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"Skyland": Beautiful Clichés With a Glint of Potential

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: two teenage siblings discover that they have the power between them to end the tyranny of their totalitarian overlords, who…

OK, that didn’t take long.

Lena and MahadWelcome to Skyland, a new series created by Alexandre de la Patellière, Matthieu Delaporte, and Emmanuel Gorinstein and debuting on the Nicktoons Network. The story centers on Lena and Mahad, two children who live with their mother Mila in the floating remnants of a shattered 23rd Century Earth. Humanity is dominated by the Sphere, whose robot armies take what they wish with impunity. We quickly learn that Lena and her mother are Seijin – people with psychic powers outlawed by the Sphere. An incident that quickly runs out of control leads to Mila’s capture by the Sphere and Lena and Mahad’s flight into the company of the least threatening air pirates ever seen on television, where they will lead the resistance movement against the forces of the Sphere.

If this all sounds terribly familiar, that’s because it is. There is little new story ground broken by Skyland in “Dawn of a New Day,” its hour-long premiere episode. Replace the names and you can probably come pretty close to any number of other action cartoon shows. However, the fact that Skyland doesn’t manage to break any new story ground doesn’t have to be a death knell for the show. Not many cartoons manage to truly break new ground in their premises, and young underdogs battling against incredible odds have been a staple of stories since people started telling them. Given the cliché premise, the success of Skyland depends almost entirely on how well the story is told.

Sky Pirate Captain and the Most Annoying Kid in the WorldSadly, the execution of “Dawn of a New Day” falls short as well, starting from the moment when the opening credit sequence neatly summarizes (or spoils) the entire premiere episode. This inauspicious start gives way to surprise-free writing and embarrassingly flat characterization, from Mila’s generically warm, loving, and perfect mother; Lena’s spunky and innocent pre-teen girl; Mahad’s reckless teenaged belief in his own indestructibility; and boo-hiss over-the-top villany from the bald-headed Vector and his equally bald female lackey. The air pirate band fares even worse, getting off on the wrong foot almost immediately by introducing a gruff captain with a heart of gold doing a bad Sean Connery impression, followed by one of the most egregiously annoying kid genius characters to ever appear in a cartoon. The only member of the crew who manages to make much of an impression at all is the snarling pilot Dahlia; too bad she is immediately relegated to the potential love interest for Mahad, who has not matured past the point of believing that the best way to attract a girl’s attention is to annoy her.

However, it is the animation of Skyland that makes it stand out and is its biggest detriment. The show has definite visual flair on its side, with beautiful settings and wonderfully detailed airships. For their characters, Method Films and 9 Story Entertainment use an intriguing mixture of motion captured performances with cel-shaded CGI animation, making the character movements extremely realistic. The show is undeniably beautiful, and makes for exceptionally good screen captures. Unfortunately, the technology or the funds didn’t extend to accurate motion capture of facial features, with the sad result that the human characters don’t emote much better than the Sphere’s robot soldiers. This is not aided by the curiously flat voice acting from the cast almost across the board. The scene when Lena and Mahad are sent away by their mother should have packed an emotional wallop, but fails to stir much of a reaction at all.

Sadly, they all missIt’s not all bad news, though. In addition to its visual beauty, the one thing that the show manages to do exceptionally well is action. The show blasts off with an exhilarating hover-bike ride through a twisty canyon, and there are visceral thrills to be had in the aerial dogfights and the more grounded battles with psychic powers and ray guns and killer robots. It may be that Skyland would have been a better fit for a video game rather than a TV series, presenting itself as a high-tech variation on Sega’s Skies of Arcadia, with which it shares more than a passing resemblance. In video games, cliché storylines and flat characterizations are often more than compensated for by the wish-fulfillment thrills of being the characters on the screen. It is also worth pointing out that the technical flaws of the animation are the sort that can be corrected eventually through more powerful hardware, money, technical wizardry, or more likely a combination of all three.

As its best, Skyland presents a great deal of untapped potential, both as a story and as a method of animation. There have been many shows that took cliché premises and spun gold out of them after rocky starts, and the animation techniques used are fundamentally sound and certainly produce visually striking results. Skyland may well turn out to be a deeply compelling show that can overcome its technical constraints, but it has a lot of work to do before it gets there.

Skyland: Dawn of a New Day premieres on the Nicktoons Network on November 18, 2006, at 9:00 PM (Eastern Time). The first four episodes are currently available for download on the iTunes Store; the first episode is free, and the remaining 3 are $1.99 each.

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