Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016)

As an eighties kid who was literally rewarded a Voltron toy that separated into five hard plastic parts with sharp edges for being potty trained, you'd think I'd have far more knowledge and insight into the world of Voltron, GoLion, and other related topics than I do. I watched the show, I had the little pre-school readers, and everything else you could do in an era before corporate synergy. I am far from immune to nostalgia bug, and yet, Voltron left no imprint on me as an adult. I watched an episode or two when it streamed somewhere and it was kind of stilted and generic outside the concept of robots that combined into a super robot (This was all made well before the Power Rangers empire caught on in the West). The bits of GoLion I caught were a little better but not enough to really keep in my memory, and I never did seek out Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. Despite the obvious selling point of the combining robot, it wasn't... very good. A bunch of archetypes playing the same game over and over with a certain lack of charm, and age has not treated it well.

A few iterations later provides perhaps the best hope for the franchise to catch on beyond occasional references in pop culture with Legendary Defender. If its plain title doesn't promote confidence, perhaps the pedigree behind it will. Financed by Dreamworks, crafted by South Korean Studio Mir responsible for most of The Legend of Korra, and dotted with creative talent that worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender including Voltron's showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery, this has a fairly high ceiling with a potential 78-episode run to fully develop the universe and build upon the base of seemingly simple characters into something of more substance.

I was going to do a review on the initial run, but half of it was distinctly the usual set up (Which even Guillermo del Toro admits on Trollhunters is necessary so kids can get their bearings). The first few episodes were fine, and by the end of the first season, they had found a hook with most of the characters and the engine was starting to really hum. Suddenly... cliffhanger. The universe felt a bit like a bland off-brand Mass Effect, but nothing close to keeping me from eagerly awaiting the second round.

The first thing to understand is the new Voltron is primarily developed for a younger Western audience in mind, slanting towards its visual tendencies and character stylings. Obviously, there are exceptions on both ends of the Pacific Ocean, but this one is built for animation performance over artistic pop. Initially, this leads to a somewhat underwhelming first impression as the character designs (and even the the design of the Voltron  Lions themselves) aren't particularly flashy or impressive. Seeing everything in action at the end of the first arc alleviates most issues. The scripting also doesn't know a scene it can't wisecrack through where any kind of expository whatsoever has to have some shenanigans going on. It isn't a bad thing to have personality and the facial expressions are wonderfully elastic and varied, but when it gets pushed too much, it can feel like dangling keys to keep attention. You might remember this being an issue with Avatar and that turned out pretty well, didn't it? Voltron isn't there yet, but it's one thing to keep in mind.

Voltron tells the story of four teenagers with attitude and the one adult who escaped an alien prison to start the process of bringing them together. Discovering a scout ship during a scientific expedition near Pluto, Shiro and his scientist escorts are captured by the power-hungry Galra empire. Shiro eventually steals an alien spacecraft and crashes on Earth near a military academy. There, through various shenanigans, brooding academy burnout Keith, mouthy Lance, massive Hunk, and brainy Pidge reluctantly join together to find the secret behind an archaeological find near their base. It's one of the five Lions of Voltron, a legendary weapon that may be the only hope against the Galra.

The piece of Voltron leads them to the last remaining people of Altea in suspended animation at the mobile Castle of Lions. These are Princess Allura and royal advisor Coran, who are understandably pretty shocked at being the last of their kind. The introductory arc then picks up speed to get all the rest of Voltron to the team and set up a climactic battle to defend the castle from a Galra attack, and this team has to figure out how to form the full robot or else cede the rest of the universe to the empire.

I can't stress enough how a little patience will go a long way. The opening volley is the raw ingredients being thrown into a bowl and getting prepared to stew. The characters are the archetypes and they're running through the paces. Most egregious is Hunk who is portrayed as the fat guy in children's programming who has to be humiliated for his weight and not being brave or quick-witted. The series is also plagued by the idea that because this is for kids, all of the scenes that exist to provide information must be put through a wackiness filter, whether it's Lance and Keith sniping at each other or Hunk getting his first dose of alien food (Oh yeah, he likes to eat! Isn't THAT original?). All too often, these scenes are distracting and forced. Even the main music theme is a forgettable drone that only pings in my mind because I watch Netflix on so many devices that all of them forget to skip past the opening animation.

But wait! There are reasons this has a growing following and you probably can't go one day on Twitter during a wave of new episodes without having some kind of fan art of it re-tweeted (A good lot of it isn't even shipping!). The characters eventually come into their own and transcend their types to varying degrees of success. Hunk becomes more heroic once he finds something and someone to fight for. Shiro's experiences in captivity both steel his resolve and muddle his motivations as the leader. Perhaps the best example is Pidge, whose reveals should be left for the audience to discover (Though the internet probably has snuffed out those surprises). The exception is Coran, Allura's retainer who goes into comic relief mode far too often that he can't snap back into serious situations. Also, his accent is distractingly inconsistent.

Combat is where the animators really get to play around artistically and connect more directly with its anime roots. There are the usual tropes its predecessor is known for, like the split screen conversations between the pilots and the reusable transformation animations that save money with every use but are still awesome anyway. These are incredibly souped up with modern technology and given life with moving split screens and ultra-smooth Lion combining (I tried to find the least ambiguous way to put that and failed), though they understandably get over-excited and do too much of it at once. These are also usually given special attention with camera angles and flourishes. Circling around spaceships with spiral cuts, dramatic passes that dive in and out of spacecrafts, and plenty of little delights that you might miss the first time around. Even the music becomes a sort of Daft Punk with a few more drum loops.

The arc of the first season begins with the usual team of misfits trying to come together even though their personalities don't match up. A few character-centric episodes give souls to the archetypes and it properly builds to a climax with stakes and excitement. Great! Unfortunately, the second season feels like a buffer between more significant events. After settling the fallout from the cliffhanger, the first half becomes one long chase with inconsistent pacing that ranges between breakneck and relaxed with little explanation except that maybe Emperor Zarkon of the Galra needed a nap in-between chasing them. We barely get to meet the denizens of a few planets and have some admittedly cool set pieces like a civilization made up of biotic technology and a planet collapsing under its own acid. Then there's one great episode within the second half while the rest either feel like they're hollow echoes of the first season or doing too much work planting revelation seeds for the future.

Compare Princess Allura's and Pidge's personal episodes to what surprises come out of season 2. Allura and Pidge are on two different sides of familial mourning, Allura attempting to hold onto the last remnants of her family she knows is gone to the detriment of facing the future, and Pidge is trying so hard to find truth that it distracts from important duties. These are incredibly moving episodes with a great amount of heart. In season 2, similar situations feel like they're manufactured rather than coming from the souls of the character. I haven't talked about Galra much as they just seem to be bland and typical sci-fi evil oppressors and their generals varying degrees of bullies with the only differentiating factor being some wear Ghouls 'n Ghosts-esque second face armor, but their emperor Zarkon finally gets a backstory, and it only hits on an plot device level without giving any insight to the person. Keith fares a bit better as we finally get to pick at the reasons he's such a brooding mess. He has to run a guantlet of pure suffering to learn some hard truths about himself, which works even though the big revelation is a head-scratcher that again feels more soap opera than a genuine character turn. It beats the romantic relationship they're trying to force him into, though.

Not to harp on the negatives too much, but some of the blame goes to emotional non sequitur jumping around with the series. The writing is solid and gives valid reasons for everything, but there's a need to balance everything serious with an equal amount of silly that is unnecessary. One of Shiro's defining moments is matched with a Galran parody of mall cops that numbs the impact of the serious side. This is nothing new for this crew who've put more than a touch of goofy into Avatar and Korra, but the glue that holds everything together is especially flimsy this time around.

All of this said, most of the criticism comes from high expectations with one of the most talented teams in animation matched with a dormant property with massive potential. The second season is still an entertaining space opera, if less substantial. The world hopping is much more satisfying this time around with more planets and more personality. Among the throwaway cast, they at least make the Galra characters far more distinctive by giving them different heights and different approaches in their despicable behavior (In the first season, we meet most of the alpha male generals fighting for Emperor Zarkon's favor. Now we meet the lesser officers who maybe are more than happy getting a distinguished position and then not doing anything). The climax gives a clean, exciting end to the arc (Seems like they're doing the three-book structure again) with strikingly impressive showdowns. I only wish it was driven by the emotional force of the cast instead of a simple connecting of plot threads.

Voltron Legendary Defender is a solid hit for Netflix and Mir animation. Its biggest crime currently is it only briefly reaches the soaring heights it is capable of. Regardless, they have 2/3rds of a series to pull out all stops and deliver something truly special. Let us hope the opening two seasons are merely a tasty sample platter.


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