I had the opportunity for an early viewing of the first two episodes of the new Robots in Disguise cartoon. As I went in to it, I was not sure what to expect, and I think that was to my benefit. The previous series Transformers Prime certainly had its own style of story presentation as well as visuals and writing, and had I come at this with those things in mind and looking for RID to bring me that, I may well have been disappointed. Robots in Disguise notionally follows in the same universe, but apart from very basic situational concepts the ties to that rather loose in a way that serves things well. By leaving aside the specifics and getting bogged down in detailed continuity, we get right in to the action now and are presented with a fast, tight package of story, and honestly I'm impressed with these episodes.
It's a useful tool to have available to assume certain facts in to common knowledge, but do so in a way that's vague enough to apply easily without the specific context of the previous series. Time is saved not lingering on specific back story and it lets us get right in to the meat of what these episodes want to do. I wanted to lead in to this paragraph with an observation of the networks changing and creating a situation that some members of the audience might not have seen Prime, but in truth the change of channels is rather irrelevant. It's easiest to assume that no children watched the last show because of the weak market penetration of The Hub. But the ideas that are carried over are pretty easy to process regardless. You have an active, living Cybertron with a broad population, more or less set up that Bumblebee was an important figure in an earlier war, and that Optimus is gone. All things that between Prime's third season and Predacons Rising have a solid grounding and open up to a specific history for those who do know and are familiar, but for anyone coming fresh in to this, you don't need the specifics right now. The parts that matter will find their way in to later episodes if they need to, and that's the right approach to take to this.
Robots in Disguise had, among its production concepts, to be a more fun show than Prime and it succeeds at that very well. The character interactions are balanced with humor, but in a way that's believable and not feeling like forced-down jokes in every line of dialogue. This also gives us a good sense of the way the character writing in general is happening, and it's got a solid foundation going for it even with these first episodes. With the human cast members you get some familiar tropes in the parent and child relationship, but the actors involved do really well to make these often annoying presented themes entertaining, along with the writing giving them shifts in and out of that as the situation requires in a way that comes across naturally. They're introduced with cookie cutter profiles, but quickly show that they're more than two dimensional. The Autobots basically work the same way, although the character depth is a little slower to make itself apparent. Strongarm is very much a practice of behavior patterns that inform all the actions through both of these episodes, and Bumblebee ...well, Bumblebee is probably going to draw more than a few early comparisons to Rodimus Prime. Although I also saw more than a bit of Cheetor in how he came across at this point, more for Beast Machines than Beast Wars. He's put in to a position of leadership that he doesn't want to deal with and with a team that he doesn't yet know how to organize and actually lead. There's a lot of frustration expressed which makes things seem more natural; he's not just sliding comfortably in to the commander role, it's clear that this will have to grow together from both sides, and I like the developmental process that promises right now. Sideswipe has probably the best show of character depth among the robots - sensible, if he's designed to fill the role in this series that Bumblebee would have previously. The audience needs to latch on to Sideswipe a little more a little earlier to get that hook in. But Sideswipe doesn't just become serious business when put in a major situation. He tries to avoid involvement and only confronts things when there's basically no other choice. He shows his flaws consistently and loudly, and it makes him really fun to watch as part of this mix of personalities. The small cast - smaller than Prime's initial cast - leaves plenty of room for the main characters to develop solidly early on.
Our first "monster of the week" Decepticon was understandably a lot more one-note, and I don't expect that to change very much outside of Steeljaw and any other Decepticons that will have recurring roles over longer periods. But they found a good hook for him that kept him fun as things went along and he encountered more characters and gave the joke a chance to dig in. If he would end up being a presence in future episodes he would need to find more than that to work with, but for now his role played out well enough. The only really down beat I found was Fixit whose personality was a little bothersome at this point, but I can easily see smoothing out as the writers get more of a handle on the characters and how they'll function together. The thing that I don't see going away is the verbal tic, which got old really quickly. But even if that aspect is here to stay, I can hope that its use will be diminished in later episodes as Fixit less needs an obvious quirk to rely on.
So we get a basic adventure story that brings in plenty of humor and quick pacing across two episodes making the whole process feel really enjoyable. I'm hoping this is a sign of lessons picked up in the course of making Prime's third season happen within a reduced episode count and so needing to make sure to get to the point in every episode. The basis for the series gives an ample amount of potential threat in the world, but instead of so far dwelling on the oppressive atmosphere of possible destruction at any moment, RID is staying in the moment and so far not worrying too much on the next stop. The episodes have a good potential to be self-contained as things look right now, and that's a quality that will serve the show well down the line so a viewer can jump in at almost any point and not be stranded two or three episodes deep in to a long plotline. I appreciated Prime for what it tried to do, but I'm more immediately and generally enjoying watching RID right now. Plus Robots in Disguise only needed two episodes to get the ball rolling, rather than the five of its predecessor. That in itself should demonstrate how differently these series are approaching things.
Visually this is a shift, but in practice I like the new style. The 2D backgrounds are really pretty and for the most part mesh well with the 3D characters. I say for the most part because there are action scenes where movements or hits end up involving backgrounds, but because the backgrounds are static, there's not really a reaction. In the wrong moment that can take you out of the action some. But in general the matching is done well for motion sequences and more of the fighting action happens in more open areas to minimize the effect I mentioned. The CG style isn't as straight up pretty as Prime had, but the change to look a little more like a cartoon sits well with me. There's bright colors, designs that are easy to look at and process that don't try to emulate movie complexity on a TV budget. The visual style is like a fusion of the best parts of Animated and Prime, keeping designs simplified but still with an edge of realism. Animation shouldn't be judged from the early promo materials, because looking at the show now that stuff was clearly not 100% finished. Movement on a small scale is smooth and natural looking, and while I found larger action sequences to be just a tiny bit on the choppy side - slightly low framerate, etc - I'm gonna say that was an outcome of the early presentation and the episodes as broadcast won't see that happening. The same animation studio was employed to do this show, and with veterans of Prime behind this there's no reason to doubt the quality on the visual side of things. Those people are experienced and know what they're doing when it comes to making giant robots move and emote, and accomplishing the same with humans. Character movements as robots and vehicles read correctly, the objects have "weight" in their motions so they're believable. No Energon-style magic floating vehicles that have no force behind them. The cel-shading may be misleading people, and I'm telling you now to not judge it on that. It's an intentional style choice and one that does not at all affect the quality of the animation, or of the art and model work itself.
There's not much more to say without going in to specific spoiler areas which I'm not interested in doing ahead of the US broadcast premiere. But I find a lot of promise in this show, and as someone who enjoyed at least three-fifths of Transformers Prime, I'm enjoying this at least as much. Give Robots in Disguise a fair shot, and I don't think you'll be disappointed. Viewers in the United States are in luck since the first two episodes will be presented together at an approachable 6pm Eastern timeslot, giving you plenty of chance to check the episodes out and see if it clicks for you. It's worked for me, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of it!
|Date||February 21st 2015|
|Score||(8 out of 10)|
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