Does the sword still blaze after 35 years? The five lions that form Voltron have converged yet again to form a new series, streaming exclusively on Netflix and produced by DreamWorks Animation Television. Still, this is a franchise that has had a number of missteps–entertaining or not–in America. Is the fourth time the charm?
America really really likes Voltron. The country is largely neutral towards the source series, Go Lion (and apparently couldn’t give a flip about the subsequent “Car Voltron” season), but Voltron has arisen every few years with a new take; fitting for a show about a giant robot that will return from days long ago to save the world. The 1990’s had The Third Dimension, which used the burgeoning technology of 3D graphics to advance the plot past the series. The 2000’s had no new animated adventures, but comic books contemporized it to the point where Robotech crossed over with the franchise last year. 2011 featured Nickelodeon airing Voltron Force, another sequel to the original, which went back to traditional cel animation, but replaced the original cast with all-new youngsters and toy-focused weaponry, lasting only one season. All the while, talks of a live-action movie reinvigoration (no doubt stirred by the cinematic box-office success of the Transformers movies) have come and gone.
What does Voltron Legendary Defender have to offer that the predecessors don’t, and why can’t we leave a series Japan forgot about as soon as it aired in 1981 alone?
Voltron Legendary Defender comes only a few years after the last attempt for an American-made series, and while Voltron Legendary Defender is a wholly-separate enterprise, it still milks the concept of the modular weapons from the original series. Otherwise, this reimagining goes back to beginning of Voltron; a group of young men from Earth, part of the Galaxy Garrison, end up on Planet Arus, where they connect with five robotic lions and combine them to form Voltron, defender of the universe (as long as “the universe” is “Planet Arus”).
While revising the franchise, they’ve made a few advancements that come with 30 years (and more international) norms; Princess Allura is now dark-skinned. It’d be easy to say she’s one ethnicity or another, but since she’s an alien, she’s a dark-skinned woman with light blue hair. Following her characterization in the past, she’s unsure of herself until she has to step up to the plate. With a pedigree that comes from having crew that worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, I also have particular suspicions about Pidge (despite the character referencing “his girlfriend”) that may be a late-season surprise twist. And while the show may feel a little retrograde by having the team consist of five men, the cast now have appropriately-colored hero suits to match their lions, which is something consistent with all the remakes if not the original.
Fans of the original American Voltron series will be forgiven for thinking that the “Welshie” of this series is Shiro, who shows all signs of taking the original pilot Sven’s path: he’s the only one that doesn’t get a unique weapon, he’s the leader with a mysterious backstory and a questionable robotic arm, and he’s the only one who wasn’t in the original show. You can’t help but think he’s not going to survive the first season, or possibly even the pilot episode. When you do your research and find out that Shirogane was the original Japanese name for Sven, pieces come together all too chillingly.
There’s no arguing that the series doesn’t do right by updating the plot and tossing in a few twists (Shiro’s capture, and Pidge’s motivation for fighting, are largely new), but the series does hit many of the same beats of the origin, which wasn’t as iconic as “rocketed from the doomed planet Krypton” or “bitten by a radioactive spider,” so it’s a little disappointing to see them return to that well. Hopefully future episodes will twist and turn it, and these episodes are a soft landing to ease veteran viewers into the franchise.
When Voltron finally forms at the end of the movie, the animation for the combination is on par with some Japanese cartoons, the undeniable masters of the field of putting giant multicolored robots together to make a bigger robot. The CG for the robot is great and the best we’ve seen since the last giant CG robot on American television, Sym-Bionic Titan. Characters frequently fall into the “you could tell someone this is anime” trap that Avatar and Korra ran frequently by, and an expression Pidge makes during a moment of humor an iconic expression from the original series. The voice cast is appropriate and strong, although a few accents on the Arus natives seem a bit forced (thankfully, Shirogane doesn’t sound like the Swedish Chef in this version).
Does the movie work as an update to the franchise? It does, but it really comes off as the “HD Remix” of the franchise, not the new tale that will likely be told over the coming season. Voltron Legendary Defender may become good “Netflix Background Noise,” but this movie didn’t particularly make me want to subscribe to it regularly. Still, it was solid enough that if some twists and changes come in the future, it may garner a more-intent viewing.