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Niko and the Sword of Light Proves Adventure Tales Still Have Merit

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Niko and his party (which include Princess Lyra, Mandok, and Flicker) run into a stranger in the middle of the first season of Niko and the Sword of Light. The stranger is a talented, effective fighter, a rogue-type mercenary, and he proves to be a better warrior than Mandok. So of course, Niko and Lyra heap praise on this stranger while Mandok stews in jealousy. This stranger makes an important and needed contribution to the team. Every time you think he’ll betray everyone, it turns out to be a red herring. Lulls viewers into a certain set of expectations. But we’re adults, and we’ve seen these kinds of long-term adventure tales before: Lord of the Rings, The Last Airbender, hell, even The Matrix. We know that this stranger will indeed turn out to be a traitor, right as the team is at its most vulnerable. We see it coming, but even still, it’s a striking moment.

It’s a simple moment, too: it’s devoid of any massive complication or overwrought details. There’s depth to the characters, and the world they inhabit, but that depth is important insomuch as it simply provides obstacles and/or methods to overcome them. In other words, don’t expect to delve deep into lore or culture in your fan theories or thinkpieces. But what this does prove is that the basic storytelling tropes of these large, globe-trotting adventure tales can still be effective and powerful and entertaining, especially to younger kids who are new to these kinds of tales. We often forget that there’s an entire demo that hasn’t seen, watched or read these kinds of stories, so they don’t know how to look for the tell-tale signs of betrayal, or homages to Westerns or horror tropes, or the various ways high-end fantasy portrays itself. The twists are obvious but still work, and it helps that the animation is gorgeous, with big, expansive backgrounds and some of the tightest, sharpest action sequences since The Legend of Korra. All to get you into a story that we have witnessed time and time again.

The core of such a story is still engaging though, and Niko and the Sword of Light commits to it in ways that keep it fun and light AND dark and mysterious at the same time. It keeps things moving, a consistent story that manages to keep up along thirteen entire episodes, finding small twists and story beats to maintain that momentum. To be clear, those twists and beats aren’t anything new – besides the aforementioned obvious traitor, there’s the “flawed former hero,” a rally-the-troops moment, temptations galore, and many, many low points before they become inspirationally high. Discerning viewers already on the fence about watching a low-key adventure tale may also be bothered by the show’s humor, which isn’t childish per se, but it is rather basic and simplistic, and at its worst, forced into moments where the dramatic tension is thusly ruined. But there’s a reason these adventure tales are told so often: the wonder, magic, mystery, and action still can delight an audience.

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The highest point of the show is its action scenes. Dynamic, vibrant, and engaging, Titmouse has always excelled at crisp, clear, and exciting action, and they bring it to the table here. Watching Niko and Lyra do battle with huge, grotesque monsters is a treat, and it’s both amusing and impressive to watch a ten-year old boy move like a skilled gymnast warrior to dodge massive tentacles or flailing tails. And as great as the monster battles are, the show’s most rewarding fight takes place in episode nine, “From the Cliffs of Catastrophe to the Pools of Destiny” (every location is named in such a fashion, and the show more or less lampshades this convention in many scenes in which characters spout out a series of locales with similar names). Not to spoil too much, but the action here is absolutely wild, arguably the best balls-out battle since the final episode of The Last Airbender. I should also mention that, in a way that’s kind of hard to describe, the action scenes feel very much like you’re actually playing a game – like you’re pressing the buttons to actually perform the specific combos, special “light” moves, and various slick-ass dodges you see on screen. Part of that is because, yes, Niko and the Sword of Light is based on a mobile game of the same name. But it’s also because of how specific Niko’s moveset is, how he moves in action, and how he engages in actual battle. Each swing, each attack, each shouted-out-loud special move feels like an input and has an… aesthetic tactile result and response while watching. I know that saying a show feels like a video game is often negative, but here, it’s absolutely a positive.

And even if Niko and the Sword of Light is mostly a barebones adventure tales with slightly-overwrought gags and tightly storyboard action, there is just enough backend details for those who prefer to read deeper into the world. The various characters that our heroes meet lean a bit on the silly end of their characterizations, but they still feel like a culture with a long history, like the “meercoons,” who have chronicled the failures of past champions over centuries. The central story itself, in which humanity froze itself in safety while guiding said champions over such a long history to fight the darkness, grows more unique and darker over the season, with episode four’s “From the Phantom Woods to the Mountains of Misery” an excellent portrayal of exposition. (It’s even explained why Niko himself is only ten, since the crystal from which he was born was shattered too early, but he still speaks/acts like an older hero, which explains the awkward-sounding dialogue – although I can’t say that Andre Robinson’s VO work isn’t flawless.) The monsters feel like the product of arbitrary “scary” design principles until the main villain, Nar Est, admits that his monstrous creations are just his artistic flourishes. My favorite detail occurs at the Pools of Destiny (episode nine is arguably the show’s best): vague spoilers, but the Pools aren’t what they seem, a product of hyped historical precedent.

And there’s Niko and Lyra themselves. The entire crew grows closer over the course of the adventure but there’s a clear thematic understanding that occurs between the champion and the princess, an understanding that underlies the entire season. Niko’s desire to help all the various groups of people they encounter runs counter to Lyra’s overall goal of reaching and defeating Nar Est. Centuries of failure stem from overall acts of kindness for even the smaller groups of people they meet. When Niko starts to help them, he is the first of a long line of champions to offer assistance for the common person, and it leads to some small but pronounced surprises towards the end. It’s an ending that perhaps culls too much from The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra – two obvious influences, along with Samurai Jack (Nar Est is basically Akku) – but it is satisfying nonetheless, the end result of an adventure story that excels in ways both small and large. I wish the show was deeper and, perhaps, darker, but I also worry that such a direction would force it into a “gritty, serious” state, and that is not a direction that would work for such a show. Still, a bit more depth to some of the specific characters are necessary – like the three “opposterums” whose desperation to stay as a combined, cursed monster really needed exploring – and a better control over the tonal dissonance between its dramatic and comedic moments. The core storytelling is still strong however, and adventure tales like Niko and the Sword of Light still can inspire imagination and wonder in children and adults like the various tales before it.

 

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Some Brief Words on Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero

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The premise of Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero doesn’t make any sense. A boy and his friends, who all still attend school, head into an abandoned theater where they are warped into alternate dimensions, take the role of some kind of protagonist/leader (and their sidekicks/lackeys), and have to accomplish some grand objective. When they do this, they (apparently?) take over the bodies of characters that already exist in that world. They also have to face a set of antagonists/villains that are controlled/taken over by their art teacher and school principal. When they return home, everything is back to the way things are – as normal as things could be. There’s a lot of questions. How did a bunch of kids get into the gig of interdimensional body-control and part-time heroics? (Penn, arguably, got into it through his parents – more on this later – but his sidekicks Sashi and Boone are occupational enigmas.) What happens to the people when they take over their bodies? What about Rippen and Larry? Who is Phyllis, the lady who controls the portal machine? What signals a particular world that needs heroics? Why would a world need competing villains? How long has all this been going on? And why?

I think that most of these questions were meant to be answered – or least explored – over the course of several seasons. It only received two. And as Penn Zero ends its two season run today, we’re given all the answers we’ll ever get (bearing an unlikely comic or graphic novel followup). In a way, it’s fine. The second season of Penn Zero did little about answering those big questions, and focused on smaller, personal bits of characterization – and exaggerated cartoon satire in the midst of broad, insanely creative alternate dimensions. The show scrambled together a brief, clearly-rushed season arc in which Penn had to find some crystal shards so Phyllis can track where his parents are (also part-time heroes), an arc that gets its due only in four of the final fourteen episodes. It spent most of its other episodes either revisiting past worlds with new, more intense objectives, or finding themselves in new locales with more ridiculous, almost nonsensical ones. Penn Zero, in its remaining season, culled together final episode pitches with an assortment of ideas that seem geared for a multiple seasons. It treated its second season as if it was its fifth season.

There’s something bold about that, though. I mean, if you’re forced to end your show a bit prematurely, you might as well throw all your best ideas out there. It may be too many ideas though. Episodes feel overrun at times, like Penn’s return to a world of dragons that, in the first season, just doubled as a Top Gun parody. The team’s second appearance incorporate elements from Star Wars, Aliens, My Little Pony, and a host of other pop culture references that I recognized. There’s also a lot of wink-winking towards animation tropes, like a hilarious anime-parody episode, a sitcom-bashing one, and one that engaged in a classic cat-and-mouse chase cartoon, similar to Tom & Jerry. Some episodes are just plan weird: the cast returns to a world where everyone is some kind of sport ball, literally, and it includes Curtis Armstrong as a super bouncy ball with serious insecurity and anger issues for some reason. An episode that checks in on Penn’s parents includes a fire-breathing giant chicken, a sketchy city inside the belly of said chicken, a sleazy pickpocket with an eyeball for a belly and lips for a head (voiced my Marc Maron), and mafioso, flamethrower-wielding grandmother with zombie cat demons for henchmen. This… is a weird show.

Speaking of which, the situation with Penn’s parents form the backbone of the show’s arc. They’re trapped in that bizarre world mentioned in the previous paragraph, and Penn has to recover three shards of… something to bring them back. It’s not exactly a tightly-scripted story arc – the retrieval of the first shard is accomplished during a weird random end tag, involving a giant Phyllis, which raises even more questions (and I know I’m skipping a lot of explanation here, but the episode has Penn deciding whether to go after the shard or save the day, and it doesn’t explain why Penn doesn’t just go after the shard after saving the day, or coming back to this world just a bit later). It does however delineate high-level stakes to these final episodes. There is pretty strong theme of loyalty, heroics, and sacrifice, especially between the roles of parental and childish figures, but fourteen episodes are not nearly enough to delve into them. Still, Penn Zero went ahead and did it anyway, which requires some balls.

You can’t help but wonder if Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero was meant to be the popular followup to Phineas and Ferb, another show that involved a weird-looking red-haired kid and random forays into strange places (that now looks to be Milo Murphy’s Law, a show that needs to explored at another time). Disney XD was going through some issues, and a lot of two season shows got shut down (including the delightful Wander Over Yonder and the not-so-delightful 7D). I don’t know if Penn Zero needed, or deserved, more time to flesh itself out. It was funny and clever enough, the characters were perfectly, comically realized (Sashi (Tani Guadi) was the overall show standout but second-season Penn (Thomas Middleditch) came up strong), and it clearly had a blast coming up with some of the alternate dimensions and the plots that took place in them. It felt like it got so caught up in that creative freeform that it never took the time it needed to really let its characters, and its specific in-world logic, explain itself.

That’s not necessarily bad. Lots of shows don’t make sense and thrive on that concept: Archer is purposely anachronistic, and Phineas and Ferb enjoyed its creative freedom. The latter show also knew to keep its central concept basic – a couple of kids just trying to find something to do during summer vacation – so when things did get crazy, it could count on cartoon logic to carry it through. Penn Zero often relies on cartoon logic as well – with plenty of self-aware, forth-wall gags, like when a Penn-as-kaiju destroys a “Rule of Thirds” Store on his third accidental stomp – but it’s too ingrained into its emotionally-charged backstory to escape from it. What happens if a hero fails – or worse, dies? That threat looms over the show, if never taken seriously whatsoever. Still, it’s possible, and I almost feel like the show would have been better off ditching any semblance of a season arc all together.

Still, Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero is just weird enough, funny enough, and creative enough to check out its final run, and its assortment of solid guest starts is also wildly impressive, which includes Mar Maron, Mark Hamill, Maria Bamford, Kumail Nanjiani, and Yvette Nicole Brown. Mercury Filmworks and Disney Television Animation pushes the paper-like-cutout designs in some striking ways within the animation, both large and small: large-scale, sweeping movements are as grandiose as some small, detailed facial expressions are hilarious. Penn Zero is a fun lark, and it’s somewhat sad to see it go “before its time,” but in some ways, it’s for the best. There’s too much going on that shouldn’t really be going on, and it’s better to end it before it reaches fan-theory status.

FINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT THE FINALE: If anything, “At the End of the Worlds” confirms the idea that Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero is probably better off ending now instead of continuing, even despite the fact it thrived with potential. It committed to a weirdness that felt more egregious than necessary or clever, and I’m not exactly talking about the revelation that Phil and Phyllis were separate entities of some kind of intergalactic time-space being gloriously entering Phase Two of some cosmic mission (I swear this is all true). You could argue, in a way, that the episode was parodying a lot of tropes of various grand finales: Boone sacrificing an “upgrade” for the sake of the team; a final fight with evil clones, with Sashi exploiting a weakness that she developed for years; an epic battle among the heroes and villains of the various worlds that Penn and Rippen visited in the past. It had an almost-at-peace death scene when Penn nearly falls to his death and reminisces about his parents. It had an almost-ironic parents-return-only-to-have-to-go-back-for-some-lame-reason (the show even lampshades its stupidity) moment. It had a “Rippen becomes good” sacrifice, only to be undercut by a bunch of random characters joining him. And then there’s the Phil/Phyllis thing, which played to the idea of needing a good/evil balance in the multiverse – although the show never really thematically supported that idea. It is… a lot, and I’ll always respect the hell out of the show just fucking doing all that, but I can’t exactly say we missed out on something grander. It is what it is, and kids will have their first(?) taste of something cerebral and mind-blowingly out-there. Beyond that? Nothing more revealing than a forced Penn/Sashi romantic pairing. So much for fan-theories.

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Future-Worm May Co-opt Rick and Morty, but it Burrows Into Something Special and Unique

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By the time you hear Justin Roiland’s voice pop up in the third episode of Future-Worm, entitled “Terrible Tuber Trouble,” you can breathe a sigh of relief. There was a sense that this show, based on the weird and stilted interstitials and bumpers that aired between Disney XD shows a few years ago, was a rip-off Rick and Morty, Adult Swim’s wildly entertaining hit show. The intros to both shows are tonally similar, and so is the color palette, but the nonchalant comical approach to surprisingly complex plotting is the real, obvious point of comparison. Both shows contain sarcastic, over-the-top, droll alien creatures, and even the father figure characters of both shows are sad-sack loser types. It smells like intellectual theft. But with Roiland’s squeaky, stammering vocals added to the mix, you at least get the sense that the co-creator of Rick and Morty is in on the heist.

Let’s back up a bit. Having low expectations for Future-Worm is understandable. It looks like one of the many secondary shows that attempt to thrive on attention and (young) viewership through weirdness. Such a style was born in the cultural misunderstandings of Spongebob and the genuine understandings of Adult Swim. From Pig, Goat, Banana, Cricket to Pickle and Peanut, to Teen Titans Go, kids networks’ have attempted to create their own “super-weird, super-funny” animated hit, mostly to no avail (except Teen Titans Go, which is still a hit but feels increasingly irrelevant).  Future-Worm stars a boy named Danny, voiced by Andy Milonakis (who is in his 40s), who is friends with an anthropomorphic worm named Future (voiced by James Adomian). The show, despite its weird set up and design, has the two run off on adventures across time and space and dimensions, mostly on a whim. This sounds like a generic kid adventure story. Yet there’s an off-handed, devil-may-care approach to their adventuring: the two tend to chart off when bored, or callously looking for dumb answers to dumb questions, or wanting to escape from basic chores. And now the heightened mundane purpose of their travels feels somewhat stolen from Rick and Morty’s various shrugged-off travels.

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Well, if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best, right? Rick and Morty is one of best shows ever, and with Roiland’s implicit approval of the show, Future-Worm is in good company. But even still, Ryan Quincy and his team manage to guide its influences and channel it through its own voice and direction, creating something that’s unique and weird, but also viciously clever – and viciously complex. From its interstitial beginnings, each episode of Future-Worm is divided into three parts, each of different lengths – twelve minutes, seven minutes, and three minutes. (The various lengths are familiar to animation fans: each type has been used before throughout animation history.) Disney probably mandated the lengths to shore up its burgeoning online/digital shorts package – the network most likely envisioned the show as simply-produced content to toss onto their Youtube channel or their Disney XD app (Disney feels like the only network that takes its online viewership seriously, as it now airs new episodes of shows online the same day those episodes are to be aired on television).

Quincy had something else in mind. Inspired by the post-credits tags in Rick and Morty, which play a comical, fast-and-loose response or commentary on the full episode itself, the Future-Worm team uses its unique structure to play around with the format and with the full marrative timeline of the show itself, while also using it a response or commentary to what came before it – or after it. It’s… difficult to describe, so it’s best to give examples. In the 12th episode, the first part ends with a weird gag in which an errant dimension-traveling device hits Danny’s parents in the head, transforming said heads into a car door and another head entirely. It seems like a random ending. But the second part tells the full adventure of what actually happened to the heads of Danny’s parents, which were transported to a “Death Race” in 3939. Or take the 11th episode: the second part tells a crazy story that Future-Danny (a figure separate from Danny himself) goes on, which involves people made of pliers trying to kill him. He escapes, fortunately, and the third part is Future-Danny trying to convince Bug, a friend of Danny, not to touch a certain pair of pliers, lest those same plier people track him down again. If that sounds confusing, it’s meant to be, but it’s also part of the value in rewatching episodes and tracking, even tangentially, the various timelines of what’s going on. Episodes connect in insanely temporal and atemporal ways, similar to Pulp Fiction’s nonlinear narrative; watch enough episodes, and it becomes clear that seemingly random segments are actually clues to its place within the “Future-Worm” timeline. Even then, the tone and energy of the show is so comedic and so devil-may-care (even the main characters don’t give a crap), that following along isn’t even that big of a deal (but valued if you do). There’s a whole semi-serious subplot involving lizard-people, powerful gems, and a prophesy, but Danny and Future-Worm can barely be bothered with it, even though it seems to be having some far reaching implications.

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From part 1 of Episode 12, “Bug Vs. the Babysitter”

 

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From part 2, Episode 12, “Doug Race: 3939”

Future-Worm is a complex, detailed, interlocking set of stories that combine into a slick, fully realized arc. Yet it also a silly, fun, episodic tale of two characters – a brilliant but lazy kid and a universe-travelled worm within a midlife crisis – who care little about that arc, and quite imply that viewers shouldn’t care either. Future-Worm is essentially a Croenburgean hybrid, a Rick and Morty clone spliced heavily with Venture Brothers’ detailed, go-for-broke, referential world-building, and Phineas and Ferb’s comically clever, winking, substantial fan service. Its slick, multi-layered narrative play is bolstered by animation leagues above its original interstitial visuals (courtesy of the ever-reliable Titmouse Animation) and a keen sense of narrative proportions within its three-part, sectioned structure. Yet unlike Rick and Morty, which approaches its narrative subversions or deconstructions from a world-weary, eye-rolling perspective (as if these well-worn tropes were such a burden to work, a notion that caught up with it in its wobbly, if still entertaining, second season), Future-Worm maintains a certain, idealized giddiness at such narrative opportunity. Future-Worm loves its storytelling, and loves making fun of its own storytelling, both engaging with and subverting it at the same time.

I’m somewhat reminded of The Aquabats Super Show, a short-lived show starting the infamously fun ska band that brilliantly, yet silently, “looped” its first season by connecting the final episode with the animated segments in its first episode, and connected the animated segment in the final episode with the live action of the first one. As I wrote about that show year ago, Future-Worm, in some ways, updates that premise. It doesn’t simply connect episodes, but interconnects them, while subverting them, deconstructing them, ridiculing them… and yet still can produce a sharp, tense episode of high stakes and nail-biting action. Watching Danny and Future-Worm battle it out with the Time Travel Council is funny but formidable, similar to how Rick and Morty faced the Council of Ricks in “Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind.” And the similarities can not be ignored. But it’s the culmination of stories told and yet not told, of characters seen and not yet scene, of interlocking arcs that were experienced and soon will be experienced.

Or not. I mean, Amelia Earhart is there.

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Stories are funny that way. So is time. So are the way we tell and consume stories these days. Future-Worm knows this, and uses it to its advantage.

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