by Paul Jensen,
Since I'm taking a season off from our Daily Streaming Reviews, I'm starting to fill up my streaming queue with all the shows I've had to either skip or drop halfway through over the last few years. As it turns out, that's a ton of shows. I see some major marathon weekends in my future, and I'm not talking about running. Welcome to Shelf Life.
Jump to this week's review:
Ace Attorney season 1
On Shelves This Week
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Shelf Life Reviews
The anime adaptation of the Phoenix Wright games wasn't particularly well-received when it first aired, but is there some redeeming value in Ace Attorney? Here's my take on the first season.
The series follows defense attorney Phoenix Wright, or Ryuichi Naruhodo if you're going by the original Japanese character names instead of the games' English translations. Phoenix works in a fictional legal system that's heavily biased against defendants in criminal cases, which presents him with all kinds of challenges as he defends his falsely accused clients. On top of having the deck stacked against him, Phoenix is also pitted against some of the most ruthless and tenacious prosecutors in the business, including his childhood friend Miles Edgeworth. With evidence and reliable witnesses often proving difficult to come by, Phoenix must rely on his wits to find the contradictions and falsehoods at the heart of each case.
If you're unfamiliar with the franchise, the first thing you'll want to be aware of is that the plot has very little to do with anything resembling a properly structured legal system. Phoenix is constantly boxed in by the rules of the court, while his prosecutor opponents are generally free to do whatever they want in terms of calling shady witnesses or producing new evidence out of thin air. This setup has upsides and downsides for the show, with the most obvious disadvantage being that it's tough to take most of the courtroom scenes seriously. This, in turn, hurts the series whenever it tries to deliver a moment of genuine character drama, as even a well-constructed emotional peak loses some of its impact when it's bookended by cheesy melodrama and goofy comedy.
The good news is that Ace Attorney clearly knows it's going for entertainment value over realism or believability, and it takes full ownership of its more absurd elements. When Phoenix is cross-examining a parrot on the witness stand or bringing in a group of circus performers to re-create a murder scene, it's clear that the focus is on keeping things fun for the audience. As long as you give it room to do its own thing, this series offers a pretty consistent level of amusement and a likable cast of recurring characters. Phoenix and his spirit-channeling partner Maya are a well-matched lead duo, and Miles goes through a nice character arc in the first half of the season as Phoenix's main rival. The witnesses tend to be colorful and outlandish, with wonderfully silly puns for names, and even the pushover judge and stunningly dense police detective have their own charm. Put them all together and you get some great interactions in and out of the courtroom, and they make Ace Attorney a decent show to watch when you're not looking for anything too challenging.
As the cases play out, though, the anime starts to stumble in its mission to faithfully adapt the source material. Even with my own experience with the original game being limited to playing “backseat attorney” to friends who actually owned it, I feel comfortable saying that this adaptation suffers greatly from the loss of interactivity. The fun and challenge of the games comes from trying to figure out each mystery for yourself (or, in my case, looking over someone's shoulder and second-guessing all of their choices). Without that direct involvement and the inherent possibility of defeat, much of the inherent tension of the courtroom scenes goes out the window. Where it feels like Phoenix as a playable game character could lose a case at any moment, it's harder to buy into the notion that Phoenix as a scripted anime protagonist would ever do the same. As a result, the conflicts are less engaging and the outcomes are less satisfying, making the anime less memorable than the games.
The other big issue with Ace Attorney is its visuals. With the exception of the character designs, which are carried over from the games, nothing about this show looks good. The animation quality is consistently poor, and the relatively static nature of a crime scene interview or courtroom sequence means that there's not much movement to begin with. There are some nods to characters' trademark gestures or facial expressions, but apart from that, there's really not much to see here. Both the Japanese and English casts do as much as they can to keep things lively and entertaining, and both are reasonably successful at playing up the sillier lines of dialogue. This release carries over the two subtitle tracks from previous versions, which allows you to choose between either the “Phoenix Wright” or “Ryuichi Naruhodo” sets of character names. On-disc extras include episode commentaries and English dub outtakes, the latter of which feature some pretty amusing moments.
Ace Attorney is entertaining enough to just barely claw its way up into Rental territory, though that has more to do with the strength of the source material than the quality of this adaptation. It's the kind of thing that you could watch to fill an otherwise idle evening, but I doubt fans of the franchise would go out of their way to revisit it more than once. The animation is just too weak, and the loss of interactivity takes away too much of the dramatic tension. In its own way, it's an effective advertisement for the games; at the very least, it made me want to play them in order to get the “real” experience of the story. I don't think that's quite the effect the show is going for, but an unintentional success is still a success.
That's all for this week. Thanks for reading!
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