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Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Voltron: Legendary Defender S1

Voltron: Legendary Defender
Series 1

Ah, Voltron, there's a series from long before my time. I never saw any of the original show, nor the anime it was based off, so my knowledge of it consisted entirely of 'cartoon about people piloting lion mechs.' What drew me to watching Voltron: Legendary Defender, though, was hearing how many of the Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra staff were involved in it, with Lauren Montgomery, one of Avatar's storyboard artists and Korra's supervising producer (who also worked on Young Justice, another series I loved) and Joaquim Dos Santos, a director for both Avatar and Korra, as showrunners for this particular project.

Set in the not-too-distant-future, Voltron: Legendary Defender follows four young space pilots - Shiro, a recently escaped prisoner; Keith, an elite pilot with a discipline issue; Lance, an irreverent pilot who considers himself Keith's rival; Pidge, a computer genius searching for her father and brother, who were prisoners alongside Shiro; and Hunk, a cautious and easily spooked engineer - as they are recruited by the Altean princess Allura to be the pilots of five magical, robotic lions, which can combine to form Voltron, the greatest weapon in the universe. As the team sets out to take down the millennia-old Galra Empire, led by Emperor Zarkan and his personal witch, Haggar, they soon encounter trouble, as Zarkan desires to take Voltron for himself, and has been conducting magical experiments to harness an energy force called Quintessence.

Robot battle.

First off, you can really tell that Montgomery and Dos Santos both worked on Avatar and Legend of Korra. That's partly because Legendary Defender is tonally and structurally almost identical to those two shows, being a comedy-heavy, lighthearted action show with an undercurrent of serious, even dark (a little bit of the time, at least) themes that follows a fairly sharply refined version of the 'introduce interpersonal problem, introduce concrete problem, solve concrete problem by overcoming interpersonal problem' structure of most children's shows. 

It's also, however, because the characters are often nearly perfect match-ups for Avatarverse characters: Lance is basically Sokka with less focus on science; Keith is basically late-series Zuko; Shiro comes across as a slightly older, more experienced Mako; and Hunk is almost identical to Bolin. Pidge, Allura, and Corin are the only characters that really feel new, and even then, I found myself catching hints of Tenzin every so often in Corin, and Allura is very much of the same basic character archetype as Katara, even though they veer off in drastically different directions.

From left to right: Shiro, Keith, Lance, Pidge, Hunk. Keith, Lance, and Hunk even
look like Zuko, Sokka, and Bolin.

The dialogue writing is also pretty similar - Avatar and Korra were praised for their strong, characterful, concise dialogue, and Legendary Defender is really no different. There's a lot of talking without a lot of wasted space - every line of dialogue is useful and necessary to an episode, whether it's to set tone, impart exposition, or to develop character.

Technically, it's a strong production. The animation is simple but expressive, and they step it up a notch for fight scenes, meaning that it always looks pretty beautiful (in fact, you can tell I really like the animation, because despite usually limiting myself to three pictures per review, this one has five); the voice-acting is superb across the board; the soundtrack is fine. The nuts and bolts are all done pretty well.

Team Obviously Evil.

Interestingly, despite being in the title, Voltron doesn't show up all that often - fight scenes more often involve each pilot in their individual lions, or sometimes even out of their lions and fighting with weapons, with Voltron's appearances scattered over the series and reserved for really important fights. A lot of that is probably just because having thirteen episodes of 'and then Voltron appears and saves the day' would get dull pretty quickly. Another part of it is that it allows the pilots to be split up and off engaging in different plotlines, with a running thread of tension being 'will they all reunite in time to form Voltron and save the day.'

In truth, though, I wouldn't have minded a few more action scenes. A plotline of the series that's set up to be recurring is 'Haggar sends a Quintessence infused monster-robot after them,' and those often pan out as surprisingly interesting, with each robot forcing the team to be creative and strategic - but it only ends up happening twice, and I could have honestly been happy with seeing three, or even four or five of them.

That armour is dorky as all get out, though.

Similarly, I could also have done with a bit more character development. Shiro and Pidge have their conflicts firmly set up, but those conflicts just simmer in the background for the entire series - and the rest of the characters seem to barely have any personal stakes or agendas at all, which was a crying shame, I thought.


All of which hits on the biggest problem the series has, which is that it doesn't feel long enough to get everything it was trying to do done. It's thirteen episodes in total (although the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger - with Zarkon revealed to be the first pilot of the Black Lion, a mysterious traitor within the Galra Empire, and all five lions sent tumbling to parts of unknown - suggests that we'll be getting at least another thirteen at some point) and that's just not long enough to do everything the series clearly wanted to do.

But I did really enjoy this series, and I look forward to seeing more, so if Dreamworks and Netflix could just announce a second series, that'd be swell.

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