I can enjoy the latest incarnations of DC or Marvel superheroes or revivals like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or G.I. Joe, but shows that strike out in new directions and create new properties are going to get a bit more critical slack just because they are creating something new. Disney TV animation has been producing and airing a strong succession of high-quality original programming, following up the success of Phineas and Ferb with shows as varied as Doc McStuffins, Motorcity, Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja, and Gravity Falls. While it’s not a Disney production, you can also add the Nerd Corps show Slugterra to that list as well. I was positively impressed by the first episode of Slugterra which Disney screened at last year’s New York Comic Con, and that positive impression is borne out by next four episodes also included on the show’s first DVD collection, Return of the Shane Gang. The show’s outlandish premise and general excellence in execution make it much easier to tolerate its more well-worn elements.
More than one hundred miles beneath the Earth’s surface is the bizarre realm of Slugterra, populated by a menagerie of intelligent slugs that are used for a variety of purposes. The most unusual of those purposes is as sentient ammunition, as the slugs are loaded into blasters and fired in slug-slinging duels, turning into giant magical monsters when they reach 100 miles per hour. The peace in Slugterra was kept by Will Shane, although his tenure as Slugterra’s sheriff comes to an abrupt end at the start of the first episode, “The World Beneath Our Feet, Part 1.” It’s a moment that still catches me off-guard with its potency, and immediately establishes the stakes and the stature of the show’s antagonist, the villainous Dr. Blakk. Before falling to Dr. Blakk, Will Shane manages to send his faithful slug Burpy to the surface to find his son Eli, who descends to Slugterra to pick up his father’s legacy upon his 15th birthday. Eli quickly becomes the audience’s identification character, allowing us to learn about the ins-and-outs of Slugterra as he does.
Assisting Eli are a trio of sidekicks: the diminutive, self-aggrandizing molenoid tracker Pronto, the giant cave troll Kord Zane, and the sassy, self-confident Trixie (who is less a potential romantic foil for Eli as much as she’s a competitive partner, which is a refreshing change of pace). By the second part of the two-part series premiere, the quartet have united to become a new Shane Gang, set to restore law and order to Slugterra and take down Dr. Blakk, whose experiments to transform slugs into monstrous alternate versions called ghouls makes them much more threatening and much less controllable.
The show mixes up classic Westerns with science fiction elements, replacing shooting irons with slug-shooting blasters. The ethnic stereotypes are only slightly updated: Kord is a nice update for the role of the noble savage, but Pronto borders on unduly abrasive as the equivalent to the Mexican comic relief who thinks he’s a lot funnier than he is. Slugterra may not win any major awards for originality because of those Western-inspired elements, but the show is consistently smart and well-written enough that it’s still fun to watch the show unfold even if we have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. Even so, Slugterra manages to surprise every now and then, as when the Shane Gang skip a few steps and confront Dr. Blakk right on his doorstep in episode 3, “The Trade,” or in the revelations of the ghost town story of “Deadweed.”
It helps that the characters are mostly winning (with the occasional exceptions of Eli’s hardheaded overconfidence and a whole lot of things Pronto does), especially the tiny slugs that assist Eli. It’s impressive how the show can create distinctive personalities for each of the many slugs in Eli’s ammo bandolier, especially considering that none of them speak. In fact, the slugs may be even more endearing than the regular cast members, despite getting much less screen time. Eli quickly sets himself apart from the denizens of Slugterra by treating the slugs with respect, and talking to them as a friend rather than a master as is the norm. It certainly takes the edge off the concept of using them as living ammunition when Eli clearly has their best interests at heart, and this also sets him apart from Dr. Blakk and his unnatural exploitation of slugs.
The mechanics of Slugterra make it feel like it should be a cartoon based on a toyline, but it turns out to be the other way around (toys are set to arrive soon, if they’re not on shelves already). Like Kaijudo, Slugterra is a lot less interested in the mechanics of dueling, opting instead to use duels to stage exciting action scenes where half the fun is watching the adorable slugs turn into gigantic monsters. This does lead to some occasional head-scratchers (like how some of the slugs make their way back to their owners after getting shot all the way across a cavern or down a deep, dark mine passage), but the show plays it fast and loose enough that the blips in mechanics are a little easier to ignore. Some of the slug duels run a bit longer than they probably should, but the energy and choreography make them pleasant to look at in any case. The animation is done in cel-shaded CGI, blending the look of classic hand-drawn animation with the benefits in camera maneuverability and depth that CGI provides. It’s quite a handsome looking show, especially when it sends the Shane Gang off to some new, bizarre realm of Slugterra.
Slugterra: Return of the Shane Gang contains five episodes of the show, presented in anamorphic widescreen. Surprisingly, the disc comes with a potent Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that yields extra punch during slug duels. Bonus features include three animated “Slugisodes,” which allow the characters to provide a bit more context to the world and how it works, along with a behind-the-scenes featurette with series creator Asaph Fipke and story editor Rob Hoegee. The featurette is actually a little disappointing, since the pair just spell out what’s observable on-screen and don’t dig too much into behind-the-scenes material or further illuminate anything about the world or their creative process.
Audacity is a quality that ought to be rewarded more often on TV, and Slugterra is audacious enough to make it easier to swallow the more clichéd elements of the show, along with its outlandish concepts. Eli Shane’s hero’s journey may feel a little too familiar, but the events of Slugterra: Return of the Shane Gang throw in just enough twists (the biggest one being the world itself) to keep things from feeling stale.