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"Three Delivery" is Pretty Good for Fast Food

Between Avatar the Last Airbender, Yin Yang Yo!, Skunk Fu, Chop Socky Chooks, and Kung Fu Panda, there seems to be a bit of a glut of cartoons on the market that are exploiting kung fu as a plot element. Some of these cartoons aim for reverent lifts from the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon school of wuxia martial-arts drama (Avatar and, to a lesser extent, Kung Fu Panda). However, most of them aim for broad comedy, taking their cues from the low-budget chop-socky martial-arts exploitation films of the 70’s, with varying levels of success. Three Delivery, a new show debuting on the Nicktoons Network, more or less straddling these two worlds, although it is far more successful when leaning towards the action than the schtick.

Sue posingThe show was created and produced by Larry Schwarz and the Animation Collective, best known for Kappa Mikey and the new Speed Racer cartoons on Nicktoons, and thematically, Three Delivery seems like quite a departure for them. Set in an unnamed urban Chinatown, Three Delivery‘s leads are three young teenagers who deliver lunch and dinner specials for Wu’s Garden Restaurant. Sue (voiced by Stephanie Sheh) is the smart and smart-mouthed one, Sid (Johnny Yong Bosch) is her super-cool older brother, and Tobey (Robby Duncan Sharpe) is the designated clown/man-ditz. Strange earthquakes that only seem to be affecting Chinatown reveal that Nana’s old nemesis, the evil sorcerer Kong Li, is on the move again, seeking magical recipes scattered throughout Chinatown to shatter the protective dome that keeps him from conquering the larger outside world. In the debut episode, “I Feel the Earth Move,” the three kids must defeat Kong Li and the fearsome dragon that he awakens.

The debut episode of Three Delivery is solid enough, with the best thing about it being its visuals. Three Delivery is not afraid of showing a Chinatown in the Americas that’s a little bit seedy, insular, and still on the fringes of widespread societal acceptability. Unlike the tourist traps that many major urban Chinatowns have become, Three Delivery’s setting is still a largely unassimilated urban refuge that carries a sense of mystery and strangeness to the uninitiated non-Chinese population. The crew at Animation Collective and Fat Kat clearly did their homework, since the backgrounds and settings of Three Delivery have a great sense of authenticity without losing the sense of magic and mystery that the show’s supernatural elements require. Similarly, the characters of the show are nicely stylized, evoking positive comparisons to manga and action comics. In fact, the slight choppiness of the movements and layered feel of the animation does much to make the show feel like an animated graphic novel.

The seedy Chinatown of Wu's GardenIt’s also worth pointing out that Three Delivery does far better than other current shows in its use of Chinese cultural elements, despite the many surface stereotypes like martial arts, magic, and restauranting. A lot of other shows seem content to use Chinese culture as little more than a punch line for cheap gags (I’m looking right at you, Yin Yang Yo! and Skunk Fu), if not outright grossly offensive stereotypes (Chop Socky Chooks). There is an underlying respect and affection for Chinese culture in Three Delivery, which makes many of the seeming stereotypes far more palatable. Its Chinatown is unmistakably exotic (a word many Asian-Americans have grown to hate), but only because the plot requires it to be a place where the rules are visibly different, rather than because of some mistaken perception by an outsider. It also helps that Sue, Tobey, and Sid all thoroughly blend Chinese and American cultures and attitudes, but their casual camaraderie and the humor that results from it is pleasantly universal. The show is a model of how to use cultural elements without calling too much attention to them, with the only show on the air doing it better being Avatar.

Unfortunately, as a show, the pacing of Three Delivery is a bit off. It seems like the first episode takes forever to get to the climactic fight with Kong Li and his dragon. Part of the reason is that there seems to be far too much time spent explaining some elements of the show — moments that are meant to have heavy portent and drama will sometimes fizzle because they take too long in the delivery. In other cases, there isn’t enough information delivered. For example, the only way to know that the kids are orphans who are not even related to Nana is through the press materials. As a result, one can waste a lot of background processing time trying to tease out the family tree and whether it’s gross that Sue seems to have a crush on Nana’s grandson Barney. Speaking of Barney, he and his father Mr. Wu are mostly used for unnecessary (or maybe just unfunny) comic relief, and probably would have been better off as minor background characters initially. Finally, the show seems a bit too in love with its dramatic scene change sequence, which is used a few too many times for its own good.

Sid vs. the DragonThe action sequences also suffer a bit from odd pacing. All great action sequences have a rhythm and a tempo to them. Getting the pacing right is especially important in animated action sequences, since you don’t have the benefit of a performer’s on-screen physicality. Three Delivery‘s pacing in its action sequences comes close, and it’s definitely a great cut above nearly all the other kung-fu oriented cartoons on the air, but it never quite takes off into the thrilling adrenaline rush one gets from shows like Avatar, or even the more action-oriented sequences from a show like Justice League Unlimited. The crew has stated that they watched tons and tons of kung-fu movies from all eras to prepare for the show, but they might have done well to study a few movie musicals along the way, since the requirements of pacing, choreography, and staging in a song-and-dance sequence are strikingly similar to those of an action sequence.

Three Delivery is a decent enough show and most of the cast is charming enough, but in the end, it suffers in comparison to other similar shows aimed at the same demographic, such as Cartoon Network’s Transformers Animated and especially Nickelodeon’s Avatar. Had it come out a few years ago, it could have been a smash for its original artistic styling and incorporation of martial arts mayhem in its storyline. Unfortunately, the glut of action cartoons for the young teen audience, and of Asian-themed cartoons specifically, makes the Three Delivery debut feel a bit too much like something we’ve already seen. Still, it’s worth a look or two if only for the visuals. It’s a good fast food meal that gets the job done.

Three Delivery premieres on Nicktoons on June 27, 2008, at 7:30 PM (Eastern)

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