"Juniper Lee" Worth Looking Into... Once It Gets Off the Ground
Juniper Lee is a very odd new action show from Cartoon Network. Part of it is cool, part of it is clever, and part of it is head-scratchingly cliched. To everyone who reads this and thinks, “Great, here comes another complaint-fest,” this isn’t one. I think that, of the series that have debuted in 2004-05, this one shows the most promise. It already has a solid footing with its pilot. The second episode feels off, but I’m betting it’s not truly indicative of the qualities of the series. I think future episodes of this first season will impress me more.
Let’s discuss what I like. I like the visual flair of the show. Okay, so the designs somewhat confuse me because they seem a little clunky when stuck on top of the beautifully designed but very intentionally flat environments. It’s a contrast of styles. But the lead story artist, Brian Larsen of Samurai Jack, carries those designs with very convincing and fun action poses that outperform shows like Danny Phantom. Unlike said Nickelodeon show, action and fighting actually feels compatible with the artistic direction. It doesn’t look like a UPA cartoon, but it doesn’t look like Clone Wars either. It’s a marriage of the two. Of the remaining boarders at CNS, I think they picked the best one for this show.
I’m on the fence about the writing. There are times when the script plays things so by the book that I worry about the show becoming another forgettable Atomic Betty. But then Judd Winnick will throw these little Judd-isms into the script to punch the viewer with wit. The only thing is, they’re so far apart. We have a few minutes of somewhat-average expository dialogue, then suddenly a clown says “Hey, you think I want this job? I have a master’s degree from Yale. It’s either this or putting up drywall with my father-in-law.” See, that’s a line that had effort and thought put into it. So why isn’t all of the script punched up like that? I have to say I’m confused. I’d rather have a show that is funny throughout than a show that has only a couple of standout moments. But those moments are good. If we had more of those moments, we would have more of an awesome show.
Juniper is also pretty well-directed. This show has a lot of people new to Cartoon Network but definitely not to animation. Art director Alan Bodner brings his experience from Clerks and Kim Possible (the first-and-only-good-season) to the table. Ashby Manson, who toiled away on ugly background art for Disney TV, paints beautiful backgrounds for this show. People may disagree with me here, but I think they look fantastic. Of course, the creator is Judd Winnick, who hails from the realm of MTV and comic books, but animation seems to fit him pretty well. Lara Jill Miller, voice of Juniper, hails from Animaze/ZRO Limit, and has performed in anime dubs like Zatch Bell (Koko), Digimon (Kari), and sCRYed (Scheris).
But unfortunately that is where we transition into what I don’t like about the show: the casting. I don’t mind Juniper’s over-the-top spunkiness. Her somewhat punk voice is an interesting take for a female hero. The voice actually has some grit to it. But the other characters could not have been more obnoxiously cast. Ray Ray is voiced by Kath Soucie, who does her Phil voice for the 40,000th time, making every last word from the character grating to the ear. Then we have Munroe, a talking dog doing a…. wait for it… Shrek impersonation. I like Carlos Alazraqui, and it’s not his fault. It’s the fault of whoever decided a dog talking like Mike Myers would be funny, which it is not. Such a gimmick is amusing for an incidental character, but a horrible decision for a main character.
I’m afraid there is just no silver lining here when it comes to the vocal performances. Candi Milo is awkwardly cast as a goth valley girl, which, unless it’s a statement about posers and wannabe goth fashion queens, is written really, really uninterestingly. Phil LaMarr almost seems typecast as the black love interest with a lot of generosity and heart, which, though interesting for its inter-racial connotations, ends up essentially a carbon copy of Wilt from Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. And Billy West plays a stoner leprechaun, although he plays it pretty well, so I’m not going to knock it.
Juniper Lee looks good, and sometimes it feels good, so, all right, I’m going to say that it is pretty good. As a debut. Practically no show really sells me on its first episode anymore, but Juniper Lee has unquestionable promise. It looks to take the baton from Kim Possible and run strong and fast. Your tastes and standards are probably different from mine, so I urge you to give the show a try and see how you feel about it. You may warm up to the characters more than I did.
The show premieres Monday, May 30, at 7:00pm, although it also has encore showings on Fridays, and judging by Cartoon Network’s programming decisions in the past few months, you can probably expect it to sneak into a dozen more timeslots by the end of the summer. It will regularly air on Sundays at 7:30pm.