Fantasy TV series thickened on the floor – Game of Thrones, The Witcher, His Dark Materials, Shadow and Bone – and there’s more on the way: the game of thrones prequel series Dragon House later this year, and the the Lord of the Rings prequel power rings, this month of September.
It’s increasingly impossible to throw a dead elf without hitting an orc, or a Darkling, or a Trolloc.
To note: The Legend of Vox Machina premieres on Amazon Prime on Friday, January 28.
All of these series are adaptations of other forms of media rich in lore, dense in story, and heavy with elaborate world-building. The process of adapting works so rich in detail and backstory into captivating episodic television is, of necessity, an exercise in winnowing, distilling and, in some cases, ruthless hacking and sabering. Characters that fans love either roughly combine or disappear altogether. Established, intricately overlapping timelines cruelly bend to clear, easy-to-follow story arcs. Beloved subplots disappear in network note puffs. The relentless schedule of television production is a cruel and ruthless master, and it gives up whatever it thinks it can get away with.
Fans of the source material inevitably complain about elements getting lost in the shuffle, because that’s what fans do. But they’re right: TV adaptations should prioritize plot over established and painstakingly crafted characterization, interiority, and even geography. (The characters on game of thrones, for example, traversed vast oceans and endless deserts as if hopping in a taxi from the East Village to Hell’s Kitchen.) Which is unfortunate, because of course it’s exactly those layers of historical detail that fundamentally shape the world in question, and its inhabitants .
Amazon is funny, violent and well done The Legend of Vox Machina, based on the popular web series critical role, is no different — a lot gets lost in translation. But the nature of what was thrown overboard is of a totally different nature; therefore, anyone unfamiliar with the source material will not notice what is missing.
It is not this fact that The Legend of Vox Machina is an anime series that sets it apart from the other fantasy shows listed above. Rather, it just brings the source material to life, as the animation’s special effects budget is effectively unlimited – no iffy CGI dragons, rubber suits, or one-dimensional green-screen sights here.
No, what sets it apart is the unique nature of the source material and the fact that a beautiful, discursive, chaotic mound of web series has been transformed into such an effective, cleanly effective show of relatively narrow focus which he proposes to accomplish.
Organic Chemistry 101
Full disclosure: I’ve spent the pandemic tripping, reveling, and devouring hundreds and hundreds of episodes of the web series critical role. It’s one of many series that simply consist of groups of players sitting around a table playing Dungeons & Dragons together.
For the uninitiated: In Dungeons & Dragons, players work with a Dungeon Master — a sort of omniscient storyteller/arbiter — to create scenarios about the characters they play, called campaigns. The Legend of Vox Machina is based on one of the campaigns that took place on the webseries Critical role.
If you’re scoring at home, we’re talking weeks of content here as an individual critical role episodes tend to be three to four hours long, and the previous two storylines (or campaigns) ran for 115 episodes and 141 episodes, respectively. (A third campaign recently launched, plus there have been a slew of standalone one-shots and miniseries, so: Yeah.)
In any given campaign, the same group of players (with some roster changes) play with the same set of characters, as Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer guides them through the vast world he has so painstakingly crafted. In the first campaign, which The Legend of Vox Machina is based on, the characters consist of: Grog, a hulking, lovable, yet defiantly slow barbarian, played by Travis Willingham; Percy, an arrogant gunslinger, played by Taliesin Jaffe; Vex, a charismatic archer, played by Laura Bailey; his brooding hoodlum twin Vax, played by Liam O’Brien; Keyleth, a naive druid, portrayed by Marisha Ray; Scanlan, a horny bard, played by Sam Riegel; and Pike, a compassionate healer, played by Ashley Johnson.
Together they go on adventures, and ultimately, they save the world. But in a very real sense, that’s not what critical role is about.
Because each episode of the webseries is an individual Dungeons & Dragons gaming session is… kind of a mess. A palpable, affectionate, beautiful mess filled with jokes, standoffs, callbacks, lulls, pee breaks, endless rules talk, running gags, ruthless teasing, and long waits for players to decide what actions, if any, they will take.
Dungeon Master Mercer isn’t to blame for this rich, funky, organic mess; in fact, he is to be commended for it. He’s a DM smart enough to do all the work necessary to build a vast world for his players to live, fight and die in, but he knows how to channel their energy and let the chemistry between them lead the story to where it belongs. want to go.
I’ll be honest: a big part of the appeal of critical role for me, in a time when all human interaction takes place on endless zooms, I was and am watching these friends gathered in the same room, building something together. Screaming in collective joy when a dice roll succeeds, screaming in collective despair when it doesn’t. Make jokes based on their easy and practiced familiarity with each other. Taking impulsive actions that blithely derail long-established plans (and, sometimes, the entire gaming session).
Precisely What they build together? Current story tell, in which their characters fight monsters and embrace and/or reject revenge, find redemption or not? It’s interesting enough, sure – but it all takes a back seat to what’s going on in this room, among these players, as they weave their way through the fascinating world of Mercer – hesitantly, maybe, but satisfactory.
Think of it this way: If you like baseball, the final score of a given game is important to you, but it’s not really why you watch it.
(I should note that I’m probably an outlier here. For many fans of critical role, it’s the story and, more specifically, its various characters, which fascinate and delight at the center, as evidenced by the staggering amount of fan art and cosplay that has accumulated around the series.)
A narrow slice, but good
What is missing from The Legend of Vox Machina, then, is this room, this energy, this mess, this sense of organic, ad hoc, instantaneous and collaborative creation. Any session of Dungeons & Dragons, after all, it’s part script (the setting, the rules) and part improvisation (the players, the dice rolls).
What we get The Legend of Vox Machina is what’s left, after all that chaos energy has been distilled into pure story. Distilled and heavily condensed: The storylines that have stretched for hours upon hours on the web series unfold, here, over the course of one or two half-hour episodes.
In the five episodes made available for press, the sprawling world built by Mercer doesn’t get a chance to convey even a hint of its depth, but I guess it would seem odd if it did. , given the anime series’ narrow mandate. Here, the team of familiar characters fight many of the same enemies as in the critical role countryside, and harbor many of the same secrets.
But do The Legend of Vox Machina standalone, if you are completely unfamiliar with its source material? Sure.
The animation itself is perfectly serviceable and will draw inevitable comparisons to other streaming animated fantasy series like The Dragon Prince, The Blood of Zeus and Masters of the Universe: Revelation. Some action sequences tend to last a beat or two longer than strictly necessary, but the same can be said for most. Dungeons & Dragons fighting sessions.
The dubbing, of course, is impeccable, because the critical role the players (all of whom were established professional voice actors before the web series launched) voice the characters they created. In a nice touch, Mercer can voice several accessory characters that the team encounters, much the same way he populates critical role sessions with a litany of NPCs (non-player characters).
Some might quibble with Riegel Scanlan’s bawdy bard, whose sex-obsessed schtick hits differently, if you can’t see the playful, wry twinkle in the actor’s eyes, as you can. critical role.
Most of the time, the voice actors manage to invest their line readings with nuances of meaning that, to the uninitiated, suggest where these characters are headed.
The Legend of Vox Machina is unlikely to appeal to an audience that isn’t favorably inclined to the well-established fantasy trope of a drinking, brawling, misfit mercenary gang. But the script has some solid jokes, the characters have room to breathe, and the guest voice cast includes ringtones like David Tennant, Tony Hale, Stephanie Beatriz, and Gina Torres.
No, the anime series can’t be all the webseries is, but then it’s aimed at a wider audience. And in that regard at least, he certainly has everything he needs to achieve his goal.