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First Impressions: Netflix's Voltron Legendary Defender

by Mike Toole,

As the content wars of the current days heat up, it's not surprising to see major players like Netflix spreading their wings—they've underwritten original hits, brought a series of top-notch anime titles to their platform, and have lately been mining the rich cultural veins of the 1980s, unearthing and rebooting classic cartoons like Inspector Gadget and Dangermouse. Voltron: Legendary Defender is the latest title to get a makeover, courtesy of the streaming giant and their partners at DreamWorks Animation. But here's the thing: unlike the other cartoon rebuilds, Voltron has remained enduringly popular over the decades, spawning not one but several sequels, reboots, and tie-ins over the years. (My favorite: the series of Sprite commercials depicting a platoon of rappers piloting the lions.) The most prominent of these reboots, the TV shows Voltron: The Third Dimension and Voltron Force, were artistic failures.

See, they weren't disasters—they were average cartoons, just not particularly good or satisfying.  I brand them as artistically underwhelming because of stuff like ugly character designs, bland visuals, and most importantly, versions of the title robot that just aren't interesting to look at. But this leads me to pose the question: What made Voltron, the original Voltron, the TV series bowdlerization of Toei's Golion, work? Why was it memorable? I'd point to the chemistry between characters, the colorful heroes and villains, and most importantly, the visual sensibilities of character designer Kazuo Nakamura, whose rough-hewn good guys made for credible underdogs, and especially robot designer Takayuki Masuo, an artist whose work primarily costs of toy and model illustrations. For a super robot series to succeed in Voltron’s time, the robot needed to be cool, and Masuo's combining Lion-bot hero was damn cool.

Worryingly, this all-new Voltron doesn't bother to credit its mechanical designer (granted, this is a title that's kind of specific to mecha anime), but across the first few episodes of Voltron: Legendary Defender, the need for a cool-looking Voltron mostly just looms over the proceedings. Very quickly, I found myself enjoying the banter between the characters—aged-down versions of Keith, Lance, Hunk, and Pidge from the original series. They keep their core characteristics (Keith's assertiveness, Lance's perpetual sneer, Hunk's love of food, Pidge's smarts) but layer on endearing new characteristics; here, Keith is not an obvious natural leader, but rebellious and combative. Lance is a joker with an outsized opinion of himself. Hunk is a chatterbox and kind of a coward. (He'd insist that he's just pragmatic.) And Pidge… nah, Pidge still has his gadgets.

The core group are recruits of the Galaxy Garrison, preparing to go off into space some time after a mysterious accident on one of Pluto's moons appeared to claim the lives of several astronauts and scientists. Soon, the kids discover a shocking secret: one of the astronauts, the well-regarded Shiro, is alive, in Garrison custody, and warning frantically of an alien invasion. A rescue plan is hatched, and somehow, the vehicle of escape ends up being a big, blue lion-bot. It all goes precisely where you think it's going if you know Voltron, with some appealing jokes and references (keep your eyes peeled for a familiar face among the Galaxy Garrison's faculty!) and damn good action sequences. The pilots, dubbed “paladins” by the alien princess they eventually join in the war against the bad guys, are given color-coded suits of armor to match their lions, and gimmicky weapons. Keith gets a sword and shield, Hunk gets a cannon, Pidge gets a dagger, and Lance gets the assault rifle from Mass Effect.

That's more than just a little joke. Voltron: Legendary Defender takes a lot from the Mass Effect visual playbook, with its depiction of futuristic cities, rugged exploration and space combat vehicles, streamlined weapons, and hulking armor. Tying the connection together in a neat little package is alien princess Allura actress Kimberly Brooks, who played Ashley Williams in the Mass Effect games. When you peek beneath the hood of the series to see who made it, its pedigree may excite you if you dig action animation. The show is produced by Joaquin Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery, renowned for honing their skills on Justice League Unlimited before taking directing and production duties on notable shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and its spinoff Legend of Korra, Young Justice, and Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. They once again team up with Studio Mir, who furnish the talents of character designer Kim Il Kwang (Korra) to great effect.

It turns out that this brave new Voltron survives not on the robot battles, but on the strength of its characters; by the end of the 70-minute pilot I watched, they'd all bonded credibly under the leadership of Shiro, who, based on the show's lore, might end up being some sort of fall guy. But you know, so far, it doesn't seem that way. The series is really selective in what it takes from the original—it's got the lions, the robot they form, and the evil aliens (who are now known as the Galra, as they were in the original Golion), but missing so far are the numerous stock footage attacks and over-narrated transformation sequences. The characters have well-defined personalities, expressive faces, and their dialogue is very fresh and earthy. I can dig it.

The press materials for Voltron: Legendary Defender describe it as a comedic action series, but it doesn't seem that way to me. It feels more like a pure action series with some jokes. It definitely does not feel like a classic Toei super robot series—it's a little too restrained and modern to go that route. But with the first story arc behind me, I'm eager for more. As I watched, I found myself wondering who this Voltron was really for. Would kids latch on to it? Would teens and twentysomething hipsters buy in, based on the jokes and character chemistry? Or was it just a cynical grab at my generation, who watched the original in the 80s and now have money to spend and nostalgia to wallow in? As the sneak preview wound to its conclusion, I was left with one theory: This Voltron is for everyone.

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