Friday, April 8, 2011

I Don't Get "Sym-bionic Titan"

I'm sorry to hear that "Sym-bionic Titan" hasn't been renewed by Cartoon Network. I know a lot of fans of the Genndy Tartakovsky animated series, who are all of the opinion that a single twenty-episode season is simply not enough. Who have been dismayed that the network has bounced the show all over their schedule, and finally stuck it in its current Saturday morning slot. The last episode airs this weekend. And so this puts me in the awkward position of being that person who simply doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. I still enjoy cartoons and action cartoons in particular, but something about "Sym-bionic Titan" just rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning.

I had reservations from the moment I saw the first preview at last year's Comic-Con. "Titan" is Tartakovsky's take on the old 60s and 70s style Japanese giant robot shows, like "Voltron" and "Gigantor." There are three main characters, Ilana (Tara Strong), Lance (Kevin Thoms), and Octus (Brian Posehn), two refugee aliens and a robot from the planet Galaluna. They're forced to hide out on Earth and disguise themselves as humans, in order to evade the evil Mutraddi mutant monsters. When they fight, it's with mecha suits that combine - through the obligatory hokey transformation sequence - to form the superior Sym-bionic Titan of the title. To date I've seen three or four episodes, enough to give me a decent look at the show. It's certainly well-written, the production values are great, and it isn't nearly as formulaic as the premise would suggest. But that said, I still don't get what makes this show so special.

More than anything, I think it's the style of the visuals that are giving me a hard time. I liked Tartakovsky's "Dexter's Lab" as much as anyone else, and I thought his take on the "Star Wars" characters for "Clone Wars" was inspired, much better than the CGI versions currently mucking around on Friday nights. "Samurai Jack," with its spectacular art direction and character designs, is one of my favorite modern animated shows. But I think Tartakovsky dropped the ball with "Sym-bionic Titan." Ilana and Lance look like very simplified versions of Leiji Matsumoto space opera characters, but they're rendered in such different proportions with lines typical of cartoonier Western fare, it's visual culture clash. The evil aliens they fight are just plain ugly, often insectoid, jagged creatures drawn in lurid colors. The mecha designs had the opposite problem. They were all very Japanese and very dull. I can't think of any distinguishing features of the Sym-bionic Titan beyond the fact that it's translucent and the name doesn't roll off the tongue so easy.

The characters? Fun, but typical. Lance is often suspicious, Ilana tries to stay cheerful, and Octus has occasional existential crises. They all have pasts and they all have inner struggles, but nothing particularly original or groundbreaking. Some of the stories are ambitious, sure, and sometimes the images can be very visually striking, but I haven't seen anything on the level of "Samurai Jack" or the Tartakovsky version of "Clone Wars." Ultimately all signs point to "Sym-bionic Titan" being a pretty typical giant robot show, with some high school shenanigans tossed in for humorous purposes. Is there a larger story arc here that I've missed somehow? Did they play all the good episodes at the beginning of the season? The installments I've watched have been those I've been specifically directed to by ardent fans, and this doesn't ping as a serialized adventure where you have to watch every episode in sequence to get the full effect of the story. So what am I not seeing?

I wonder if it's because I've watched the original Japanese shows that "Sym-bionic Titan" references, and so many of the subsequent mecha and robot anime that followed in their wake. I already know how these stories work, and Tartakovsky's not straying very far from the usual formula. Or maybe I'm missing out on some context because I haven't been keeping keeping up with the most recent ones. I certainly don't think I'm getting too old for cartoons - the ones who really love them never do. I'm afraid I just have to conclude that "Sym-bionic Titan" is not to my taste. It seems to have hit all the right marks for a lot of people, but it's just not for me.

But seriously, could someone tell me what's the point of casting Brian Posehn to play a robot who does not sound anything like Brian Posehn?

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