Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Apr 20th 2012
Familiar of Zero F
Episodes 7-12 Streaming
During a melee outside of his new residence, Saito and buxom half-elf Tiffania are kidnapped by a group of elves. Spirited back to the elves' homeland, they are put on trial for their links to Void magic, which the elves blame for their near-destruction six thousand years ago. Afterwards an enormous, evil beast known as the Ancient Dragon rises from a volcano and burns a swath of destruction on its way to Romalia. The Pope enlists the aid of Saito and Louise. The Pope wants Saito to use a power that Louise knows will kill him. Louise is terrified by the prospect and decides that Saito will survive at any cost, even if means fighting the dragon alone. Even if it means they can never meet again.
You've got to end well. A good ending forgives a lot of flaws. And boy, does The Familiar of Zero have flaws. But boy, does it end well.
The first of the problems with this season is the length of its story arcs. They're about three episodes long, usually fairly involved, and generally self-contained. Which means they start too fast, proceed too quickly, and stop too suddenly. The plot gets compressed like a deflated accordion and usually finishes too simply and unsatisfactorily. We saw that in the first half, and both of these arcs bear the observation out. The elf arc crams a kidnapping, a millennia-long grudge, several convenient magical developments and even a fantasy-styled riff on racism into two episodes before ending with a whimper. The final arc's bad guy literally pops out of the ground at the beginning of the arc, allowing it to fulfill arc one's "void mages preventing the end of the world" prophecy in three too-short episodes. The whole business feels more than a little rushed and very arbitrary.
The second flaw is Saito and Louise's romance. Not that their romance is flawed; indeed it's the only reason that this increasingly harem-centered, increasingly patchwork-y series is still worth watching. The problem is that there isn't enough of it. At least not for the first three episodes. The elf arc is devoted pretty much entirely to Tiffania and her feelings for Saito, with some inter-racial intrigue thrown in to fill things out. The purpose is to get Saito's wandering lips on top of Tiffania's, as it's a plot point that is crucial to the next arc. Which means the elf part of these episodes is doubly damned: not only does it have Saito doing some light cheating, but it by definition has little to no Saito and Louise action. And that makes it one big waste of time.
To some extent, the series is aware of that. That's probably why, right when we're about to give the series up for lost, it throws in one of Saito and Louise's patented moments of tenderness/lust. At which point we're hooked for the duration. (Though the scene does beg the question of why a guy so head-over-heels in love is so prone to kissing and groping other women. Perhaps he's just chronically horny.) And a good thing too. The final arc is as crowded and abrupt as any this season, but it's also overflowing with Saito and Louise goodness. Which automatically makes it the best thing Zero F ever did.
The battle against the Ancient Dragon quickly becomes a delightfully sentimental contest of mutual self-sacrifice between Saito and Louise. Tears flow, hearts are broken, barriers of time and space are breached, and the whole thing ends in the absolute best way that it reasonably could. It's so satisfying that it even excuses the elf arc: After all, without the two plot points that the elf material was cobbled together to deliver—a new spell for Louise and a double-edged power for Saito—the gooey goodness of the final arc wouldn't have been possible.
The Ancient Dragon's rampage gives the series a chance here to show off its action chops, and a lot of what's on show isn't very impressive. Most of the action has a base level of competence—it's good enough to get the pulse going when it needs to go—and a few individual scenes stick out, particularly the fate of the Pope and Saito's first defeat at the hands (mouth?) of the dragon. The dragon itself is suitably impressive, particularly when its black CG miasma is obscuring most of it, turning it into a vague mountainous menace. When fleets of airships bombard the dragon (with some interesting technological assistance from Earth), the result is as close to epic as the series ever gets.
But just as much of the action ends up looking pretty cheesy, thanks to a lot of obvious shortcuts and the cheapo animation used during the side-action. The scenes of magicians blasting frenzied dragons are particularly poor, some of them laughably so. And while frighteningly monumental in close-ups, full body shots of the Ancient Dragon make it look like a giant stone ape. That flies.
The series' greater geographical range also gives the series a chance to show off its background art, with similar results. Some of it is pretty cool—particularly the lava wasteland from which the Ancient Dragon emerges and the flaming towns it leaves in its wake. Some of it is reasonably pretty, for instance the oasis that the elves keep Saito and Tiffania at prior to their trial. And a lot of it is blandly forgettable: the canyon one battle takes place in, most of Tristain, the budget-friendly desert of the elven lands at large. Ditto the airships and most of the fantasy technology and even the magic, which never really moves beyond basic fantasy elemental magicks: flames, ice electricity—you know the drill. And ditto the score, which waxes pretty on occasion but generally just does its job and gets out of the way.
No, Zero's artistic strength has been and always will be its characters. Perhaps more so now than ever. Louise gets more mature and appealing, both in design and in personality, the longer the series runs. Queen Henrietta gets a great moment as she leads her aerial troops decked out in appropriately queenly armor. Everyone looks great here, even Saito, who has gained a subtle manliness that quite becomes him. The series' action instincts may be spotty, but it knows how to use its characters and their designs: be it for classic fan-service—which it understands is best when glimpsed "accidentally" or at least when something is left to the imagination—or for fan-service of the more relational or emotional variety.
Or for all of them at once. Saito and Louise's romantic encounters often balance blushing innocence, teen insecurity, and frank desire with guilty-making skill. That Zero F's final episodes offer so many opportunities to enjoy that balance, along with a genuine A-grade, no-sequels ending, is what makes this a strong finish, even if the show itself has some very large weaknesses.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Saito and Louise take the spotlight for a strong, sweet, occasionally emotional final arc; great romantic material.
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