Voltron: Legendary Defender is so much fun.
Rachael and I have had an ongoing conversation for the past week about the difference in things that appeal to us and why it is that I seem not to be perpetually jaded by sequels and reboots the way she is. Besides the obvious conclusion that I am a straight white guy in my thirties, and therefore the target audience for everything (this is entirely true, and I am never going to dispute it), we came to the conclusion that a big part of the difference is because of our tastes in media. Rachael’s a voracious reader, and has consumed way more written, non-visual fiction than I ever will, while I love me some fancy visuals, hence my preference for television and comics (we’re about even on love of movies, though I’m definitely much more easily sold on bread-and-butter blockbuster fare). These tastes mean that over time we’ve become more educated about our knowledge of the media that we enjoy, so where I can geek out over a pseudo-anime cartoon series that’s based on a Western bowdlerization of an actual anime, Rachael just sees a nondescript kids’ show about dudes and explosions in space; conversely, Rachael reads a lot of stuff that she tells me is brilliant and amazing for what it does with plot and structural conventions, and I’m like “It’s a fine story.”
The point is that I am acknowledging up front that everything about Voltron: Legendary Defender is really conventional, from its overwhelmingly male cast (they upped the number of regular female characters from two to three in this reboot) to its by-the-book adventure plot, to its season finale which (of course) involves the princess being captured by the villain so that the heroes need to go save her. On a meta level, it’s absolutely necessary to point out these flaws and ask the creators to improve in subsequent seasons and creative works; it would be irresponsible for me to diminish these things even though they don’t hamper my enjoyment of the show. Having said that, there’s so much that’s charming about this series.
The animation, which is in the same anime style as other Western cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra (this is no coincidence; Korra‘s showrunners also produced the first season of Voltron: Legendary Defender), is incredibly fluid and engaging. Action sequences are highly kinetic, with minimal use of still frames laid over motion lines, and the inset shots of the pilots inside their lions (a callback to one of the staples of the original cartoon) are used to great effect to help communicate drama and humor when just the CG robot models feel a little flat (my one complaint with the CG style of animation used for the robots is that it’s extremely rigid, which gives an unintentionally hilarious sense that machines in this universe are super durable right up until the point where they explode). Contrary to the style of ’80s anime that was built around cost-saving with tons of recycled footage (the only thing Legendary Defender apparently recycles is the forming Voltron sequence, which is more of a tradition of the series’s giant robot roots than a capitulation to cost-saving measures), every scene feels like it was fully invested with the resources needed to make it look as good as possible. It’s not Disney feature film quality, but everything about this show looks really good.
Where the plot does feel rote at times, what I find makes it stand out is the careful injection of humor to draw attention to the fact that this is supposed to be a fun story instead of an overly serious one. The first time the team forms Voltron (accidentally, in the middle of a fight), one of them, Hunk, declares with awe and pride, “I’m a leg!” That’s goofy enough, while still being in line with Hunk’s initial characterization as a caring but somewhat hapless and cowardly guy. What makes it so endearing is that in the next episode, there’s a callback to this throwaway gag when the team is trying to form Voltron on purpose, and Hunk says he thinks he made the head. Another pilot, Lance, says to him, “How did you forget? You literally said last time, ‘I’m a leg!'”
I admit that I giggled uncontrollably.
Beyond the humor, there are also endearing touches like the fact that the series makes a point of showing other alien races that are being oppressed by the Galra Empire; in space opera, it’s all too common to focus only on the humanoid players (looking at you, Star Wars) without imagining larger species diversity (also, this does away with the uncomfortable legacy of the original series where the evil aliens weren’t human while all the heroes were). Though Princess Allura gets damseled in the season’s climax, she’s an otherwise competent character who acts as the team’s commander from her base. Pidge, who in the original series was mostly just the token child character, gets gender flipped here and given an interesting backstory where she’s looking to rescue her missing father and brother.
The season’s finale ends with a cliffhanger that reveals a few really interesting plot points and the potential for a new status quo, which is always nice to see in a genre like children’s adventure shows that tend to rely on being as static as possible. Really, the entire season is constructed to feel like the situation is constantly evolving with several interlocking plot arcs that never really rest on a settled position (the monster of the week format that the original Voltron relied on so heavily only gets evoked twice here, with most of the episodes involving problems that actually don’t rely on forming Voltron and blowing a giant monster up). It’s a really refreshing way to format a children’s series, and it’s enhanced by the season’s brevity (to contrast, Avatar: The Last Airbender adheres to a more traditional twenty episodes per season, and the extra length leads to more than a few filler episodes).
So, if you like giant robot cartoons, then you can do a lot worse than Voltron: Legendary Defender.