Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 8th 2014
Magi - The Kingdom of Magic
Episodes 13-25 Streaming
Aladdin in Magnostadt. Alibaba in Reim. Morgiana in a nameless rift on the Dark Continent. The friends are scattered, each on their own journey. But Magnostadt brings them back together, violently, unpredictably. The more Aladdin learns about Magnostadt and its headmaster Mogamett, the messier they get. Mogamett is a complicated man, his fledgling nation a contradictory place. But one thing is certain. Something black and terrifying is brewing deep within them. It's one of Aladdin's new friends—a mysterious boy magician, sent by the magi of Reim to scope out the Academy—who sets events in motion. Events that bring the brewing darkness to a boil. Events that shake the world to its foundation.
Apparently it's Magi's way to begin a series slowly, a little meanderingly, and then run roaring to the finish in its final half. And apparently the show's learning to roar better with each season. Season one's finish had its hitches, its breaks. There are no such stumbles this time. When Kingdom gets off the starting blocks, there's no stopping it. It sprints tirelessly through each escalating tier of its eight-episode final battle, straight to its downright apocalyptic conclusion.
It does take a couple of episodes to get properly set though. These are the episodes where Titus—Aladdin's Reim friend—gets introduced, the episodes where the pair (with earlier friend Sphintus) explore Magnostadt and feel out Mogamett. This is groundwork of a fairly blatant sort, with a focus on fleshing out Aladdin's surroundings and cementing the cast of players for upcoming events. It's interesting groundwork however, with a highly effective tragic edge and a moral complexity that comes from keeping its magical conceits nicely grounded in messy human reality.
Naturally the glossy, idyllic surface of Magnostadt hides some ugly truths, most of them dealing with the enslaved populace of unwashed muggles kept underground as a kind of collective magical battery for the technology that runs the city. The show isn't shy about how unpleasant that little fact is—it gets the most mileage out of Titus's instant bond with a sickly tyke named Marga, who is at one point thrown into a bottomless pit because she's no longer useful as a source of siphoned magic—but it isn't simplistic about it either. The underground dwellers aren't noble sufferers, nor their oppressors evil monsters. Mogamett created his bigoted society after being cruelly used by greedy human elites, and many of his non-magical victims live in a kind of nasty, desperate hedonism—trading their freedom and their magic for work-free lives and unlimited supplies of booze and nookie.
That ambivalence, that unwillingness to deny the humanity of villain or hero, that ability to inject sound complexities into potentially unsound tropes, is characteristic of the show—or at least this part of it. Mogamett is a primary antagonist, but he has eminently sympathetic reasons for acting as he does, and genuinely loves Aladdin and Titus and his other magical charges, while simultaneously displaying a terrifying callousness towards the non-magical populace. Titus and Marga's relationship, a potentially transparent device to put a human face on the plight of the muggle underclass, is given depth and heart-stabbing power by Titus's back-story, which makes aching sense of his devotion to the moppet while also turning their relationship into the tragedian's heart of the unfolding plot.
They are also the trigger, the starting gun whose shot gets the show off the starting blocks and charging full-force ahead. Without giving too much away, Mogamett's love of his students—Titus included—and Titus's tangled feelings about his own fate and how it has gotten intertwined with Marga's work together to launch an all-out war between Magnostadt and Reim. And with that, Kingdom is off. The war escalates mercilessly, without pause for breath or backward glance. We are used to shonen shows giving us room to decompress with flashbacks and training and whatnot. Kingdom allows no such luxury. Crisis builds on crisis, stakes rise steeply, and each triumph is but the prelude to a more awful threat. Aladdin and his comrades must reach deeper and scale up with each new development, their alliances growing more unusual, more desperate, previous threats becoming new partners as new enemies dwarf old conflicts. Reim gives way to Kou gives way to Magnostadt's secret weapon gives way to... something truly unholy. Put simply, it's a beautifully orchestrated, ruthlessly accelerating, unmitigated thrill—from the moment Mogamett declares war on Reim to the last throes of the evil that their war awakens. A big stampeding thrill, still grounded in those messy human realities. After the big spells have been sheathed, the doomsday devices stilled, the ravaged earth left to bubble and smoke, the true final battle is waged within the hate-ravaged soul of an essentially good man.
Epic conflict calls for epic spectacle, and Koji Masunari and A-1 Pictures oblige. Kingdom's earlier stages were punctuated by discrete, memorably-constructed flourishes; this stage is basically one giant flourish. An army of sand giants roars and launches rockets of flame at a fleet of ships; dirigibles drop bombs on a city-wide force-field; Fanalis warriors destroy an armored legion with their bare hands; djinn-equipped leaders, each elaborately armored and with their own patented magic, battle waves of yellow-eyed shadow-giants. A black glob of hands leaks down from a hole in the sky, tugged onward by an eerily clumsy behemoth with an exploding tree of appendages for a head. Finger-tipped tentacles streak after jet-propelled warriors like fleshy missiles, stripping meat from bone when they catch up. The budget is definitely TV-sized—there are plenty of corners cut, images recycled, and stills used—but the imagery transcends all limitations. (As for cuteness, Marga could slay a Grinch at fifty yards. There's no question why she transforms Titus's life.)
Shiro Sagisu's score also steps up its game, delivering haunting vocals and unnatural chants to support the show's increasingly otherworldly spectacle. I've had my reservations about Sagisu's work here, but I am now officially sold.
Kingdom is not some masterpiece. Don't make that mistake. As with Labyrinth before it, it's a scrappy over-achiever; a magical adventure with smarts and heart and thrills enough to make its spottier stretches wholly forgivable. Even in the midst of its final heedless charge, niggling problems persist: those sloppy, happy smiles that everyone keeps shooting about; Aladdin and Alibaba's continuing lack of compelling development; an unforgivable dearth of Morgiana. But niggles are niggles; by nature they are easily ignored when more pleasant sensations are in abundance. And they are most abundant.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Breathless, unstoppable final act; plenty of show-stopping fantasy spectacle; interesting ideas, well-built social conflicts, and appropriately big emotions.
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