"Sym-Bionic Titan": And I Thought "Adventure Time" Was Awesome...
One didn’t have to watch too many episodes of Dexter’s Laboratory or Samurai Jack to know that Genndy Tartakovsky had a serious affinity for giant robots of all stripes. However, in Dexter he used them to satirize the tropes common to giant robot shows, and in Samurai Jack he used them as something for the title character to shred to bits.
Sym-Bionic Titan changes this trend dramatically, somehow embracing and re-contextualizing the tropes he once mocked, and Tartakovsky turns the mech (and those that pilot it) into the kind of hero audiences have come to expect from him: amazingly cool. In fact, while Megas XLR might be the first American giant robot show, Sym-Bionic Titan may be America’s first dramatically driven attempt at the concept. The design elements are honest attempts to embrace modern ideas of mech design; the story would feel right at home in the glory days of Japanese giant robot cartoons; and the overall setting seems like the perfect homage to many of those classics as well. This isn’t to say, though, that it’s not distinctly American nor without humor. The high school setting is made for satire, down to the twiggy cheerleaders and grotesquely overbuilt jocks, while the Earth backgrounds quite plainly evoke the Southern California scenery that Cartoon Network studios itself is situated in, even if the show is supposed to be set Sherman, Illinois, a not so subtle nod to the late John Hughes. Without a hint of idiosyncrasy, it feels like some one made a modern yet classic giant robot series in the United States.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Our story begins with Ilana, an alien princess, Lance, a young soldier sworn to protect her, and Octus, their robot companion, who have just crash-landed on Earth. After a skirmish with the US Army, they realize that they’ll have to blend in on the planet to keep the princess safe from the same aliens that just destroyed their home world. So, they ask their robot what people their age do on this planet, and since they are both teens, that means high school. After a very awkward first day of class for pretty much everyone, a monster sent to destroy Ilana crash-lands on Earth as well. There’s a fight that decimates much of the city, which unlocks the ability for Ilana’s mech, Lance’s mech and Octus to combine. The monster is soon dead, and the introductory episode comes to a close.
I’d say a lot more, but I feel it’d be spoiling an awesome show. What I can say is that 99 percent of the time, it’s not just a good cartoon, it’s an awesome and radical cartoon. Every trick Genndy has ever pulled on every show he’s worked on shows up here, and he’s clearly learned a lot of lessons from his contemporaries. Action scenes with only sound effects, no background music? Check. Brutal take down of giant monsters in the middle of populous cities? He does it better than it was ever done on the Powerpuff Girls or Dexter’s Lab, and the city damage calls to mind Evangelion. Insane transformation sequences? Check, but with clear homages to shows like Getter Robo, The Big O and Aquarion. In short, even with all the amazing new talent that Cartoon Network has cultivated over the years, Tartakovsky still stands as one of the greatest living animators. Seeing him employ everything in his (and anyone else’s) arsenal at once without skipping a beat cements that fact.
Now, I do have to say 99 percent because there are few moments of less than perfect animation, but it only stands out because so much of the show is just exquisitely storyboarded and timed. A simple lunch room brawl gives Cowboy Bebop a run for its money. A race through a construction site that was already quite evocative of The Fast and The Furious delves into a mix of Speed Racer and Tony Hawk antics when Lance is forced to grind a old Buick down a rail like a skateboard. In fact, it’s nice to see that the giant robot aspect will just be one part of a whole action milieu. Similarly, scenes where giant monsters are beat stupid with their own appendages demonstrate that the mech action won’t be mired in drama all the time either.
This show so insanely overmatches anything else Cartoon Network has done on the action front since Samurai Jack that it’s galling they ever let Genndy out of their grasp. In fact, outside of Gurren Lagann, I can’t think of ANY mech series in the past five years or more with action that’s half as intense as Titan‘s. It’s funnier than any of the other shows with a high school setting or teenaged cast on Cartoon Network (or really an animation channel.) The voice acting is fantastic (especially Brian Posehn as Octus), and the soundtrack pulls no punches either by quoting the tone of classic giant robot series when appropriate, while almost nodding FLCL-like grunge rock at others.
I guess if I have a criticism, it’s that it is very, very homage laden, to the point where it gets to be hard to call it all that original at points. I mean, when the show isn’t calling to mind one of Genndy’s own classic works, it very often seems referential to another series or film. It would even be possible for a critic to see this and ask what he’s bringing new to the table. However, animation has never been one to shy away from homage, parody and sometimes outright plagiarism, and it’s clear in the execution this is the kind of referential, post-modern flavor that’s more Quentin Tarentino or Teen Titans rather an cheap knock off.
Now, I’m not sure if this is going to be a hit. It’s an outstandingly realized, exhilarating series, but it’s so good I have to wonder if people are going to be a little overwhelmed by it. However, even if it only lasts a season, it’ll be best the season of animation on Cartoon Network in half a decade or more. In regards to the headline, I do actually think it’s a better show than Adventure Time, and I think that show is brilliant. Between that and Sym-Bionic Titan, this may be one of the best years for animation on Cartoon Network since the late 90s.