The other day I finally sat down and watched the first episode of the new Voltron: Legendary Defender series. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the toys (the LIONS, thank you, not the stupid cars!), but like a lot of people, at some point in the intervening years I grew to really dislike anime. The bad translations made for impenetrable plots, the art was just a little odd. Above all, the voice acting was awful.
So I love animation, but I’m not an anime guy. That’s a pretty common sentiment, so I’m writing to say that Voltron is fantastic. It’s our kind of anime. Like Avatar: The Last Airbender, it brings all the imagination and spectacle of anime and merges it with a Western sensibility that makes it palatable to, well, people like us.
DreamWorks and Netflix have created something that simultaneously hearkens back to those half-hour toy commercials that we loved as kids, and modernizes and updates it to appeal to our adult (or at least kid-at-heart) tastes. The writing is spot-on and hilarious, the action is superb, and above all, the voice acting works.
This is the kind of show that lapsed nerds can really get excited about, and I say that from personal experience. It has just the right mix of character drama, humor, action, and even some genuinely thought-provoking sci-fi. These kids have been drafted into an intergalactic war without knowledge or warning. One of them was mutilated. The show doesn’t ignore that.
As far as the voice acting goes, it’s a far cry from the lip-locked mumblings that so much authentic anime is known for. It really makes a difference when the actors are allowed to record before the animation is performed, rather than being forced to make their words and phrases match up with lip movements meant for Japanese.
Shiro, Keith, Hunk, Pidge, and Lance, the five newbie space pilots drafted to become Paladins, the pilots of the five lions, are all admirably performed. Hunk is the standout, and his quips and complaints really serve to keep the mood light and relatable. Between him and the hilarious natives of the planet where Voltron resides for much of the series, there are plenty of laughs each episode.
Tyler Labine, the actor behind Hunk, actually hasn’t done very much voice work at all. Other than a minor role in Monsters University, his only other voice over gig was in Action Man, a short lived and probably best forgotten show about an Evel Kniveal type who fights crime with “his ability to plan and perform elaborate stunts.”
The team is mentored by the oddly New Zealand-accented Princess Allura and her equally Kiwi advisor Coran. It makes a little bit of sense. I mean, it doesn’t get much more alien than New Zealand. While Coran is voiced by Rhys Darby, best known as Murray from Flight of the Conchords, the Princess is performed by Kimberly Brooks, who has had a great career in video game voices. She was Ashley Williams in Mass Effect, Barbara Gordon in the Batman: Arkham Asylum games, and Shinobu in No More Heroes.
Interestingly, she’s 100% American. This might be a case where one actor has to put on an accent to match another’s. After all, the only thing that would make less sense than an alien race with a New Zealand accent is one single alien with a New Zealand accent. At least this way they’re consistent.
Voltron: Legendary Defender’s first season is available now on Netflix. Season 2 will premier in early 2017, and at least this writer will be watching closely.