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"Green Lantern: The Animated Series": Beware Not

My first impressions of Green Lantern: The Animated Series were formed at Comicon, and they weren’t good. The clips were action figure theater. But my eyes have gotten somewhat used to the show, especially after viewing the first episode, “Beware My Power.” It breaks conveniently in half for broadcast, and more than half of it consists of setting-up. But once that’s out of the way the show lifts off.

Written by Ernie Altbacker and producer Jim Krieg, the premiere is an efficient orientation to Hal Jordan’s world. Mercifully spared another origin story, we approach his life in media res, seeing him mix superheroics, test piloting, and a stalled romance with his boss Carol Ferris. As voiced by Josh Keaton, Hal is the sort of schmoozer you can count on to say the corniest pick-up lines at a bar. Too arrogant to play by the book and saddled with a mile-wide reckless streak, he demands to be taken down a peg. To the script’s credit, he is.

Other credits: The show is produced by Krieg (a writer for Brave and the Bold, the 90s Spiderman series, and the Ben10 franchise) and Giancarlo Volpe (who helmed several episodes of Clone Wars and Avatar: The Last Airbender). But its public face is executive producer Bruce Timm and his designs. His style has been reproduced in CG with little adjustment, and the results are unwieldy.

Certain hurdles were already in place: CG animation lacks much of the warmth and liveliness of its predecessor. In Green Lantern facial expressions lack the quicksilver changes of 2D, and gestures as slight as a fist bump lose their spontaneity. Figures in motion carry too much volume to zip about or plummet convincingly with variations of motion.

In the 90s Timm’s designs showed how to effectively portray non-comedic humans on a TV budget, using a stylization that was mythically witty in its exaggeration of heroic signifiers. Impressive in the flatness of 2D space, his characters are excessively monumental and stolid in CG. The stylization no longer makes sense; human faces look grotesque and deformed. Carol Ferris is especially awful with her China doll features and stretched-tight skin, its texture plastic one moment, rubber the next, and foam in between. The show benefits from being set in outer space, as far away from humans as possible, on planets full of intentionally ugly life-forms. Perhaps some designs could be tweaked as the series progresses (as in Justice League) for more stylization or less, but what we have now is an unhappy medium.

Positives: I have nothing but praise for the storyboards and direction, which are evocative and elegant. The compositions and canted angles are eye-catching without being flashy; the stirring vertiginous traveling shots trumpet the augmented smoothness and mobility of CG; you feel the space of outer space.

Animation services are from CGCG Inc. (Clone Wars and Fanboy and Chum Chum), and the upside of the producers’ Faustian bargain with CG are clear when it comes to the inhuman elements: the alien worlds and skies dazzle more than they ever would in 2D—ditto for their paraphernalia of wormholes, holograms, asteroids, nebulas, clouds and auroras. Planet Oa is cold, gleaming, and gorgeous. Slate gray skyscrapers thrusting from mist against a silver sky, with windows lineated in blue strips, it calls to mind the futurized cityscapes developed for Batman Beyond, except that it’s better looking. The animators have taken full advantage of the medium, and it’s a tribute to their work—and the story—that we gradually forget that every character looks like a walking action figure.

Back to that story: With an ambush in frontier space, the show introduces its main antagonists, the Red Lanterns, in the form of two henchmen: Zilius Zox, a sneering grease ball voiced by Tom Kenny, and Razer (Jason Spisak), whose triangular streaked face is reminiscent of a Clone Wars design.

Hal Jordan and Kilowog (Kevin Michael Richardson) take it upon themselves to investigate the RL’s far away predations and zoom to the frontier in “the fastest ship ever created by sentient life,” bonding with its navigational computer, an artificial intelligence (voiced by Grey DeLisle) dubbed “Aya.” The premise allows for Star Trek-style battles (and a visual quote from Star Wars). The cast is later augmented by tart-tongued frontier GL Shyir Rev (Kurtwood Smith), and Atrocitus (Jonathan Adams), head of the Red Lanterns.

The dialogue is serviceable but sags whenever the characters spout inspirational sentiment. (That said, it’s hard to resist Zox shrieking “Weaklings! Your feeble constructs are crushed beneath the Red Lanterns’ might!”) During the central battle the characters act a little more stupidly than plausible, and a later change of heart seems facile. Yet minute by minute the show grows up, almost beneath your radar.

What Atrocitus reveals about his motivations and history muddies our understanding of the Green Lantern Corps. The Red Lanterns are a terrorist organization–or are they freedom fighters struggling against an empire disguised as a peace corps? And what’s all this about war crimes? Why are the Guardians of the Universe so imperious and guarded about their past? One hopes the series will not shrink from delivering further kicks to this hornet’s nest, especially since ethical crucibles are tests character. Humiliated and outclassed, Hal Jordan shows a sadistic streak, while Razer ascends from stock villain to the shows’ most compelling character, writhing on the bed of nails that is his conscience.

After the climax erupts, you may find emotions that have snuck up on you. Cartoon Network has given Green Lantern the freedom to show that its heroes are prepared to pay the ultimate price for their calling, and in the face of mortality the show demonstrates character in the subtlety of its visuals—a lonely power ring speeding through space, a ring of new asteroids glimpsed in the background—that become stinging reminders of loss.

Aside from cavils about the appropriateness of Timm’s style to CG animation, the success of Green Lantern: The Animated Series will depend on whether it can meet its own promises. For now, its power is something to behold, not beware of.

Green Lantern: The Animated Series premieres tonight, November 11, 2011, at 7:00 PM (6:00 PM Central) on Cartoon Network in the U.S. and at 8:00 PM (ET/PT) on Teletoon.

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