Lions were found and heads were formed when Voltron returned to TV this month with the arrival of Dreamworks' reboot, Legendary Defender, on Netflix. Even if you were never a fan of the classic cartoon, it's well worth a binge-watch, but there are still a few bugs in this debut season. Here's what worked and what didn't.
It's perhaps no surprise that a show animated by Studio Mir -- the team that made Legend of Korra one of the most gorgeous animated series in recent memory -- continues to nail the frenetic action required by a mecha series like Voltron and keeps it looking spectacular.
We got a brief taste of this with a highlight reel shown at Wonder Con recently, but the full show delivers some truly outstanding battle sequences -- and surprisingly not all of them actually involve the Paladins going into battle as Voltron. The mecha combat adds a great, cel-shaded look to the CG that doesn't stick out from the 2D animation, and it looks brilliant (the finale is essentially one long sequence of Voltron engaging the Galra Fleet, and it's outstanding). But there's several fights on-foot that shows just how Studio Mir put its Korra legacy to work into Legendary Defender, and it makes for some glorious moments.
They're the absolute highlight of the show's visuals, which themselves are a great balance between anime influences and Western stylisation that befits Voltron's own legacy as a Westernised take on the Japanese mech series GoLion.
The Fine Line Between New and Old
Speaking of which, while Legendary Defender does a lot to echo the original Voltron -- and even beyond that to the original Japanese anime GoLion -- by bringing back elements Voltron changed from the original anime, it is not beholden to being a direct reimagining of the original show.
The fanservicey elements for older viewers are there -- indeed, "And I'll form the Head!" is ironically invoked at one point. But Legendary Defender is more than happy to go and do its own thing, twisting and poking at the traditional conventions of an action series like this that firmly places the story and evolution of the lead characters at hits heart rather than whatever monster of the week (can you still have those when Netflix dumps every episode in one go?) they're fighting.
The fan-quivering moments still hit hard, like the first time the pilots use Voltron's blazing sword, but Legendary Voltron isn't content with being an homage, resting on the nostalgic laurels of what came before. Over its 13 episodes it strives to be an evolution of what Voltron can be, and has a lot of fun on that journey.
The Serialised Storytelling
Legendary Defender does not take the traditional path of being a string of individual plots that we venture through from episode to episode. Like many Netflix shows, it feels more like a singular plot that's been broken down into episodes, perfect for the streaming service's format. It's not always perfect, but it works not just to serve up a real character-based journey for the main heroes, but also to defy the tropes one would expect from a typical mecha action series like this.
Not every episode is "discover the monster, form Voltron, fight the monster, win" with a different Robeast and setting each time. In fact, elements like that come sparingly. Even Voltron itself isn't always deployed (although it's not scarce enough that you start to be annoyed by it), and a sparing use of the villainous Robeasts makes every time they do show up a dangerous event and a worthy challenge for the team to overcome. It's measured in a way few action-oriented animation series are, and it makes for a much more enjoyable show.
The Paladins' Journey
Although the five main pilots, dubbed 'Paladins', begin as largely blank archetypes -- you've got your tough leader (Shiro), the cocky ace (Keith), the tech expert (Pidge), the Joker (Lance) and the lovable burly guy who loves snacks (Hank) -- one of the best strengths of Legendary Defender is how it begins to slowly pull back the curtains on each of its heroes, and gives them some real growth both as individuals and as a team over the course of the series.
Some don't get as much of a spotlight as the others (Keith and Lance in particular don't grow that much, although their jealous rivalry matures into more of a friendly banter by the end of the season), but what's there lays some really interesting groundwork for the show to pick up on in its second season. As the leader, Shiro definitely gets the bulk of it, setting up a mystery surrounding his past imprisonment by the Galra and his strange connection to them. But the team doesn't feel like they're the same group of characters we meet in the opening episode by the time you're heading into the finale. They're stronger, more determined, closer-knit. You don't always get to see that in shows like this, and it will be great to see how their bonds and backstories emerge in future seasons.
The Lighter Tone
I must admit -- I was a little taken aback at how goofy Legendary Defender played itself off as in its first trailers. The show, on the whole, keeps that jokiness up a lot, even in its heavier story moments. But it never feels overbearing, or quite to the point that you start thinking, "Oh wait, this is a kid's show, that's why it's like this."
If anything, the silliness not only reflects the bond between the team, and it's refreshing to see a reboot that doesn't simply take its premise and make it darker and grittier, even for a cartoon. The japes the Paladins get up to in their downtime, if anything, serve to make the moments where the story gets real all the more potent. Legendary Defender certainly works hard, but it plays hard, too.
The Female Character(s)
One perceived concern in the run up to Legendary Defender was that, thanks to sticking so closely to the original Voltron's premise, there's a distinct lack of female protagonists. Additionally, there were worries that Allura's role would be relegated to little more than "princess in distress" until she is forced by circumstance to become one of the lion's pilots. But instead Legendary Defender delivers a few twists that not only gives us more female heroes than we expected going in, but makes them standouts of the series.
Allura, at first, is indeed a typical sort of princess, and although she doesn't become a pilot in this season, she's still essentially the leader of the team, even though Shiro is Voltron's main pilot. Like the Paladins, she goes on a journey about learning to be sure of herself and take charge of a situation she never expected in, but hers is one laced with tragedy.
For the bulk of the series, Allura has not just her adviser Coran, but an AI of her deceased father controlling her ship, the Castle. But in the quiet, almost action-less and incredibly emotional ninth episode of the season, she's forced to delete the AI after it's corrupted, eradicating her father's memory and her one true rock in the fight against the Galra. It's beautifully done and a highlight of the entire series, but it also frees Allura to throw herself into the fight as the Paladin's commander, and sets up a fantastic potential for her growth in the second season.
The actual surprise comes with the other female character, in a revelation that not every Paladin is a guy as they were in the original Voltron. Pidge is in fact actually a young girl named Katie, who disguised herself as male in order to investigate the death of her father and brother.
The twist brings in some welcome diversity to the team, and is delicately handled; although there's no solid implication about Pidge's gender identity one way or the other, the scene where she finally reveals herself to her fellow Paladins, and is accepted, could easily be read with an LGBTQ eye -- but above all, at no point does Pidge feel like she's a "token" addition to the team. She's as capable, perhaps even more so in some moments, as her allies. Girls can pilot giant space robot lions, too!
We Didn't Love...
The Early Pacing
While the serialised nature of Legendary Defender largely works in its favour, it certainly takes its sweet time going in its earliest stages. Even with the first three episodes of the series lumped together as a single, 60+ minute special opening, the Paladins don't actually really start getting to explore the cosmos until the half-way point of the season. It's a damn shame, especially with only a handful of episodes to work with in this first season -- but this will hopefully not be a problem in future seasons, now that the show has really kicked off.
The Underdeveloped Villains
Likewise because of the the show's initial pacing, the faces of the big bad Galra empire -- Zarkon and Haggar -- barely feel impactful when they do show up. Unlike the heroes, they're rote and one-dimensionally evil. Although there's a handful of moments where they actually become a clear, dangerous threat to the Paladins, and Zarkon himself definitely gets to show off a bunch in the final episode, it feels like too little, too late. As good as it is to spend time fleshing out our heroes, the Galra definitely need some time to themselves in the future.
That Frustrating Cliffhanger Ending
It's a bit cliché sometimes to say that "the only problem is that there's not more of it", but man, Legendary Defender needed more than 13 episodes in its first season. Not only because it is a largely excellent show, but also because the way it ends is so abrupt, it's a real black mark on the first season.
The climax -- in which the Paladins are sucked up by random space portals that leave them cut off from each other and dumped in various locations -- both feels like a disappointing move in the wake of the heroes' evolution as a team, and like it comes completely out of nowhere. There's practically no set up to the moment, and the credits promptly roll. Confused, I even had to double check that I hadn't somehow missed a "part two" in the series playlist.
Tonally jarring and badly handled (especially as there's yet to be confirmation of a second season, or when it might potentially be released), it's nothing but a detriment to an otherwise impressive first season. While the premise it sets up could build into something interesting in future episodes, for now it simply has me yearning for more episodes -- and not just in a positive manner.