There are a number of similarities between Dreamworks’s revamp of the classic 1980s anime series Voltron and Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, unsurprising since it was co-developed by two of its show runners, namely Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery. All three shows have an even blend of thrilling action that never feels tasteless, dramatic tension and comic relief. Yet it doesn’t feel like a rehash of either series, as it has story/tonal elements and character dynamics all its own.
The core part of what makes this new series enjoyable is watching Voltron paladins Lance, Pidge, Shiro, Hunk and Keith interact with each other as both friends and teammates, and try (often in vain) to get accustomed to essentially being drafted into an intergalactic conflict that will determine the fate of the universe. They often bicker and have their differences, but it doesn’t take them long to form a connection that goes beyond being an effective fighting force.
Whether you’re a long time veteran fan of the franchise or just a newbie, it helps to come into Legendary Defender knowing these are essentially new characters, or at least spiritual successors. Example: this current incarnation of Keith is far from the straight laced boy next door he was in the original dub of Beast King GoLion, now a capable but undisciplined and short tempered orphan. With his help, Pidge (retconned as a tomboyish girl who is brainy as ever), the jokey wannabe ladies man Lance and Hunk- a “cowardly lion” type who nevertheless has a hidden bravery when the chips are down- are able to rescue Shiro, a missing member of an expedition team to one of Pluto’s moons.
Plagued with memory loss, Shiro can only recall that the Galra, a hostile alien force, is in search of the pieces of an ancient weapon known as Voltron. The group soon stumbles upon one piece, the Blue Lion, which quickly imprints itself on Lance and shoots them through a wormhole (resulting in some priceless reactions from the crew) to Princess Allura and the Castle of Lions.
Despite the aid of the princess and her goofy but dutiful advisor Coran, the paladins initially aren’t too keen on the idea of piloting a giant machine with little experience millions of light years away from their loved once. But it doesn’t take long for the Galra leader Emperor Zarkon to sense Allura ‘s reawakening from thousands of years in stasis and immediately send his legion after the good guys, so the quintet are forced to learn on the job. Eventually they’re able to form the titular mech, which turns out to be only the first step in ensuring the universe’s safety.
Legendary Defender has a brisk pace over the 11 episodes of its first season, but it manages to fit in some enjoyable character development and growth. Shiro, dubbed “Space Dad” by the Voltron fandom for his capability as a leader and his warm personality, still has a troubled past to deal with and possibly untapped (and potential painful) memories. Thanks to a strong performance from Josh Keaton, his angst never impedes with his likability.
Lance, voiced with a high spirited goofiness by Jeremy Shada, is often the comedy relief but is still presented as a capable pilot. His relationship with Keith (the Walking Dead’s Steven Yuen) gradually evolves as the pilot of the Red Lion learns self discipline. Pidge’s (Bex Taylor-Klaus) backstory is well crafted and hints at some interesting potential devlopments in the second season, while the constantly hungry Hunk (Tyler Labine) turns out to be a better space hero than he might have realized. Even Allura, voiced with sophistication and strength by Kimberly Brooks, and the loyal Coran (Rhys Darby) have some powerful moments.
One of Defender‘s strongest assests is its art direction. There are some similarities to Korra so far as its character models, which has a blend of both manga and western influences, but its color scheme is more varied and somewhat brighter- somewhat reminiscent of GoLion without looking like a copy. The Galra are appropriately scary looking but not ridiculously so, while our five heroes are very expressive, capable of looking badass one moment and flat-out adorable the next. Voltron itself is much more streamlined, with a highly detailed CGI transformation sequence each episode that’s remarkably clean.
More so than ever, there’s a good deal of comedy- sometimes lowbrow, but not to where it feels mindless, most of the jokes revolve around the gang’s discomfort and fish out of water feeling as they confront bizarre alien customs. The species they come across vary in both their design and what they challenge Team Voltron with, and that variety also adds to the dramatic moments as well. The humor luckily isn’t prevelant enough to totally derail the action or tension, and as the Galra kept bearing down, my heart started racing.
Voltron Legendary Defender’s story is actually fairly simple with familiar elements if you look at it, but I still found myself attached to these characters and hoping they made it out somewhat okay. I have to give credit to any show that invokes that feeling with me- it’s an enjoyable, comical and optimistic action series that harkens back to the sheer fun of Saturday morning. Strongly recommended.