Tag Archives: Western Cartoon

A cartoon made for a western audience that I feel would interest Anime fans.

Castlevania Season 2 – Review

Related: Castlevania Season 1

Castlevania Season 3 (TBR)

Similar: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Hellsing Ultimate

Berserk

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 8 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Improves upon the strong first season.
  • Vampire political intrigue.
  • New characters.
  • Oozes atmosphere.

Negatives:

  • No Church.
  • Ends too quickly.

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We last left Trevor Belmont and his companions in the search for the means to find Dracula’s castle and slay the master of the keep. I left Castlevania with a positive impression though uncertain of whether it could hold up beyond what was, essentially, the opening to a series. Much to my surprise, yet again, Castlevania is superior to what I had anticipated by way of an interesting narrative focus.

Season 2 opens in the past with the arrest of Lisa (Dracula’s wife) by the Church for the “witchcraft” of medicine. While this is a retread, it gives us more detail and makes for a chilling first scene when you know what happens to everyone for ignoring her warning.

After this, we jump to Dracula’s war room, where his strongest vampires from across the kingdom have gathered to plot humanity’s annihilation. However – and this is where the brilliance started – he selects two humans as his generals to lead the scourge, much to the disgust of some vampires, especially one of the Vikings. Beyond their deep-seated loathing for humanity and their tactical ability, these two have the only clear heads in the army not driven by bloodthirst.

Now, at this point, it’s just a good idea (and I’ve harped on often enough about the importance of execution over ideas in past reviews). The brilliance comes in the backstory of these characters, contrasted against the vampires, and their actions going forward. They are simultaneously committing some of the most heinous atrocities against humanity while conveying sympathy. One of the two, Isaac, is Dracula’s Forgemaster. He doesn’t forge weapons, however. His speciality is bringing the dead to life, often forged into demons of great power, though he has equal inclination to revive a fallen puppy as a companion. Makes for an interesting ability.

The appointment of these two as generals leads to much unease among the vampires, many playing politics to gain power or favour with Dracula. There are whispers among the ranks about Dracula’s soundness of mind after the loss of his wife. How will vampires feed if he wipes out all humans? Carmilla the vampire queen of many legends is particularly sly and sharp of tongue. I relish the political drama she brings to the court. I did not expect politics, of all things, to be such a significant portion of the narrative and so well executed.

I haven’t talked much of Trevor and his two companions so far because they aren’t the focus this season. They have enough to do for the eight episodes as they return to Trevor’s home for blessed weapons and a means to access the castle, but the focus is truly in Dracula’s camp. It’s a bold risk to shift from the protagonist. It works. Sure, we could have more of the trio in addition to all screen time with the opposition, but that would go into overtime.

Castlevania Season 2 isn’t all blood, politics, and goodness, unfortunately. The end feels too quick. For seven episodes, we have methodical build up packed with social and political dynamics, feeding us juicy backstory and character motivations until we reach the final episode where, suddenly, so much of it wraps up with too many questions and possibilities remaining unexplored. It needs more. It gives the impression that they didn’t know episode 8 would be the last until they started work on it, realising they needed to close several threads.

I want more – more vampire society, more politics, and more lore (and bring the Church back! Tap that potential). I am grateful to know a third season is on the way. Even so, they could have gone deeper with Dracula’s arc in particular.

Still, I am far from disappointed with Castlevania Season 2. The action is as gory as before (you see someone decapitated by hanging from a bladed noose), the orchestral soundtrack is a perfect match to the atmosphere, and the acting is still quality, now with more accents from the corners of Dracula’s kingdom.

I love that this outdid the first season.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Castlevania Season 2 improves upon the first season in almost every way and now goes far enough into the story to warrant investment. If season 3 is any better, I’ll have to consider a Very High rating.

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Samurai Jack – Cartoon Review

Genre: Science Fiction Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 62 episodes (5 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Incredible style from top to bottom.
  • Balance of humour, action, and emotion.
  • AKU!
  • Less is more to perfection.

Negatives:

  • I can’t think of anything notable.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Samurai Jack is a unique show. I wager you won’t find its likeness just anywhere. From its striking visual style to its storytelling through sound and silence with little dialogue, this cartoon is a once every few generations type of art piece.

We follow Jack, a samurai thrown from his time into the future by the shape-shifting master of darkness, Aku. Jack must find a way back to the past to finish the job he started and stop Aku. His journey will take him to the far corners of the world, where Aku’s evil weighs heavily on all. This isn’t Jack’s world anymore. Robots, aliens, and all manner of beasts roam the world now.

Samurai Jack’s brilliance is in the cohesion of its every facet, each unique in style, yet brought together to perfection. The animation fluidity is low, for instance, but it’s sharp execution combined with precise editing gives it weight and impact, so much so that to improve the fluidity to the level of, say, a Ghibli film wouldn’t look right anymore. In fact, increasing the quality as they did for the final season could have been a disaster. Not the case, thankfully.

Genndy Tartakovsky has a style to his cartoons that extracts every grain of quality from a limited budget. It wouldn’t work without all elements uniting as one. Had the editing been off, the limited animation would stand out. It would have felt cluttered had there been more dialogue and sound. Genndy likes to give his scenes breathing time with subtle visual and auditory humour. When Jack meets a trio of talking dogs, everything stops for a long time to allow Jack’s awkwardness in this new world to sink in. It’s nothing but Jack looking left and right as club music pounds outside the booth. Less is more seems to be Genndy’s life motto.

Then when the action starts, the gear shifts into overdrive. Quick cuts, multi-panel shots, and single sound actions take over to give us the most tightly edited action scenes in animation. Samurai Jack never ever wastes your time. Watch the following video of a fight between Jack and a ninja to see what I mean.

It draws inspiration from many styles cinema and world culture. You will find influence from Kurosawa films, anime (Jack fights in a mecha samurai one episode), noir, cyberpunk, Ghibli, silent film, Star Wars, comic books, aboriginal art, and the list goes on. It would take several viewings to find them all. More importantly, this show succeeds in making them work together.

The future Earth in Samurai Jack is a post-apocalyptic melting pot that allows the series to bring you something new each episode. One episode could be in a city out of Blade Runner and the next could have Jack meeting a caveman. The overarching story is to defeat Aku, while the episodic plot is about Jack helping the many peoples and societies affect by Aku’s tyranny. This episodic structure allowed you to watch any episode back in the days when we were slaves to the TV schedule. Only the final season weaves ongoing narrative each episode, required in the build up to the finale.

This plethora of locations and characters to choose from also gives us great variety in the types of episodes. One has Jack polymorphed into a chicken, where he is kidnapped and forced into cock fighting. Sounds weird? It works. I imagine the production team kept thinking of crazier and weirder ideas for the series just to see if they could make it work. How about an episode that breaks the mould of minimal dialogue? Jack encounters a Scotsman that has the longest insults you’ve ever had the fortune to hear. He’s loud, brusque, and aggressive – Jack’s opposite. Hey, it works. Can we get Jack to join the mafia? Sure, let’s do it.

One of my favourite episodes has to be the season one finale, where Aku recites fairy tales to children with him featured as the hero or Jack as the evil villain. “Once upon a time there was a little girl with an adorable red cape, and great flaaaming eyebrows!

Aku is a brilliant villain. He may be the all-powerful evil of the universe, but he is so much fun! Every scene with the guy is a riot. He is a villain that loves being evil, but he has his share of problems too. His inability to catch Jack has him depressed at times, so he sees a therapist. It’s a clone of himself… Perfect.

Think about this: they managed to have a villain that kills indiscriminately in a kid’s cartoon. It should traumatise kids, but due to the careful balance with humour, it succeeds. Samurai Jack is full of humour, and yet full of emotion. It reminds me of Fullmetal Alchemist in how it balanced both ends.

And here we arrive at Jack himself. He could have easily been a standard protagonist surrounded by a brilliant series, someone we would remember for the series not for the character. Genndy could have gotten away with the cultural encounters and odd scenarios to keep us engaged. Most cartoon protagonists for kids don’t have much depth to them. It’s about the whole package of the cartoon rather than the character. However, Jack has the qualities of a character worthy of any drama series. He breaks, he falls, he thinks it all too much, especially when he arrives so close to success and it slips through his fingers. It is in his effort to stand back up that we see a complete character.

Samurai Jack adapts Bushido culture better than most anime. The final season in particular draws on the earthly and the mystical aspects of the samurai legend. His culture is at the core of his character, yet he is a character out of his time where such a culture no longer exists. The internal conflict that arises is fantastic. As I said – could have gotten away without it, but that extra effort elevates this show into the hall of excellence and makes it one worth remembering.

I have no notable complaints with Samurai Jack. At most, I could say some episodes aren’t as good as others, though that’s an occasional drop to 95% quality. Not a real complaint, is it? There was a time when I could bemoan its incomplete state, but after a 13-year wait, Genndy gave us the conclusion to the samurai’s journey. It was everything I had hoped for.

Art – Very High

Samurai Jack needs to be seen to appreciate the quality of its visuals, thanks in no small part to the sharp animation, pinpoint editing, and cinematic flair. I love the character designs – identifiable, distinct silhouettes, and it all fits together, from the caveman to the robot assassin.

Sound – Very High

Phil LaMarr as Jack and the late Mako as Aku – a perfect match. The stellar sound mixing matches the editing style. Minimalist, restrained, and flawless.

Story – Very High

A samurai searches for a way back to the past to save the ruined future from a master of darkness. You could watch any episode of Samurai Jack and have a great time. Why do that though, when you can watch all of them?

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. There is nothing else like Samurai Jack.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

CharmExtensive Character DevelopmentHilariousPhenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStellar Voice ActingStrategicStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Castlevania – Anime Review

Related: Castlevania Season 2

Similar: Hellsing Ultimate

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Berserk

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 4 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Faithful to the games.
  • Looks and sounds great.
  • Deeper than expected.
  • Unflinchingly brutal.

Negatives:

  • Too early to gauge full quality.

(Request an anime for review here.)

In the same way that game-to-film (or vice versa) adaptations bring the worst out of art, game-to-anime conversions are mind-numbing experiences that contain none of the game’s magic. When Netflix announced a Castlevania series, I didn’t even bother adding it to my ‘might, perhaps, one day if there is no more anime, eventually’ list. The series releases and the strangest comment reaches my ears… It’s good. What unspeakable pact did the creators enter into?

While not an anime, Castlevania adopts plenty from the likes of Hellsing and Vampire Hunter D in its adaptation of the game franchise of the same name. More specifically, this uses Castlevania III as a launching point with some Symphony of the Night elements.

The first episode introduces us to the human Lisa as she enters Dracula’s castle and meets the vampire lord of Wallachia himself. Rather than throw her out – or worse, drain her – he is endeared by her desire to learn science and spread such enlightenment across mankind. She doesn’t run away like the others. He teaches her chemistry to help the villagers and marriage is not far behind. However, the Church grows suspicious of her newfound curative abilities and finds heathenistic devices in her house, such as instruments of glass too thin to be of human creation. They burn her at the stake.

Oh what a grave mistake.

Dracula’s wrath unleashes a demon horde across Wallachia. The land is now a place of death. At a small inn still untouched by the horde, Trevor Belmont is drunk and getting drunker. His family of demon slayers fell from grace since their excommunication by the Church, so there’s little to do but drink these days. Even a horde of game doesn’t interest him. A human plea will soon change this.

So, the story starts like a Castlevania game, and it does well by setting the stakes as high as Dracula’s castle and giving a flawed yet likeable protagonist. Then there’s Dracula, exuding majesty and awe-inspiring power. They didn’t tone him down. I was prepared for something like the Devil May Cry anime, where the characters, especially protagonist Dante, have none of the personality that makes them enjoyable. Instead, Castlevania added more than what was to be found in the games.

These four episodes serve as the setup to a grander series. They establish Dracula, Trevor and his allies, and the subplot of the Church, which added the story depth to turn this from good to great. I hope to see the Church subplot throughout the series.

The action is no wet skeleton either. It’s gory and brutal, as it should be for the franchise, and the choreography has thought behind it. Duels are especially satisfying.

With all this praise, what’s the downside? Well, it’s hard to say at this point, as I am reviewing the start of a series. I have no complaints right now, but elements could become problems. For example, Trevor’s bravado will turn annoying if overused and he trash talks instead of fighting, like a bad villain monologue. The inside of Dracula’s castle may also have little story, with all interesting plot occurring outside under the Church’s influence. Who knows? It’s too early to say. Still, it looks right, sounds right, and feels right.

I can’t wait to see what comes next for Castlevania.

Art – High

The art feels like the games turned animated, dripping with gothic atmosphere. Some animation is jittery, but good overall.

Sound – High

The accents work well in English. The Japanese is good enough if you prefer that. Music complements the dark atmosphere.

Story – High

A son in the long line of once-noble Belmonts prepares to fight the Lord of Darkness, Dracula. Castlevania is a great start to adapting such a venerable franchise.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Unless you can’t stand gore, Castlevania’s four episodes give a good taste of whether you should look forward to more.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Strong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Rick and Morty – Review

 

Similar: South Park

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Science Fiction Comedy Adventure

Length: 11 episodes (season 1), 10 episodes (season 2), ongoing

 

Positives:

  • Hilarious.
  • Creative.
  • Each episode brings something new.
  • Outstanding voice work, particularly for the title characters.

Negatives:

  • Art, though detailed, looks a tad cheap.

Imagine Back to the Future’s Doc Brown as a crazed alcoholic and Marty McFly as his bumbling grandson, and you have a rough picture of Rick and Morty. Rick’s job, as a mad scientist, is to take Morty on crazy adventures through time and space, visiting parallel universes where all sorts of shenanigans go down. Endlessly creative, Rick and Morty is a breath of [disgusting] fresh air for comedy.

Every episode is an adventure. You never know where it’s headed, what comedy gold mine they will tap, unexpected jokes at every turn. I could not decide which episode was best. Was it the Magic School Bus/Jurassic Park parody inside the human body? Or when they mock Shyamalan by out-twisting twists to see which twist is best in a world of twists? But then they visit Pluto and we learn the truth behind Pluto’s demotion as a planet. Let us not forget the inter-dimensional TV, which allows viewing of TV shows from other dimensions. These aren’t meme-filled, in-joke spewing episodes either; even if you don’t see the parody, it works. As soon as I thought, ‘That’s the best episode,’ they hit with another clever idea. Episode after episode, I laughed to the bounds of life support.

At its centre, Rick and Morty shines from its title characters, their dynamic flawless – truly superb – made all the more incredible by knowing the same actor (Justin Roiland) performs both Rick and Morty. This is South Park levels of acting brilliance and snappy, natural dialogue.

Like South Park, Rick and Morty makes great use of social commentary for political incorrectness, making fun of the protected “harmless” classes. There are so many jokes, so many types of jokes, infinitely quotable, that you must pay attention. One probably needs several viewings to catch them all.

After seeing Rick and Morty references everywhere, I assumed it another lowest-common-denominator show that fans would kill into the molten core before forgetting it and moving on – something good, but not special. My assumptions could not have been further from the truth.

Art – High

High detail, plenty of animation, disgusting imagery, all great, but it does look a little cheap with the characters at times.

Sound – Very High

The voice work by Justin Roiland, who plays both Rick and Morty, some of it improvised, is fantastic. He’s a natural. This reminds me of Matt & Trey’s ability to play every character at once and just make it up as they go. I love the cameos as well – Rob Paulsen as a talking dog in search of his testicles made me lose it.

Story – Very High

Morty, an ordinary kid, embarks on crazy adventures through time and space with his drunk, potty-mouthed grandfather. Every episode takes unexpected turns in the story, creative in their approach, and always fresh.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. Funny, creative, engaging, Rick and Morty is one of the best cartoons to come out in a while.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

HilariousHoly S***Stellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

The Legend of Korra – Review

Related: Avatar: The Last Airbender (prequel)

Similar: Fullmetal Alchemist

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 52 episodes (4 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Korra, as a character and through her arc, displays a rare maturity in the face of conflict.
  • A series of villains made intriguing by their flaws and motivations.
  • Gorgeous art all-round.
  • Fight choreography at the top of its game. No yelling for power.
  • A varied supporting cast, each different from the next, each with proper personalities. Also, Varrick is the best.
  • Great references to the original series without resorting to info dumps. (Cabbage Corp.!)
  • Excellent voice work, infant characters’ most surprising.
  • The inclusion of sports, political structures, advances in technology, propaganda, public services, entertainment, and the like, makes for superb world building.
  • Doesn’t feel like a re-tread of Avatar.

Negatives:

  • One mistake at the end of season one (reminiscent of Avatar’s season four’s finale error).
  • It would have been nice to see more Fire Nation.

Note: This review contains implied spoilers from prequel, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Outside of the new Star Wars film, nothing has as much pressure to live up to its prequel as The Legend of Korra, for me. As it happens, Korra is an exemplar of what a sequel should be. Nothing in Korra feels like a re-tread; the creators knew they couldn’t get away with a ‘Hollywood’ sequel cash-in.

The Legend of Korra starts seventy years after the events of Avatar, during a time of peace, as Korra, the new Avatar, moves to Republic City (think UN capitol in a 1940s Shanghai inspired setting with added zeppelins and Model-T Fords) to learn airbending from Master Tenzin, Aang’s son. However, when she arrives, the city isn’t as peaceful as it appears, for the triad gangs torment the lower echelons of the city and the ‘Equalist’ faction of humans seek to eliminate all bending from the world. Because of their power, some benders have gained higher status, looking down on non-benders. Masked leader Amon and his Equalists begin to capture benders; Amon claims he can remove their power permanently. Korra must stop him.

Like Avatar before it, Korra isn’t this basic plot. It is layered with a half-dozen plotlines woven together to create a deep and compelling narrative. While worrying about Amon, Korra has to deal with politicians trying to seize power in tragedy, master her final element of air, compete as a pro-bender (boxing with the elements in teams of three to push opponents out of the ring, backed by a great commentator) behind Tenzin’s back, shoulder Avatar responsibilities, and have a social life.

Even with this many plotlines, the narrative never feels overstuffed where each plotline tries to choke the others out. I never grew tired of a plotline because there was always another to step-up when one needed a break. I couldn’t find, and believe me I tried, any padding. Even action scenes, the most common source of padding in kids’ entertainment, are the perfect length. There is no power yelling for five episodes, no twenty-episode fights ended with a trump card that should have been used at the start, and the choreography is phenomenal – it has spoiled me. Spoiled! Korra is an intense, close-knit experience with the right amount of quiet moments to pour emotion into the narrative.

At its core, Korra is about characters. From the main to the supporting cast, every character is well thought out and has a purpose in the world. I don’t know where to begin. Aang’s hilarious grandchildren (“Those maggots will bow to me!”)? The aged original cast? The new Team Avatar with Mako’s Batarang eyebrows, Bolin’s humour and innocence, and Asami’s confidence? The other descendants? There’s too many to cover. I could write a review for each individual character, so high is their quality of design. No one feels like a quest-giver NPC waiting for the protagonist to turn up to complete the NPC’s purpose. You get the sense that they all lead lives that don’t revolve around Korra.

In my Avatar review, I mentioned Aang as the weakest (yet still great) of the core characters because of his over-dorkiness in season one and righteous personality (not my favourite). Korra however, is my favourite here, followed closely by Varrick the eccentric inventor and businessman – think Ton Stark if he was completely mad. What I liked most about Korra is her strength and maturity. She doesn’t accept something because a teacher said so. She questions everything, forging her own path. Even when down, she doesn’t whine about how unfair the world is; she whines about how weak she is, how it’s her fault and not someone else’s. And then there is her season-four story arc (no spoilers, don’t worry); I never expected a kids’ show to have the capacity to go this dark. Love it.

There is little to complain about in Korra. As mentioned above, season one’s finale mistake for convenience was a bother. I know they made the decision under the assumption that Korra would only last one season, but still, nothing wrong with leaving a little damage. My biggest disappointment is the lack of Fire Nation. We get hints at, but never see, the state of the Fire Nation, and what few characters make an appearance don’t get much screen time. All that said, no complaint against Korra affected my larger enjoyment, just like in Avatar. Anything I consider “bad” about Korra is only bad by comparison to the rest of the show – the sort of bad that wouldn’t even have time for mention in a lesser art piece due to bigger issues.

Korra is how a sequel should be done. We still have the group of friends with loyalty, infighting, fear, jealousy, love, and the animal companion, but it’s different focus, advancements in society, tournament element, ordinary jobs, big city with a criminal underbelly, politicians, a different kind of enemy, and close-knit conflict, makes for a new and fresh experience. I had high hopes for The Legend of Korra, and I was not disappointed.

Art – Very High

Vibrant action sequences, fluid animation, hand-painted style backgrounds of high detail, and excellent character design. Even the use of CG blends in well. Improved the mouth animations from the first series. (I still can’t un-see the LFR for mouths in Avatar.)

Sound – Very High

The music has advanced with the new technology, using tunes for the era that inspired the Shanghai style setting. Jazz infused with Chinese touches are coupled with more traditional tracks of strings, flutes, and xylophones. Excellent voice work featuring lighter accents this time around.

Story – Very High

A tale of hardships, overcoming trauma, treachery, corruption, and loyalty. Every character is fully realised, filled with subtleties and depth rarely found in programming aimed at children.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: The Legend of Korra is a must watch adventure. This was a real page-turner; I did nothing but the essentials to survive while watching from start to finish.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Deep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentFluid AnimationHilariousPhenomenal VillainPositive Recommended English Voice TrackRiveting ActionStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None.