By Matthew Moorcroft
Episode 1 (Welcome to the Playground) – Strong Recommendation
Episode 2 (Some Mysteries Are Better Left Unsolved) – Strong Recommendation
Episode 3 (The Base Violence Necessary For Change) – Highest Recommendation
- Directed by Pascal Charrue and Arnaud Delord
- Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Mia Sinclair Jenness, Kevin Alejandro, JB Blanc
So I think we are all in agreement that the age of wonky video game adaptations are behind us, right? Or at the very least the mere idea of one is no longer a cause for concern. Just like comic book adaptations, there will always be ones that miss the mark but in recent years it seems like that video game movies and shows have finally cracked the code on these things in terms of quality control. And like a lot of things, Netflix mostly led the charge with it thanks to Castlevania gathering a large amount of acclaim throughout it’s run, so of course Riot Games would attempt to cash in on the trend early by doing a show based on their ever-popular moneymaker League of Legends.
Pouring reportedly at least $10-15 million an episode into the project, Arcane, on first glance, is certainly gorgeous. It’s honestly one of the best looking animated shows on the market right now and could be argued does for animated shows what Into the Spider-Verse did for theatrical animation, launching it firmly into the world of heavily stylized, colorful 2D/3D mixes that remains as uniquely stunning as it is eye-wateringly delightful. It honestly could have gotten by being an expensive tech demo for future League of Legends projects (which, let’s be honest, it most certainly is to an extent), solely existing as a fun little art project for Riot to throw money at to distract the press from their ongoing employee abuse allegations; though, if we are gonna be honest, Riot on that front is part of a bigger systemic problem that they are a massive player in but I digress.
Thankfully Arcane is also legitimately fantastic, hell it’s downright brilliant at points honestly. It’s wickedly sharp, thematically interesting fantasy world combined with stellar character writing and strong emotional depth is what gives Arcane boots to stand among the crowd of adaptations coming out nowadays. Smartly resisting the urge to simply be a regurgitation of knowledge from the game lore like Warcraft and instead crafting a unique, original narrative, Arcane‘s emotional hook of two sisters in a growing class conflict is defined quickly and the stakes made clear. And like all good stories, it keeps it’s scale relatively small and personal, and while it’s clear bigger things are in the background it’s mostly backdrop for the real meat of the narrative here.
Hailee Steinfeld, who gives a fantastic vocal performance as Vi, leads the charge in a cast of likable characters who the show takes great pains in developing before inevitably throwing the rug down from under them. In the same year as another adult animated show, Invincible, Arcane may not be as gruesome and ultra violent as that show but it follows in that vein of that show as well as fellow Netflix critical darling Bojack Horseman by actually using the animated medium seriously and telling adult stories for once. If anything, it’s fantastic that Arcane even exists at all – an hour long, adult animated drama is unheard of and deserves more recognition and should be taken seriously.
And then when Episode 3 hits all of that build up is worth it. While Arcane‘s first two episodes played it close to their chests, the end of Act 1 is a showcase of the best the show has to offer not just in terms of action sequences but also pure emotional heft and gut punches. Arcane is ultimately a tragedy of circumstance and nature, a story about what happens in class ruled society on a daily basis brought to it’s upmost extreme. Powder as a character staying as likable as she is in spite of her recklessness is a testament to how Arcane is treating it’s characters. There is a level of respect it has for everybody involved, from Jayce’s naive yet opinionated love of science, Vander’s gruff and stern parenting, and the mysterious yet compelling villainy (anti-heroism?) of Silco that inform it’s entire production.
And it ends a great standalone piece as well. If the show ended up ending here for whatever reason it would be a remarkable standalone, 2 hour project, which is the beauty of it and how this extended prologue is structured. And while it remains to be seen if it can maintain this strong early momentum, it’s in a good position as all of the pieces are already in play this early and this well set up. If anything, the show should absolutely be watched simply for its gorgeous tableaus alone, using it’s unique colour design and character animation to really add to each and every image from the show. Particularly impressive is how each character and mood is colour coded from the getgo – great attention to detail and an excellent crash course in how colour is an important part of visual storytelling.
The real magic though was that it got somebody like myself, who has played a total of 5-10 hours of League of Legends in a desperate bid to try and like it and just couldn’t, to give a damn and that’s impressive in of itself. The lack of barriers to enjoy it is a breath of fresh air with so many adaptations requiring some kind of homework and many could take a lesson or two from it.
Oh, and the Imagine Dragons opening isn’t terrible either. That’s the biggest miracle of them all.