Sometimes, being aware of your biases as a reviewer doesn’t make it easier to be impartial, but only causes you to second-guess your own judgments instead. This was my experience with the latest two premieres coming from the Hub: the new Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot and Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters. They’re both good, solid, watchable shows, but knowing my own critical tendencies, I’m left wondering whether the shortcomings I perceive are genuine or just reflections of my own personal biases.
The latest incarnation of the Care Bears looks rather like the last one I saw, except that now the bears are in CGI and there’s no visible antagonist as there was in the semi-robotic Grizzle. The tribe of Care Bears lives in the idyllic world of Care-a-Lot, with each bear getting its own designated personality along with special magic powers that come from their “belly badge.” In the screener episode provided, Grumpy Bear gets in trouble after trying to steal some Dragonbee honey while Funshine Bear has so much fun with his human friend Penny that he begins to neglect his friends. It won’t be much of a surprise to learn that these two plots intersect by the end, and everyone walks away a little bit wiser for the experience.
Despite the positive reaction I had to that earlier series, I was apprehensive about Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot, but fortunately this show is about as good as the last one. It is definitely a show that borders on the saccharine (and thank goodness Grumpy Bear is around to curdle the milk in a gentle, non-threatening kind of way), and its social engineering lessons about being nice to each other won’t be much of a surprise to anyone. The problem is that I find myself comparing Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot to some of the Hub’s other recent cartoons like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, The Adventures of Chuck & Friends, or Pound Puppies, and in that comparison I find Care Bears falling a bit short. I’m not even entirely sure why, since in theory it seems to be doing all the things that I’d like a kids cartoon to do: deliver decent lessons, don’t talk down to the audience, and drop the occasional joke or reference for the supervising adults. It’s just that those other shows seem to do all these things just a hair better than Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot.
I also definitely think it was a mistake to do this new show in CGI. The character models are a bit stiff, so the bears’ expressions never quite match the boisterous voice-acting. It doesn’t help that all the bears look almost exactly alike, aside from coloration and the belly badges. As a result, the characters never manage the stretchy expressionism of the characters on My Little Pony or Pound Puppies. It also seems to lack the expressive power and variety as the CGI in Chuck & Friends, which has a much wider variety in its cast.
Being a pretty good show out of the gate is a better start than a lot of shows get, but I can’t help but wonder whether I’d be more positively inclined towards Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot without having the shadow of the Hub’s other recent successes in mind.
It doesn’t say much that Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters may be the best game-based cartoon I’ve ever watched, since I can really only compare it to the endearingly loopy Pokémon and the execrable Bakugan. I’ve never been able to watch any of the other comparable cartoons for more than a few minutes, though, so the fact that Kaijudo could keep me genuinely interested for all three episodes and leave me curious for more is a real achievement. If you’ll indulge an old-school reference, Kaijudo reminds me of the old Dungeons & Dragons TV cartoon in a good way, since both use the original game mostly for setting and avoid getting bogged down in gameplay mechanics masquerading as exposition.
Kaijudo‘s lead character is Ray Pierce-Okamoto, an imaginative boy living with his mother and paternal grandfather. In the premiere episodes, he and his friends (the privileged rich girl Allie and the sweet but nerdy Gabe) are inducted into the strange, secret world of Kaijudo, or the way of the strange creatures (kaiju). These kaiju were imprisoned in a parallel dimension to Earth centuries ago by the Duel Masters, who continue to operate in secret to keep the peace between the human world and the creature world. In the first episode of the show, Ray, Allie, and Gabe meet the Duel Master Hector Chavez when a creature is summoned from a drawing in Ray’s sketchbook. In the second episode, Ray learns he has a natural talent for controlling creatures, even as he insists on defying the Duel Masters’ injunctions against touching the creatures or treating them as friends rather than servants. He also meets Tatsurion the Unchained, an irascible but powerful hybrid creature. In the third episode, Ray must choose between the Duel Masters and his friends, since Allie and Gabe don’t have anywhere near the same talent as Ray and are denied entry into the Duel Masters order. They must all also contend with the forces of the Choten, a former Duel Master with sinister plans for the creatures and the Duel Masters alike.
I don’t think anybody will accuse Kaijudo of being the most original series. The basic idea has been seen in properties like Men in Black, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or early installments of Ben 10. However, Kaijudo‘s mechanics and execution are solid enough to make the show more enjoyable than I expected it to be. The show’s pedigree is certainly unquestionable, with Henry Gilroy involved in the show’s development, Gary Hartle acting as Supervising Producer, and MOI Animation Studios turning in animation that rivals their work on Avatar the Last Airbender or Young Justice. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there’s a fine line between an archetype and a cliché, and while the Kaijudo premiere jumps back and forth over that line a few times, it ends up on the “archetype” side more often than not and has plenty of room for development. A lot of this has to do with the amusing chemistry between Ray and Tatsurion the Unchained, who enjoys declaring his full name at any opportunity and peppers every sentence with multiple exclamation marks. I also like the quiet, understated performance of Chavez, who serves as both big brother and father figure to Ray, as well as to Allie and Gabe to a lesser extent.
Where Kaijudo separates itself from most game-based shows is that the gameplay mechanics have been streamlined or stripped out, becoming backdrop for the story rather than the story’s backbone. Shows like Pokémon and Bakugan are TV shows that want to be games, with their duels often coming to a crashing halt so a character can ramble on for minutes at a stretch to explain what’s happening on screen in terms of gameplay mechanics. Pokémon got away that because it was unapologetically crazy; Bakugan didn’t because the explanations were boring and confusing and then often ignored anyway. Kaijudo‘s monster duels feel natural and organic, with the only remnants of the original game occasionally peeking out when a character gets oddly specific about some small aspect of the world or the creatures. As mentioned, the show is animated by MOI, and thus looks massively better than any other game-based cartoon I’ve ever watched.
Oddly, I feel like I should like Kaijudo more than I do. It does a lot of things right and avoids a lot of pitfalls that have taken down comparable shows, but I don’t find that I love it as unequivocally as any number of other action cartoons. I suspect this is just my bias against these sorts of cartoons coming into play, though. Other than Pokémon, I haven’t been able to watch more than an episode of any other game-based cartoon unless I had to for a review, and I admit I walked into Kaijudo with abysmally low expectations. I’m wondering if I would have been better off not knowing it was based on a card game to avoid my own pre-conceptions and assumptions. Still, I suppose it says something substantial that I think Kaijudo acquits itself quite well against other modern action cartoons, regardless of its origins.
Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot and Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters both premiere on June 2, 2012, on the Hub Network. Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot airs 8:00 AM (ET)/5:00 AM (PT); Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters airs at 8:00 PM (ET/PT). Check the Hubworld.com website for more information.