smooth (the high-frame count being something low-budget anime from the 70s and 80s often couldn’t afford), and the CG elements for the mech are beautiful and smoothly incorporated. (The same can’t be said of some of the early and experimental cell+CG hybrid animations, like BattleTech and The Iron Giant, where the difference is noticeable and distracting.) Furthermore—and this is no small thing—Voltron’s characters are lip-synced to their voice actors, and the voice actors are talented. Not only is this something that’s always nice to offer those of us who’ve endured millions of subtitles in order to evade bad dubbing, but it’s a simple fact that animated lip-syncing is difficult (and expensive) to pull off. Voltron creators clearly put the time, effort, and money into making a great cartoon.

Nostalgia. The sense of nostalgia is the first thing that keeps bringing us geeks back to these stories year after year… when that nostalgia gets passed onto our own children, that’s the real sweet spot.  I had started out watching the pilot episode by myself, as a sort of preview. My wife was taking a nap, and the kids were (mercifully) playing outside. I was 33 minutes in when I decided, “oh man, this is too good. I gotta watch this with them.” So I stopped the show and started it over later that night with the wife and kids, confident they’d really enjoy it. I was not wrong. My wife had that same fixed stare she wore through every episode of Avatar and Buffy, and my kids were eating it up. They laughed out loud at all the right times, and during one bathroom pause, my 6-year-old said in a kind of surprised tone, “I actually like Voltron!” The title character hadn’t even appeared on the screen yet. When he did, and during the epic final sequence, both my kids’ eyes were glued to the screen. (I missed some of that scene, since my eyes were glued to them.) Afterwards, I asked my 8-year-old, “So, what did you think?”

He whispered, “epic…”

It warms this geek dad’s cockles. Sure am looking forward to having Voltron back in my life again, now able to share it with my boys.

…Now what about Mazinger Z?

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