Written by Josh Sarnecky
Voltron: Legendary Defender, Series Premiere Plot Summary:
When an evil alien empire threatens the universe, five heroes must put aside their differences to find five robot lions scattered across the galaxy and form a legendary mega-robot known as Voltron. Assisted by the last two survivors of an ancient, technologically advanced race, the team learns to harness the power that drew them together.
As a child of the ’90s (pause for eye rolls from everyone exasperated by millennials), I grew up watching the Power Rangers, collecting their toys, imagining life as a costumed martial artist, and developing an embarrassing crush on the Pink Ranger. The Voltron series of the 1980s, then, previously struck me as little more than the cartoon predecessor of my favorite giant robot wielding superheroes. I later learned, however, that both shows actually originated as modified versions of popular Japanese programs that had been running for years; the Power Rangers and Voltron succeeded by heavily borrowing and literally copying footage from live-action and animated Eastern shows that featured color coordinated teams and giant fusing robots.
Fast-forward to this year’s Netflix reboot of Voltron, and the show’s roots in the original series, the various iterations of the Power Rangers, and the Japanese shows that created the genre are clearly visible in the first episode of Voltron: Legendary Defender. Ultimately, these connections highlight the show’s strengths as well as its weaknesses. Gone are the days of editing cartoons that previously aired in Japan and dubbing new dialogue over them, yet Legendary Defender stays true to the plot of the original series. As a reboot, the show’s less than original storyline can be forgiven as an attempt to appeal to fans of the 1984 series and introduce the material to a new generation, but the plot points and story beats are so familiar that Legendary Defender fails to establish its own identity. Consequently, the series premiere feels as if the story is cruising along on autopilot. In other words, “The Rise of Voltron” is a comfortable but predictable viewing experience that does little to hide its blueprints.
More surprising for me is the show’s other major influence: The Legend of Korra. In terms of characters, humor, tone, animation, and writing, one legend has clearly played a major role in the reimagining of the other. Anime-influenced animation in the West is a relatively small sub-genre of American action cartoons, so the fact that Voltron: Legendary Defender shares many similarities with Korra should not be incredibly shocking. However, I came to view these similarities in a much different light once I learned that the Legendary Defender’s animation studio (Studio Mir), executive producers/showrunners (Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos), and head writer (Tim Hedrick) all previously worked on The Legend of Korra. While I would not go so far as to accuse these individuals of plagiarizing their past project, I believe that they may have become a tad too comfortably borrowing (consciously or otherwise) from their last hit.
For example, many of the characters in “The Rise of Voltron” feel overly reminiscent of characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra in terms of personalities. Hunk (Tyler Labine) is the big-bodied but even bigger-hearted comic relief of the group who tries to avoid trouble, much like Korra’s Bolin. Keith (Steven Yeun) is brooding yet fiery tempered like Mako, and Coran (Rhys Darby) shares Varrick’s eccentric nature, humor, and zany intelligence. Lance (Jeremy Shada), on the other hand, captures Sokka’s need to prove himself, womanizing tendencies, questionable leadership skills, and goofiness. Meanwhile, Studio Mir produces the exceptional animation that viewers have come to expect from the group, but the animation studio duplicates the mix of traditional animation and CGI they used in Korra in the exact same manner.
So how do all of these borrowed elements affect the overall quality of Voltron: Legendary Defender? While the episode feels a bit overly familiar at times, “The Rise of Voltron” is undoubtedly an enjoyable experience. Being able to so readily recognize the shows that have influenced Legendary Defender can be somewhat distracting at times, but the combination of the plot from the original series and Korra’s characters, tone, and style works surprisingly well and produces consistently fun results. As the first episode in the series, Legendary Defender uses these components to make an exciting world ripe for storytelling possibilities.
Unfortunately, as of the premiere, the biggest threat to the show’s success is that the series won’t be able to live up to its influences. When copying other programs and fusing them together, a series should aim to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Based solely on the first episode, Legendary Defender has yet to achieve this mark, but this latest iteration in the Voltron franchise may have the potential to do so. However, the show can only reach such heights by emulating the story and character development that made Avatar and Korra animated phenomena while also breaking away from these influences so that Legendary Defender can establish its own identity. If this series can accomplish these tasks and enter uncharted territories, this reboot may prove to be a phenomenon in its own right.
Rating: 7 out of 10
Voltron: Legendary Defender is streaming now on Netflix