“Motorcity:” Turbocharged Series Redlines the Awesometer
Motorcity is the kind of show you’d get if Genndy Tartakovsky did a more teen-friendly take on Mad Max in a world that’s equal parts Blade Runner and 2001. It’s one of the most exhilarating new cartoons I’ve seen in quite some time, both for its fascinating visual style and for its near-boundless energy. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, considering the pedigrees of its creators: Metalocalypse‘s Chris Prynoski is its creator, with Craig Lewis (Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends) as story editor and John O’Bryan (Avatar the Last Airbender) and George Krstic (Megas XLR) as writers. This new show on Disney XD may break extremely little new narrative ground, but it definitely sets a new standard in its presentation and warrants a look just for its truly groundbreaking approach to TV animation. There hasn’t been a cartoon on the air since the late, lamented Sym-Bionic Titan that so effortlessly blends cool with adrenaline to yield a potent endorphin rush for animation fans.
In the far flung future, billionaire Abraham Kane has built a sterile, totalitarian utopia called Detroit Deluxe over the broken remains of the original city. The original Detroit is now populated by a raggedy collection of have-nots, renegades, and runaways who have rechristened their home Motorcity. Among them is Mike Chilton, a renegade’s renegade whose deep-seated hatred of Kane is reciprocated in kind. In the premiere episode “Battle for Motorcity,” he and his gang the Burners (the brainy coward Chuck, the lovely and spunky Julie, the ultra-cool Dutch, and the lovably dim hulk Texas) attempt to take the battle to Kane, only to fall into a trap that it will take all the tricks they have up their sleeves to escape and save their home from Kane’s army of killer robots.
It’s been quite some time since a cartoon’s visuals have managed to knock my socks off so completely (I’d probably have to go back to Samurai Horror Tales: Goblin Cat to find something comparable). Studio Robin Red Breast (a subsidiary of Titmouse Animation) uses a series of compositing tricks to pull together traditional animation, Flash, and CGI to ensure that Motorcity looks and feels absolutely amazing. All the driving scenes have an incredible, palpable sense of speed and power as they rip through the trashed underworld of Motorcity or engage in over-the-top combat with Kane’s gigantic robots. There’s a real sense of weight behind these cobbled-together hot rods as they hurtle through the frame, feeling as though they’re about to leap out of the screen. The big, thick lines on the characters are strongly reminiscent of Craig McCracken/Genndy Tartakovsky/Lauren Faust character designs, with hard, square edges marking both the long, lean designs of the Burners and the bulkier designs of the citizens in Deluxe. Both vehicles and characters lay over impossibly complex and often strikingly beautiful backgrounds that mix different media and seem inspired by graffiti art, producing frames that one can easily get lost in. In fact, these backgrounds are sometimes the straw that breaks the camel’s back, since many combat scenes are much easier to follow in the spare, spartan world of Deluxe than they are in the visual riot in Motorcity below. In fact, there are some moments when the sound effects give more cues to what’s happening than the visuals. I’m willing to give this degree of visual incoherence a bit more leeway than I would normally because the show is so ambitious and because the “too much is never enough” approach feels quite deliberate, but I hope that later episodes learn how to dial it back a bit to keep that sense of energy while avoiding total visual overload.
The visuals of Motorcity are so good that they’re almost enough to hide how threadbare and unoriginal the plot of the first episode is. Absolutely nobody will feel the narrative of Motorcity is as original as its visual approach. Nearly everything in it has been seen before: the Five-Man Band that forms the core of the cast, the evil industrialist billionaire, and the sharply contrasting sterile safety of Deluxe and the dingy freedom of Motorcity. The Rebels fighting The Man plot is played out strictly by the numbers in this first episode, although there are enough nice, subtle touches to the execution that I’m willing to give the series the benefit of the doubt for now. If nothing else, I’m happy to see that the series’ pedal-to-the-metal approach applies to its narrative sensibilities as well, providing an absolute minimum of exposition throughout this premiere episode. I especially appreciated how one character’s big (and then bigger) secret is revealed in two blink-and-you’ll-miss-it throwaway moments, revealing exactly how much has been hidden and planting a plot land mine just waiting for someone to step on it. Besides, Samurai Jack and Sym-Bionic Titan didn’t ever really break new narrative ground either, and those two shows remain two of my favorites. The cast is appealing enough, with the standouts being Reid Scott’s Mike, who sounds a bit like a younger Steve Blum, and Mark Hamill’s Abraham Kane, vaguely echoing a similar role he played in the Lucasarts video game Full Throttle.
If you’re going to go for style over substance, you better have a hell of a lot of style. Motorcity does, sometimes even more than it can manage, and that combined with a powerful adrenaline rush of energy more than makes up for the slightly clichéd plot and characterization. I’m still stunned but happy that a show this daring is showing up on a Disney network, of all places. In the end, the animation and the energy wins over the well-worn plot, and preview clips suggest that the show’s visual style and over-the-top intensity will continue in upcoming episodes. We’ll have to see whether this car can go the distance or if it’s all flash and no substance, but either way, it looks like it’ll be one blast of a ride to find out.
Motorcity premieres on Monday, April 30, 2012, at 9:00 PM (ET/PT)/8:00 (CT) on Disney XD.