I grew up in the ’80s, and as a ’80s kid, I loved cartoons. Every cartoon that was on had my attention. Saturday mornings and after-school shows were church and gospel for me. I remember the shows and the toys, both going hand in hand in my childhood. Now that I’m (a lot) older, I still look back at those shows with nostalgia but definitely not with rose-colored glasses. A lot of them were, to put it kindly, bad. Some still hold up to the test of time, while others need a fresh set of eyes to bring them to the present.
Remakes and reboots are a tricky thing, however. Stay too faithful to the source material and you could alienate all but the most ardent fans. Stray too far and you’ll lose what made it special to begin with. Countless 80’s cartoons have been redone in multiple ways while trying to find that sweet spot: G.I. Joe, Transformers, Masters of the Universe, etc. All of them had varying degrees of both success and failure. Now one of the newest remakes of an 80’s cartoon is on Netflix, and while I was initially hesitant when I first heard about it, after watching the first season it brought me back to being an excited kid on those Saturday mornings.
“Let’s go, Voltron Force!”
Voltron Legendary Defender is a remake of the 80’s series Voltron: Defender of the Universe. The original series lasted two seasons and, like a few other cartoons of the era was actually two different anime series heavily cut, edited, and thrown together to form a new series for American audiences. The basic premise of both seasons centered around a team of pilots that would be able to join their vehicles together to form Voltron, a massive and powerful robot for the forces of good.
The first season had five main pilots, each controlling a massive robotic lion and fighting to save the universe from evil; while the second season had a whopping 15 characters controlling different vehicles and forming a different iteration of the galaxy’s defender. It’s the first season that usually people think of whenever you mention the show. It’s also a known fact* that most people who watched the original show as kids can probably recite the transformation sequence by heart:
*not an actual fact, but definitely something that this fan is proud of being able to do.
“Defenders of the Universe, huh? Has a nice ring to it.”
The remake takes that initial premise and is able to find that sweet spot between nostalgia and originality, while still charting its own path. Headed by the same team that oversaw both the critically-acclaimed cartoons Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel series The Legend of Korra, this is a show that knows how to balance gorgeous art and animation with writing and voice-acting that appeals to both adults and kids. Our heroes this time around consist of Shiro (Josh Keaton), Lance (Jeremy Shada), Keith (Steven Yuen), Hunk (Tyler Labine) and Pidge (Bex Taylor-Klaus), a group of interstellar cadets from Earth who, after discovering the mysterious robot lions, become the Paladins of Voltron and protectors of the universe. They are aided in their fight by Princess Allura (Kimberly Brooks) and her retainer Coran (Rhys Darby), the last Alteans in the galaxy and two of the last people left in the universe who know all the secrets of Voltron. Their fight takes them against the might of the Galra Empire, led by the near-immortal Emperor Zarkon (Neil Kaplan) and his right hand, the nefarious leader of the Druids, Haggar (Cree Summer).
It’s where the series starts forging its own way is where it shines. Characters have much more well-rounded personalities and motivations; and, without diving into spoilers, a few are not quite what they seem. The storytelling benefits greatly from both the writing team as well as the Netflix model of having all the episodes of the season online at once. The plot, this time, is much more serialized, with a large story arc over the entire season and smaller, character-focused arcs dispersed throughout. They also do a fantastic job of distinguishing the characters not only in terms of personality but in practice. In the original series, all the pilots and lions pretty much functioned the same; in the new series, each lion has unique abilities that match up with their pilot, and each pilot has a unique weapon that is based on their fighting style and personality.
Did I mention that it’s GORGEOUS?! The animation uses a mix of the anime-influenced hand drawn style from Avatar and Korra, combined with cel-shaded CGI for the lions, Voltron, and the other various spaceships/monsters. It also has a flow and kinetic energy that elevates each action sequence, whether it’s a one-on-one, close quarters fight to a massive space battle against the enemy fleet.
My only minor quibble is I wish they somehow incorporated the original theme somehow, but overall it’s an excellent start to what hopefully becomes an ongoing series for Netflix. Like its eponymous hero, this show is a combination of strong individual elements that combine perfectly into a much greater whole. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.