Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 25th 2009
Sugar: A Little Snow Fairy
DVD 1 - Collection 1
Saga Bergman is a young girl living an idyllic life in a small European town. That's all about to change, however, when she encounters a mysterious little creature and decides to take it home. "It" is a Season Fairy named Sugar, whose job is to create the snow that comes in winter. Eventually, Saga learns that there are fairies for every weather occasion—sun, wind, rain, clouds—and that Sugar and her friends are in search of a magical "Twinkle" that will make them full-fledged Season Fairies. However, Saga is the only one who can see them, and to everyone else, she looks like she's going crazy as she tries to take control of the Season Fairies' boisterous antics. Can Saga learn to get along with her tiny new friends?
There is something disturbing about A Little Snow Fairy Sugar. In an era of carefully honed market research, where every series is an amalgam of tropes and fetishes designed to appeal to its target audience, this relic from the early 2000's is strangely devoid of any gimmicks. Saga is not some unwitting nymphet for creepy older men to drool over, and neither is she a wish-fulfilment vehicle for little girls who want to be idols or pastry chefs or surrounded by hot guys. The fairies are not secretly fighting a battle in the magical world where they must face tougher and tougher opponents. And the search for the "Twinkle" is not a plot device designed to sell a collectible card game. What's so disturbing about Sugar is that it is exactly what it is: a heartwarming children's series with an infusion of magic. For that, we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
But wait, is that a sigh or a yawn? The show gets off to an incredibly weak start, and if this were the bad old days of 4 episodes per disc, people would be quitting the series in droves after Volume 1. Saga's first encounter with Sugar is presented with lackluster pacing, and even the arrival of Sugar's friends (the appropriately named Salt and Pepper) fails to raise the series above a mindless fetch quest where the fairies keep searching for the Twinkle but never find it. At the same time, Saga's exasperated dealings with them never quite reach full comedy potential; instead, she just seems to be stomping around being mad at the fairies all the time.
It is only in the 6th episode that the series really starts to find its footing, as Saga is pushed to her limits and actually kicks Sugar out of the house. That kind of emotional strain is necessary for the bonds of friendship to really start forming—and it makes for much better storytelling than another 25 wasted minutes hunting for a nebulous magical entity (which really is just a metaphor for something else). Then comes the real heart and soul of the series' first half: the tale of a traveling acting troupe that comes to town to put on a play. More than just an entertaining sideshow, this little story arc spanning Episodes 9-12 turns out to be the most in-depth exploration of the characters yet: we learn much more about Saga's background, especially the musical connection with her deceased mother, and even her friends from school learn some life lessons along the way. This arc also gives us the series' first true moment of magic: Saga fills in as the pianist for the last performance of the play, and at last it seems that our uptight, ever-exasperated heroine has found a place to shine. The fairies' quest may be far from over, but as far as telling tales of friendship and personal growth, these first 13 episodes accomplish plenty.
Less accomplished, however, are the show's visuals, which have a good artistic foundation but just don't translate very well into animation. If this series were graded entirely on the basis of still images and screencaps, it would be one of the all-time magical-fantasy greats: charming character designs (courtesy of Koge Donbo), bright colors and imagery, and mouth-watering backgrounds based on an actual German village. It's the perfect setting for a modern-day fairytale—until everything is put into motion, and the shortcomings of the animation studio become painfully clear. For every dose of unabashed cuteness—usually when Sugar bombards someone with hugs and kisses—there is an equal or greater dose of cheap animation shortcuts, like slow panning across a still image, or entire scenes where the only moving components are the characters' mouths.
Such budget limitations don't seem to have affected the music production, however, which is actually one of the show's strongest aspects. Of course, when music is one of the central themes—the fairies generate weather by playing magical instruments, and Saga is an accomplished pianist who inherited the gift from her mother—one would expect to hear a lot of skillful melody-making. In that respect, the soundtrack does not disappoint; piano-based classical influences and clever little motifs for each of the fairies provide a tuneful background for every occasion. Even the theme songs are a cut above the rest, with catchy oldies-remake "Sugar Baby Love" as the opener and the soothing ballad "Sugar Snow" closing out each episode.
As a compilation of a previous release, this DVD set conveniently packs 13 episodes into a single case, but it also packs in one of those awkward Saturday-morning-cartoon English dubs. Although the voice acting isn't overtly bad, it does have that stilted edge to it, as if the characters were reading off cue cards instead of speaking naturally. To its credit, the adapted script hews fairly close to the original translation, but given the stiffly-delivered lines it might just be best to switch over to subtitles. Bonus content on the discs is slim, but there's a gem of a documentary on Disc 2 featuring video footage and photos of Rothenburg, the German town that provided the real-life basis for Saga's hometown.
Thankfully, it looks like A Little Snow Fairy Sugar is one of those series where the "it gets better later on" clause applies. Although it stumbles out of the gate, and the animation quality never quite catches up to the level of artistic conception, this series eventually finds its footing after a few episodes and begins to weave a charming tale of friendship. Admittedly, there is no epic magical warfare, or swooning romantic melodrama, or raunchy goofball comedy, but what it does have is a quality that seems to have gone missing from the industry as of late. It's honest. One of the last few honest anime shows. Enjoy it while you can.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : C
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Heartwarming tales of friendship, adorable characters, and a tuneful musical score provide a consistent feel-good vibe.
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