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"Generator Rex: Volume One": There Are Some Gems in this Scrap Heap

by on February 11, 2011

Generator Rex is far more intriguing than a show of its quality has any right to be. It gets a depressing number of things wrong, but at the end of the nine episodes on this set, I found myself wondering what would happen next and, by extension, caring about the people in it. This is strange, because the people in this show are so badly written.

Take for instance, Rex himself, a young teenager with superpowers being used by the secret organization known as Providence to fight against monsters known of Evos. His central angst is that he really wants to be Just a Normal Kid—this is a given in a show like this and I would have been upset if they’d not included it—but the writers communicate it by having him run away from his job so he can ride his motorcycle and crap like that. This might have been workable if there were some attempt to balance the levity with which Rex’s antics are treated and the level of danger his enemies pose, but there’s not: the Evo situation is treated very seriously, and you get the distinct impression that people are dying because this jerkoff is away playing beach volleyball. Even this wouldn’t be so annoying if it were addressed in some form—if Rex were shown to be a bit of an anti-hero or if we were shown how stifling his life at Providence really is, and so made to sympathize with him. But the series shows us nothing of the sort, probably out of a misguided attempt at not rocking the story-boat. (One story arc, where Rex actually appears to leave Providence for good, should have brought all of these issues to some sort of conclusion, but it very pointedly dodges them so as to maintain the status quo instead). Rex benefits from an energetic performance by Daryl Sabara, but in the end the character just seems like a shallow jerk most of the time, a feeling that’s out of place with the rough-around-the-edges ne’er-do-well he seems meant to be. Occasionally you’ll get an episode like “Dark Passages” where they tone down some of these qualities a bit, but that just leaves him bland. And “bland at best” is not exactly a compliment.

There are a lot of supporting characters that try to pick up the slack dropped by the faulty protagonist, but they just never quite come into focus. The ones who come closest are Agent Six and Dr. Holiday, the two people who seem to be in charge of Rex at Providence. Six is a stoic, government-type mentor who is badass as hell; and Dr. Holiday, thanks to an endearing performance from Grey DeLisle, ends up eliciting more sympathy just by trying to put up with Rex’s soul-searching. Those two can be fun, but we don’t see enough of them, and the rest of the characters are just a line-up of tired caricatures and wasted talent. John DiMaggio plays a talking monkey named Bobo Haha that never does anything funny. Fred Savage plays Rex’s best friend, Noah, and thus gets to read even worse dialogue then Sabara is called to mouth; and Scott Baker plays a sophisticated British villain named Van Kleiss and, for some reason does so in the exact same tone of mildly evil boredom in each appearance, instead of doing, well, something else. The rest of the cast ranges from the under-utilized, like the ominous White Knight or any of Van Kleiss’ colorful subordinates, to the painful, like Rex’s shockingly inane love-interest, Circe.

So if so many of the shows characters are irritating, why do I care what happens next? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the plot is so intrinsically appealing. The series story deals with a teenage, amnesiac superhero working for a questionable organization in a dangerous world that fights monsters and is opposed by a group of mutant misfits. There’s nothing boring or uninteresting about that, and you’d have to try very hard to completely screw up a show with that plot. Rex is preceded by Ben 10, another series by the same people that also had a more interesting premise then its writing could fully live up to, but the key difference here is that Ben was mostly episodic while Rex is more tightly serialized. And so while the novelty of the former’s premise quickly wore thin, there always seems to be something interesting going on in the latter. That might not really be a good thing in the long run, since the Ben 10 franchise would eventually improve its writing to make up for its waning novelty, while this show could get by forever with being only mildly interesting. But there’s such a surprising level of sophistication in the way the show is given a real, intriguing mythology, and in the way that that mythology is slowly expanded upon, that I get the distinct feeling that the show is actually being made by extremely talented people who are in the process of finding their footing. This theory is evident in the way the show progressively gets better. The first few episodes are wretched, but the last few are perfectly watchable and occasionally even quite fun. (I’m thinking of “Breach” in particular here.)

The one other factor the show has in its favor is its uncommonly fluid and attractive visuals. This is particularly obvious in the battle sequences, where the Evos/Rex fights are sometimes animated astonishingly well done (like the monster in “Frostbite”) and the choreography is always excellent. But the same attention seems to have been lovingly lavished on scenes that could have survived without it. The only gripe I’d like to make is that I don’t like Man of Actions human character designs that much. They’re basically good-looking action figures, which means they work well in fight scenes and look great when they’re not moving (and, you know, make good action figures) but are terribly inexpressive and eerily generic. (I swear Ben Tennyson makes a cameo in this show every time an adolescent boy appears.) Still, Rex himself mostly avoids this problem, and the non-human characters always looks fantastic.

So, I’ll be keeping an eye on this one. It’s not great yet. It’s not even very good . But it certainly left me a curious enough to buy a volume two, and the gradual increase in quality seems to hint at better things to come.

(For what it’s worth, this two-disc set comes with two extras: a music video accompanying the show’s theme, and a collection of early character sketches and designs. I continue to be pleased with the way Cartoon Network treats these releases.)

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