Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 27th 2014
Magi - The Kingdom of Magic
Episodes 1-12 Streaming
Having settled into their new life in Sindria, Alibaba's group seems stable and happy. But no matter their bonds, Alibaba and his friends have different goals, and before long they each must go their own way. Aladdin is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding fallen princess Dunya, who he befriends just before she is consumed by the magic used on her. To do so he must travel to the mysterious and dangerous kingdom of magic, Magnostadt. New comrade Hakuryu must return home to deal with the increasingly convoluted politics of the Emperor's court in Kou. Morgiana wants to reconnect with her people on the Dark Continent. And Alibaba has developed a curious issue with his magoi which prevents him from mastering his djinn. If he's to cut the mustard, he has to consult with a tribe of magoi manipulators who work as gladiators in the nation of Reim.
Like its progenitor before it, Kingdom of Magic runs strong and weak. No, wait. That's not quite right. That makes it sound like the show either runs swift and powerful or sloshes sluggardly around. But it's not that clear-cut. There are always good things to be had in Kingdom, and always bad things hanging around with them. Rather than running strong and weak, Kingdom is a show that runs enjoyably, but with omnipresent reservations weighing it down. It's a series that always does just enough wrong to prevent it from taking off the way it should.
If you had to classify the series' opening, you'd classify it as strong. The Sindria episodes are part reintroduction—opening with a party in which some characters run through their usual shtick and others (Morgiana) are allowed to wow us anew—and part canny evolution. The second episode goes about gleefully complicating the characters' established relationships: strengthening Aladdin's independence, building a connection between Morgiana and Hakuryu, establishing a sweet but difficult friendship between Alibaba and Kōgyoku, and touching on the ways each character is affected by the others' changes. There's a romantic tenor to some of the changes that is new (romance wasn't one of season one's priorities), and a touch of angst that isn't, but it's all quite intriguing.
If you had to classify the arc that follows, you'd classify it as weak. Revolving around Alibaba and co.'s encounter with a crew of magically empowered pirate children, it's the kind of disposable detour that shonen adventures frequently use to pad out bigger, more important stories. There's an evil woman who has the children in her thrall, using their maternal love to drive them into criminal behavior. Our heroes show up, a battle ensues, the advantage is swapped a couple of times, and the good guys ultimately win. There's some back-story mixed inelegantly in, and one shocking bit of violence thrown at us, but ultimately it's pretty pedestrian.
Such classification, however, leaves so very much out of the picture. In the "strong" Sindria episodes, Aladdin's determination to strike out on his own is based on his shallow, convenient, and predictably doomed friendship with defeated al Thamen princess Dunya. The show's customary over-use of forced SD gaggery also bogs down the fun parts. In the "weak" pirate episodes Hakuryu gets far more, and better, development than he has any time previous. There are also a couple of scenes, when the powerful Sindrian intruders clash with pirate tots who only want to protect their "mother," that are downright heartbreaking. And then there's the ending, a bitter bit of business that reveals some dark depths to Hakuryu's character and laudably refuses to take the obvious "spell is broken" shortcut to all-around happiness.
So when I say that the episodes following the group's split are probably Kingdom's best (to date), take that as a recommendation with plenty of attendant qualms. It's still a recommendation though; and a reasonably strong one. The next six episodes hop from character to character, from country to country, from continent to continent. They radiate the pure, old-fashioned, world-tripping sense of adventure that is the show's lifeblood, that at its best makes all of Magi's stumbles and annoyances seem petty and unimportant.
Following Aladdin, we are introduced to Magnostadt, where magicians zip around a city of floating magical technology on brooms; where dangerous forces are amassing power and unknowing students learn to harness magical systems and their own magical potential. In Alibaba's company we encounter a seemingly idyllic nation where slavery is common and the masses happily slake their blood-thirst by watching gladiators kill each other in the ring. Morgiana descends into an unthinkable chasm, an enormous black scar in the earth where an affable seer guards the entrance to her people's lands. Hakuryu returns to an opulent palace, where his royal family is embroiled in skullduggery of a byzantine and brutal variety; skullduggery that could easily plunge the world into hellish war—and that does lead to magical combat of a jaw-dropping variety. Rarely has the series' world seemed so expansive; so dangerous; so full of wonder and horror.
But the qualms... They may be obliterated at times, as when Hakuryu finally reunites with his unthinkable mother or whenever we see Morgiana, but they always return. The show has a habit of pushing too hard that is pretty much uniform across all episodes, all moods, and all characters. No matter which way he's emoting, Alibaba always emotes too heavily. Aladdin's bright, happy innocence shines from his omnipresent childlike grin until it ceases to be remotely plausible. The pirate “mother”'s ultimate patheticness is so overdone that it's downright embarrassing. Hakuryu's transformation into one of those patented anime "dark heroes" is overwrought to the point that he ceases to be cool and becomes angstily annoying.
The cast comes out of these episodes half-better and half-worse. Softened by glimpses of her romantic naiveté and suitably powered-up after her training on Sindria, Morgiana is pretty much totally awesome, and despite his Dark Hero annoyances, Hakuryu is interestingly complicated, but Alibaba comes across as a slightly weepy goody-two-shoes and Aladdin has yet to gain any real depth or texture.
We could go on like this forever, listing qualities that elevate the series and counterpoints that drag it down. The pattern extends right into the show's presentation. Characters look good—especially Morgiana, with her believably strong build, and Hakuryu, with his intense fire-scarred eyes—but they're often sloppily or inconsistently rendered when moving and emoting. Magnostadt and Kou are magnificently imagined and illustrated, but incidental towns and natural environs are often generic or simplistic. Pivotal sequences are beautifully assembled (most memorably during the infiltration of the pirate island, when Morgiana literally hurls the invading party in one by one) but lesser scenes almost seem bored with themselves. The score is supportive but (a few scattered themes aside) amnesia-inducing.
So how does all that seesawing pan out? With the seesaw tipped pretty definitively towards the good. Kingdom is undeniably entertaining. It would only need Morgiana to be worth watching, and it has that old-school sense of adventure to keep it going when she's not around. Not to mention some surprisingly complex politicking and a growing sense that the show is building—through the maneuvering of Magnostadt and the rumbling civil unrest in Kou—towards something quite mythic in scope and scale. But beware. For every moment that leaves you gasping, for every emotion that cuts deep and every development that whets your appetite for more, there's going to be something that cools your ardor or leaves your eyes a-rolling.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : C+
+ That old-fashioned sense of adventure; really gets out and explores its world; Morgiana is, if anything, even greater than before.
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