Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
BD/DVD Part 1
Phoenix Wright is a brand-new defense attorney working for Mia Fey, a successful lawyer with her own practice. When Mia is murdered, Phoenix must defend her younger sister Maya, who has been accused of the crime. This leads to them teaming up to run the late Mia's law firm, but Phoenix is relatively untested and finds himself embroiled in cases no one else wants to take. Still, he's determined to defend those who cannot stand up for themselves, and no one, not even his childhood friend turned prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, can stop him from finding the truth!
Fiction is under no obligation to be faithful to real life. That's why it's “fiction,” right? In the case of Ace Attorney, that's a good thing to remember, because even if you've only ever seen two episodes of Law & Order or read one mystery/crime novel, you'll immediately recognize that the legal parts of Ace Attorney are a world apart from our own reality. Yes, elements of the Japanese justice system are very different from an American court of law, but the trials in this show are more akin to the song “Razzle Dazzle” from the musical Chicago than real-world court proceedings, complete with confetti for Not Guilty verdicts and more contempt of court than you can shake a stick at.
Luckily, that's part of the fun in these thirteen episodes. The show is self-aware about its entertaining take on the law, something the English dub also enjoys playing up with melodramatic delivery, corny puns, and a general sense of playfulness. That doesn't detract much from some of the more serious moments (specifically in the final four episodes), and it makes the general ludicrous behavior of many characters more palatable. When you have a judge who barely does his job, lines of uniformed officers streaming into the courtroom from some undisclosed location, and witnesses who are perfectly happy to call out objections along with the lawyers, that dose of playfulness is very welcome.
Since the series is based on the video game franchise of the same name, this first half mostly follows the events of the first game. We meet the lead character, called either “Phoenix Wright” or “Ryuichi Naruhodo” depending on which subtitle track you pick (the dub uses the localized names), after he's recently joined Mia Fey (Chihiro Ayasato)'s law firm as a new defense attorney. Phoenix has wanted to be a defense attorney since elementary school, after a classmate stood up for him when he was wrongfully accused of stealing lunch money. He does have promise and potential, but he's also fairly green, so he's only able to win his first case with Mia's help. Unfortunately for him, Mia is summarily murdered and her younger sister Maya (Mayoi) is accused of the crime. Phoenix offers to defend her, but he's horrified to learn that he'll be going to trial against the very friend who inspired him to become a lawyer in the first place – the hard-nosed Miles Edgeworth (Reiji Mitsurugi). This establishes not only Maya and Phoenix as the new face of the late Mia's firm, but also the conflict between Phoenix and Miles, with the cour's final arc devoted to a case that explains the catastrophic event that changed Miles' life and personality..
It's not a bad setup for conflict both in and out of the courtroom, and matters do come to a satisfactory head by the end of this set. However, the show is not interested in exploring its interesting plot with any real gravity, instead content to stick as close to the game as possible. While this is a valid approach that works okay most of the time, it's also disappointing not to see more effort made to expand the game's world in this different format. Episode thirteen certainly tries by raising the question of who Miles could have become without von Karma's influence, but it isn't quite enough. This episode ends up feeling like a missed opportunity to expand the story.
Another issue is the lackluster animation. While the character designs translate fairly well into anime, from Phoenix's sculpted hair to simpler designs like Detective Gumshoe's, the animation is extremely limited with flat backgrounds. Clothing and hair barely moves no matter what the characters do, and clumsy CG is used for background characters in the courtroom, which is still preferable to the fact that all other scenes have no background characters at all. Characters' movements will often appear stilted or their limbs rubbery, especially arms. This is to say nothing of Polly the Terror Parrot, who looks more like a 19th-century parrot toy left to molder in an attic than an actual living bird.
So what does work in this show? Most of the fun factor comes from the vocal performances and atmosphere of fun carried by the actors, especially in the English dub. (While both languages feature plenty of silly puns, it helps the tone to hear wordplay like this in a language you speak yourself.) The corniness with which some of the lines are voiced works in the show's favor, with Bryan Massey's Detective Gumshoe being a top contender in comedic delivery. Anastasia Munoz's turn as Oldbag is delightfully abrasive, and Bill Jenkins' von Karma is the epitome of smarmy evil. (Eric Vale's outtake of Phoenix talking to him nicely sums up the proper response to the character.) My only real issue is that Lindsay Seidel's Maya can be too shrill at times, although it doesn't feel out of place for the character.
Ace Attorney's first half is a serviceable game adaptation that doesn't try hard enough to go beyond the confines of its source material. It's still silly fun (as illustrated by both the outtakes and commentary on-disc), but it doesn't achieve much beyond that. If you're not a stickler for legal procedure or good animation, this is an enjoyable show to watch in pieces, but it won't make any must-watch lists. If you're just looking for light entertainment, this does a good enough job to pass the time.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C
Animation : C-
Art : C-
Music : C
+ Dub enhances the show's fun corniness, story rarely takes itself too seriously
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