Animation Wednesday: Sym-Bionic Titan

This post is part of the Animation Wednesday series, a weekly column which looks at animated TV series and movies of the past, present and future.

Animation is a funny industry.  It’s primarily marketed towards children, and often used to market toys and other products.  This means that a lot of shows are kind of factory-assembled, designed to cash in on current trends and hold kids’ fleeting attention spans.  This is all fine, of course.  I’m not going to insist that every show be a thought-provoking, high-production tour de force with deep content for any age group.  But it does mean that there’s not always a lot of room for experimentation, and the kind of personal visions of directors that film or television allow for.

Genndy Tartakovsky is one such director. Tartakovsky has had a rather prolific career at Cartoon Network, creating 2 Stupid Dogs, Dexter’s Laboratory, and The Powerpuff Girls with former CalArts classmate Craig McCracken.  All three shows were highly successful, and Tartakovsky expanded his style to action cartoons Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars.  These also found critical acclaim, and in 2010 Tartakovsky premiered his latest animated series, Sym-Bionic Titan.

Sym-Bionic Titan is a sci-fi action series which follows the story of Ilana, Lance and Octus, three refugees from the war-torn planet Galaluna who must blend in as teenagers on Earth.  However, the evil General Modula will stop at nothing to hunt down Ilana, the crown princess of Galaluna, using his Muttradi Mega-Beasts.  Our heroes must use their battle armors to fight the creatures, often combining into Sym-Bionic Titan, a powerful, mysterious giant robot.

If it sounds complicated, it’s really not.  It’s a basic action comedy-drama in the vein of Smallville or Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (or really, any show in which the lead has to take “bathroom breaks” to go fight bad guys).  The show follows a pretty standard villain of the week format, with the leads spending their spare time joining bands and cheerleading teams and doing other teen stuff.  It’s well-handled, and it plays with tropes like “nerd tutors hot girl” and “going to the homecoming dance” without resorting to tired clichés.  The monster fights are suitably huge and reminiscent of Saturday morning tokusatsu shows.

Probably the biggest draw for Sym-Bionic Titan is the art.  Tartakovsky is a master of character design and using interesting shapes and profiles to create personality.  The core characters are gorgeous to look at, as are the robots and even the monsters (in their own grotesque way).  The characters look just as good in motion as they do standing still.  The show doesn’t have quite as blank a canvas for incidental character and background art as Samurai Jack, but the landscapes are still diverse and artistic.  The show’s crowning visual achievement is the titular Sym-Bionic Titan, a translucent tower of purple and gold which simultaneously homages mecha of the past and strikes a breathtakingly original path.

That’s not to say that the characters aren’t top-notch or anything.  Lance takes the brooding loner archetype and makes it believable and relatable.  Ilana is at once adorably dorky and an inspiring, compassionate leader.  But the real standout character is Octus, the robot dispatched to assist the two of them.  Brian Posehn, who has made a career for himself out of playing deadpan weirdos, does a surprisingly great job of injecting humanity and pathos into an explicitly inhuman character.  The season really becomes his character arc, and a lot of the humor and emotion comes from his, as well as the other leads’, interactions with both each other and occasional side characters.

My one criticism of the show is that the first third of it feels somewhat awkwardly paced.  A lot of the great parts of Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Lab came from a balance of visual and dialogue-based humor and action sequences.  It’s clear from this and Samurai Jack that Tartakovsky brought the images and McCracken brought the words (the smoking gun is Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, which while also fun to look at is very pun and dialogue-based).  Early episodes sometimes drag or feel rushed, and the thirty minute run-time isn’t always utilized the way it could be.  This wears off as the series goes on, and by the end most episodes are engaging and satisfying.

Unfortunately, Sym-Bionic Titan only ran for twenty episodes, packaged as two ten-episode seasons.  It was critically well-received, but TV critics aren’t the ones buying action figures and T-shirts.  The show was plotted out for additional seasons, but considering its cancellation and Tartakovsky’s subsequent move to Sony Animation Studios, it’s extremely unlikely these will ever see the light of day.  Still, while the show’s run doesn’t answer every question it raises, it ends in a satisfying conclusion and doesn’t try to leverage a cliffhanger for more seasons the way a lot of shows do.  No word yet on when it’s going to be released on DVD, but it’s definitely one to keep an eye out for.

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