While animation has existed since the early days of cinema (and some could argue even before), it was in the 1980s that animated cartoons came into their own as a major consumer product. Saturday morning line-ups or after school blocks would pack in hours of cartoons and commercials with the strategy of convincing kids to beg their parents to buy the latest sugary cereal or newest toy. As demand for more cartoons increased, companies looked to Japan for animated programs which could be redubbed (and often heavily edited) for North American audiences. Space Battleship Yamato became Star Blazers, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman became Battle of the Planets, and Beast King GoLion became Voltron: Defender of the Universe.
For many of these cartoons there remains a heady nostalgia, making the properties ripe for a return. It isn't at all surprising, therefore, that Netflix's newest animated venture, in partnership with DreamWorks Animation, is an updated version of the classic Voltron series - Voltron: Legendary Defender. No longer simply an American bowdlerization of an original Japanese program, Voltron: Legendary Defender is a new animated series from executive producers Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos - a pair probably best known for their work on the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender and its follow-up, The Legend of Korra. Legendary Defender borrows heavily from the animated Avatar playbook, with that series' influence cropping up in everything from the character design to the blend of action and humor.
Voltron: Legendary Defender's roughly 70 minute premiere, "The Rise of Voltron", moves along at a brisk pace, quickly establishing the ensemble of teens who later become the pilots of Voltron's five lions: Keith (Steven Yeun), pilot of the Red Lion, Lance (Jeremy Shada), pilot of the Blue Lion, Hunk (Tyler Labine), Yellow Lion, Pidge (Bex Taylor-Klaus), Green Lion, and their leader, Shiro (Josh Keaton) in the Black Lion. Already, those well-versed in the original Voltron cartoon may notice some variations in that line up, but for the most part, Voltron: Legendary Defender sticks fairly close to the original's premise.
The premiere contains an almost ridiculous amount of exposition, serving both to remind older viewers and bring those new to the concept up to speed. Thankfully, the episode never feels bogged down by such information dumps, managing to find organic ways to explain whatever it is the audience needs to know; and usually through some charming exchanges where these young men are just as baffled as anyone by giant, flying, robot lions that seem to be beckoning to them. This works so well largely thanks to the easy camaraderie established between Lance, Hunk, and Pidge early on, as well as the rivalry between Lance and Keith, and the clear bond between Keith and Shiro. For fans of Avatar/Korra, this kind of rapport between the characters should feel familiar, as it was what formed much of the appeal for those series.
Joining the universe's newest defenders on their adventure are Princess Allura (Kimberly Brooks), ruler of the Kingdom of Arus, where Voltron was created, and her advisor Coran (Rhys Darby). For her part, Allura serves primarily as a resource for the pilots, sharing the vital information they need to locate their lions and eventually form Voltron. It is perhaps a little disappointing that a cartoon in 2016 hasn't devised a more proactive role for her, but she is at least no damsel, and there are still episodes to come which may develop her further. Darby's Coran, however, is downright hilarious, and as long as he doesn't become too overused, he should prove a nice change from the original's interpretation.
From a design standpoint, Voltron: Legendary Defender is a sleek and modern update of the original, from the characters, their uniforms, the lions, and Voltron itself. Again, the Avatar influence is strong, especially whenever a scene is more comedic (with exaggerated expressions and motions), but there are shades of Young Justice in here, too. The action sequences are just spectacular, playing up the agility and grace of the lions and the tremendous power of Voltron's combined form. And yes, we do get to see the big guy within the span of the premiere, complete with a great looking combination sequence - though only after a few, very funny attempts at forcing the combination to happen.
That humor is perhaps the most refreshing part of Voltron: Legendary Defender, making these characters come across as fully realized as opposed to two-dimensional caricatures (the "leader", the "funny one", or the "smart kid"). Not to suggest the original series was excessively somber or serious, but it's the scenes where characters are kidding with each other, arguing like old friends, or even sharing in a few of the premiere's more heartfelt and emotional moments that make the Legendary Defender so enjoyable and more approachable for new viewers.
Though the premiere covers a lot of territory, taking us all the way from the discovery of the first lion to Voltron's reemergence, it also includes a couple of lingering mysteries for the series to explore. There's an opening flashback in where Shiro and a crew of astronauts are abducted during an exploration mission, resulting in Shiro spending time as a prisoner of King Zarkon (the series' primary villain, voiced by Neil Kaplan). That experience has left its mark on Shiro - literally, in the case of the scar across his face - but other members of Team Voltron also suffered as a result. What really happened while Shiro was imprisoned is repeatedly hinted at, but never fully explained, making it an intriguing point for to explore later on.
In its first episode, Voltron: Legendary Defenders firmly establishes the world wherein this new adventure takes places, "getting the band together" in an efficient manner and setting the tone for this new iteration. It isn't trying to reinvent or really improve on the original conceit of Voltron, but Legendary Defender is certainly a welcome take on this classic cartoon; one that should appeal to fans both new and old.
Voltron: Legendary Defender season 1 is now available to stream on Netflix.
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