Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
BD+DVD - Parts 7-8
Things have settled into the new normal for Fiore's rowdiest magician's guild. The old hands are pulling their weight, new additions Wendy and Carla are settling in nicely, and the guild even gets a visit from their long-absent #1-strongest-wizard, Gildarts. This all ends abruptly when a giant swirly thing in the sky sucks the entire town into another dimension, guild with it. Wendy, Natsu, Carla, and Happy are left behind, but they can't leave their comrades in a swirly-sky-thing alone. So they follow. And find themselves in Edolas, an entirely new world populated by doppelgangers of everyone they know. Alternate-world adventure, here we come!
Like most of mangaka Hiro Mashima's arcs, the Edolas arc starts out kind of silly and clichéd and then builds up a head of emotional and narrative steam that blows away all reservations. Or it would, if director Shinji Ishihara and his animation staff weren't so busy being a pair of apathetic albatrosses around Mashima's free-spirited neck.
Edolas is canon, but it begins with a small run of fabricated filler fluff. These are by far the worst episodes here. They wallow in meaningless missions and slack character shtick, and even when they build in some feeling—as they do with some extra Natsu/Lisanna flashbacks—it smells rote and phony. Gildarts arrives to deliver some future plot points, ending the filler run, but things improve only moderately. The first few episodes in Edolas are consumed with the expected roaming and exploring and romping about, joking at the ways the Edolas versions of the guild wizards differ from their Earth-Land counterparts. The comparisons can be pretty amusing—Edo-Lucy is an ass-kicking leader, Edo-Natsu is a vehicle-loving pansy—but otherwise this is not enthralling stuff. The world-exploring is particularly tedious, a sense of wonder and eye for natural beauty most definitely not being part of Ishihara's skill-set.
Once the arc gets in its groove, though, all is forgiven. Or at least mostly forgiven. The arc finds its groove around about when Natsu, Wendy, and Lucy finally reach Edolas's capitol city. They've learned that their guild-mates have been turned into a giant magic crystal, and that that crystal is in the hands of a mad despot who plans to use it to power his kingdom. Once in the capitol, the rescue effort gets underway in earnest, and from there on the arc is an unbroken chain of sudden turnabouts, surprise revelations, rocketing stakes, and plans foiled and counter-foiled, all driving hard towards a final battle with world-altering consequences. No matter how hard Ishihara and his crew try to deaden the project, the excitement, impish unpredictability, and wonderfully weird humor of Mashima's writing shine through.
As does the secret intelligence of his plotting. Particularly well-handled is the story of Happy and Carla, who discover their roots in Edolas and practically run away with the whole show when events force them to question their roles in Natsu and Wendy's lives. Who'd have thought that the arc's emotional lynchpin would turn out to be a prickly little cat and her goofy blue suitor? (Note too the way that Mashima plays genre expectations off of Occam's Razor explanations for the behavior of Carla and Happy's people). Also worthy of mention is Mystogan, whose many mysteries are nicely resolved by the existence of Edolas, as well as Lisanna, who gets the arc's last big punch in.
The problem here (and everywhere) is that Mashima is essentially carrying the show on his own. Instead of treating Fairy Tail with the respect it deserves—with its fine-tuned balance of madcap silliness and brutal brawling, the swift drive of its shifting plot, and its free-ranging fights with their razor-executed excesses and soft emotional underbelly—Ishihara and his co-conspirators treat it as if it's just another lazy, by-the-numbers shonen rip-off. It's not an incomprehensible attitude—before it won me over, I had a similar reaction to Mashima's manga—but it is a horribly damaging one.
In Ishihara's hands, Mashima's characters lose all visual charm: their sharp designs, their oversized 'tudes, their facility for extreme emotion, and, especially, the whack-you-in-the-libido good looks of the female cast—all polished away, leaving only characters who look like every other character in the history of bad shonen anime. Ishihara uses every cheapo shortcut in the book, every simplification of background and character to lighten A-1 Pictures and Satelight's financial load, leaving the series at large looking like every series in the history of bad shonen anime. The animated emoting is cringe-inducing, the animated world utterly generic. Absent quality animation, attention to artistic detail, and any form of working action sense—Ishihara is also an action dullard—the show's all-important battles are limp and forgettable, wholly reliant on the force of the story to give them weight. Yasuharu Takanashi conjures up a score that is uncharacteristically unremarkable, and Ishihara uses it like a jackhammer: screaming guitars sawing through episode after episode, only letting up when the piano and strings come in to pour treacle on the show's quieter scenes.
Ishihara also gums up the pace of Mashima's fleet little adventure, padding out the arc with invented characters, pointless flashbacks, and "fleshed out" roles for incidental players. It's not DBZ-level bloat, but the extra pudge still slows things down and blunts the story's swift, sharp edge. It also throws off the balance of funny and fierce, tipping the show's tone towards a more conventional ponderous seriousness. Poor casting decisions further muck things up—Aya Hirano's dark timbre and self-conscious delivery are a distinctly poor fit for sunny Lucy and Tetsuya Kakihara is a line-screaming earsore as Natsu—as does the cast's merely functional ensemble chemistry.
With chinks like that in the Japanese dub's armor, this is an opportunity for Funimation's dub team to step up and do the original one better. And they do. Kind of. And kind of not. The "kind of" comes in the form of Cherami Leigh's Lucy and Todd Haberkorn's Natsu, both of whom are more relaxed and natural than their Japanese counterparts. The "kind of not" comes in the form Jad Saxton, who while fine is no match for the incomparable Yui Horie as Carla. In a similar balancing of strength with weakness, the supporting cast is great when hamming it up (R. Bruce Elliot's mad King Faust is wonderfully cheesy), but terrible when asked make us feel (pretty much everyone is awkward and self-conscious when attempting tenderness). And keeping up the trend, the script is hearteningly adventurous, at least at times, but where some rewrites are quite clever, others cause the dialogue to run counter to characters' expressions.
These sets include both DVD and Blu-Ray versions (2 discs per format per set). The Blu-Rays' video is noticeably cleaner than the DVDs' but given the show's visuals, it doesn't really matter. For extras we get clean versions of each set's respective OPs and EDs, plenty of trailers, and the usual complement of commentary tracks. For set seven there are commentaries for episodes 74 (with ADR director Tyler Walker, Saxton, and actress Brittney Karbowski) and 79 (with Walker, writer/actor Josh Grelle, and Monica Rial, in her role as head writer for the show). Set eight includes commentaries for episodes 89 (with Walker, Elliot, and actor David Wald) and 96 (with Walker and Haberkorn). They're all pretty standard, except for 96 where Haberkorn turns the tables and grills Walker on his experience with the show.
Not everything Ishihara and his gang do works against the show. The chemistry between Gajeel and his wholly invented Edolas version, for example, is honestly great, and the final battle, while cheaply animated, takes place below a fantastical night sky crowded with ringed satellites and spooky alien moons. That said, enough of what they do is counterproductive that their anime is a lot closer to being a generic waste of shonen space than their deservedly popular source material ever was. Enough of Edolas's fun factor survives to justify the show's continued existence...but only just. And given what could have been, that's a damned shame.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : C-
Art : C-
Music : C-
+ Faithfully presents the plot of one of the manga's sillier but surprisingly intelligent and heartfelt arcs; Happy and Carla can just break your heart.
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