Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 13th 2011
Blu-Ray + DVD - Combo Pack Part 1
In the Fiore kingdom, magic is a fact of life, and nowhere is that magic more powerful than among the wizards of the Fairy Tail guild—so powerful, in fact, that they're also notorious for the collateral damage they cause. Among Fairy Tail's best and brightest is fire wizard Natsu, who gets himself a trusty new teammate when a celestial magic-user named Lucy joins the guild. Their first couple of missions are easy enough—finding a missing person, retrieving an important book—but the challenges quickly mount when a dark guild threatens to take down the entire governing council of wizards. For that, they'll need the help of ice-user Gray and weapons expert Erza, even though getting along with such strong-willed individuals is no easy task. And when a super-high-difficulty quest crops up, will a dark secret from Gray's past lead to his downfall?
Fairy Tail, in its first twelve episodes, takes very few risks. Not only does it adhere to the source manga, but the manga itself sticks to the safest, most reliable aspects of shonen fantasy. The early part of the series focuses on world-building—the feeling of what it's like to be a daring, bounty-hunting wizard—rather than dealing in any wicked plot twists yet. There are still plenty of flashy fights, dramatic speeches, and earth-shattering explosions, but at this stage they simply lay the foundations of what will come later.
As expected, the very earliest episodes are quick outings designed to introduce the characters and their abilities. There's little time for deep, soul-searching exploration, and even lead characters Natsu and Lucy get a quick "he uses fire; she summons constellations" before they're off using their powers in the wild. Nonetheless, there already hints of the series' deeper side—the first two missions both involve relationships between fathers and sons, showing that there's a heart behind all these escapades.
The first serious story arc comes when the dark guild Eisenwald emerges from the shadows, threatening to take innocent lives. (There we go again with the safe, familiar ideas.) For those who simply enjoy being taken on a ride, it's entertaining enough—our heroes explore distant towns and fight tough new opponents, while the addition of Gray and Erza to the team results in more powers and character relationships on display. However, the pacing takes a negative hit as each defeated enemy in the Eisenwald saga leads to a new one popping up in its place—an escalator of endless villains that only leaves viewers exhausted and thankful when the arc is over.
As the story expands, there are also clumsy moments of exposition that try to explain the science or politics of magic—parts that are often handed off to a nameless, faceless narrator, or to a character who happens to have a cute diagram handy. But no matter what the solution, they still feel contrived and end up disrupting the adventure. Other disruptions come in the form of cheesy humor, where the same few jokes (Natsu's motion-sickness issues, Gray's shirtless tendencies) end up being run into the ground.
The last two episodes on the disc show what the series can potentially be, with an "S-class quest" (read: suicide mission) that forces Gray to confront friends and foes from his past. These character revelations show that the series is ready to take a dramatic turn—graduating from basic rough-and-tumble adventures to serious, high-stakes battle—but fans will have to wait until Volume 2 for that payoff.
Fairy Tail's textbook adherence to shonen traits is also clear to see in the visuals, where the bright colors and bold lines are instantly eye-catching, and distinctive character designs make it impossible to confuse any two characters in the series. This is even more evident when Lucy summons her celestial warriors and we get comical supporting players like Cancer the hairdressing crab and Taurus the overly amorous bull. But even the wildest color schemes and most outrageous characters can't overcome technical limitations in the animation: too often, the action freezes in place while the camera pans over a static image, or (as a slight improvement) a character strikes a dynamic pose while the background sweeps behind him or her. Even worse is the computer-generated garbage that comes out when combatants try to cast spells: everyone shoots the same generic magic circles from their hands, and elemental effects like Natsu's fire are clearly the result of second-rate CGI tricks.
Background music also falls victim to cheap production values here, where the same few synthesized tracks are used over and over. Although the soundtrack manages a couple of heart-stirring melodies during moments of poignancy, those are more the exception than the rule. Even Natsu's most dramatic battles end up being scored to repetitive hard-rock instrumentals, proving that there are indeed ways to make the most intense guitar-shredding and drumming sound boring. Mid-tempo pop-rock songs take the safest route out as far as opening and ending themes go.
Fortunately, the voice acting is more spirited than the music—with a lead character as pumped-up as Natsu, it's hard not to get caught up in his energy. On the English dub, Todd Haberkorn delivers an all-star performance as the fire wizard, and the rest of the cast puts in plenty of emotion as the script runs the range from cheerful to serious to (in Episodes 11 and 12) downright angry. Even mascot character Happy (Tia Ballard) is an entertaining diversion, proving that animal sidekicks can be fun to listen to and not just a necessary annoyance. The dubbed script takes various liberties from the original translation, but keeps the meaning intact—most of the changes are there to fit the pace of spoken English better, or during comedy moments, ad-libs to add more humor.
The extras in this Blu-ray/DVD package meet the minimum expectation: commentary tracks from the English cast, clean opening and closing credits, and a reversible cover for the case. It would have been nice if the commentaries spanned all the episodes—as it is, only Episodes 1 and 9 are featured—but hearing the cast talk about the dubbing process, as well as commenting on the show, still proves to be fun and informative.
For tried-and-true shonen adventure, Fairy Tail is about as reliable as they come, which is both a blessing and a curse. Those who simply want to explore a brand-new fantasy world and get caught up in the thrill of magical combat will find exactly what they want here, with at least one grand, multi-episode story arc in the middle of things. But that arc ends up dragging its feet toward the end, and those expecting a deeper exploration of the main characters will have to wait until next volume. The animation quality may also leave viewers wondering how such a lively adventure could be so visually lethargic, with lots of stiff animation and CGI shortcuts bogging things down. At this point, Fairy Tail is good enough—but one can't help but think of the many ways it could be made better.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : D
Art : B
Music : C-
+ Captures the thrill of adventure with lively, distinctive characters and high-spirited magical battles.
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