The Critical First Legend of Critical Role

You know that feeling, where you want something to be good so much that you’re actually a little afraid of it not living up to your hopes?

This is not helped when one recalls that there are amateurs who have produced classic masterpieces, and there are time-honored professionals who have produced great, big piles of crap.

Example: Disney produced many magical classics in their earliest years, but then the quality somehow dwindled overall until the time of their Renaissance, and then they produced even better films, and then politics and corporate greed got their way again, and now it’s anyone’s guess if their next movie will be good, great, or just plain terrible. And yet, they continue to be a worldwide phenomenon and a mainstay in the business of Hollywood, to the delight of their fans when they produce something good, and widespread disappointment when they fail. Of course, Disney is so bloated that they can endure all manner of failures and still keep going like some unholy Energizer Bunny. Other, much smaller, production crews have no such leeway. A single mistake early on can kill something which otherwise could have become mighty and made truly beautiful works, as great as any Disney movie.

That was roughly my train of thought as I was going into The Legend of Vox Machina.

I am a big fan of Critical Role and the voice actors who produce it. Or had you noticed? They’re a great way to spend well over a thousand hours of time, I’d say! Indeed, I enjoy it so much that I was frankly a bit nervous going into this, their first animated production, which is based on their adventurous campaigns in Dungeons and Dragons. I was so hopeful, but cautious because I feared disappointment, and feared the blow that would be felt by the people behind it in the wake of any such failure. I already knew – because they made a point to tell us on YouTube – that they and many of their fans and associates around the world, many of whom possess a great deal of talent, skill, and experience, had been pouring their heart and souls into this show, this cumulative labor of their collective love. But I well know that this is not a guarantee of quality storytelling. Heck, not even a massively successful kickstarter is really a guarantee of financial success.

So there I was, basically just pleading silently for the show that so many people worked so hard on for so long to live up to that, to be good, enjoyable, fun, and meaningful. And to be certain that my bias would not cloud my perspective, I watched it with a friend who knew nothing about the show except the trailer that I shared with him, to test his interest.

By design, we watched the entire first season in one evening…

…and we had a blast! It was so much fun! 😀

“VICTORY!”

Now, I’m going to make certain, before I really start gushing, that one thing is made absolutely clear: THIS IS NOT MEANT FOR CHILDREN! AT ALL! Yes, it’s animated, but you remember how Deadpool and Logan were definitively not child-friendly? Keep that in mind! “Animated” is not remotely the same as “child-friendly!” Got it? Yes? OK. Good. Moving on.

Let’s start at the beginning: episode one. I have my one-episode rule for a reason, after all. While Critical Role fans might be more prone to like any depiction of the mercenaries known as Vox Machina, the first trick of any story is to enthrall that part of the audience which knows nothing whatsoever of what they’re getting into. The hook is always key.

They did quite well with it, I say! The main characters were introduced properly, as was the inciting conflict. We got a feel for how they act and think, how they’re deadly and powerful, but also a complete, bumbling mess. We saw them dealing with problems, insecurities, and failures in a realistic fashion. Best of all, in my mind, we saw that there is more to them than meets the eye, as they interact with various people, and see that, whatever their imperfections, they actually care about others, and this, ultimately, is what drives them to try again after an initial defeat. It’s not idealism, power, status, or gold which motivates them – though they certainly appreciate gold, of course! – but a basic level of kindness and decency. They are rough – very rough! – around the edges, and they have significant issues, but they’re good people.

It’s easy to like them, warts and all. That is what both hooks and keeps the interest of any audience. That’s how Critical Role became so popular in the first place, much like Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man! 🙂

“You totally love us!”

I can hardly do a better job than they themselves did, but, still: there’s Grog, a large barbarian with little in the way of brains, but has a raging strength that is exceeded only by his big, lovable, sincere heart; Keyleth, a young Druid elf girl, out in the world on a journey to become the next leader of her people, if she can overcome her fears and anxiety and survive; Pike Trickfoot, a gnome and a cleric, trying so hard to be good and help her friends, indeed, trying perhaps so hard that she loses herself for a time in uncertainty; the half-elf twins Vax and Vex, rogue and ranger, very easy on the eyes, with wits and words that are even sharper than their daggers and arrows (and they have an adorable pet bear); and Percy (short for a much longer name), human artificer and former aristocrat, inventor of guns, dignified and refined and barely keeping it together due to the absolute traumas of his past. Oh, and Scanlan, gnome bard with a toilet’s sense of decorum, a gutter’s sense of humor, a rabbit’s eagerness for… *ahem!* (I mentioned this is not for children, right?) …and somehow, in a way I will never understand, charming.

And this is the crew that will save the world. Eventually. Because while they “f*** s*** up” all the time, they still specialize in f****** specifically the villain’s s*** up, at least.

“It’s what we do.”

As for the plot, I admit that was a particular concern of mine. I mean, the task of condensing several hundred hours of role-playing, to streamline it into a coherent, well-placed plot that still does justice to the characters and their personal struggles, is a massive undertaking, requiring a daunting amount of effort. Obviously, this first twelve-episode season doesn’t go all the way to the end, but it does begin the titular legend with the first major arc of the first campaign. This delves especially into the personal demons – figurative and literal – of Percy, as he confronts the nefarious Briarwoods and their minions, who took over his homeland, tormented his people, and murdered his entire family.

I have no idea of the particulars of what was cut, as I’ve not yet watched the first campaign myself, but I understand that long-standing fans were not widely disappointed. They altered for economy, adapted a number of details with the flexibility they had, but basically kept the most vital points, and the funnest, most character-relevant sequences. I particularly enjoy how they presented scenes which had probably been dominated by low rolls and natural one’s – Vox Machina’s greatest nemesis has ever been a locked door – which made sure the heroes were well limited, not overpowered, and added both tension and humor to many a situation. Hey, things do go wrong in real life, and for once they go wrong in a fantasy, too!

All of this made for some amazingly epic fights, with high stakes, personal arcs, and resounding themes which resonate with the audience. I mean, who among us has not lost faith at some point, and had to find it again? Who has not come up against limits that they just could not overcome? Who of us, having had everyone we most loved taken from us, would fail to become at least a little bit of a monster when the chance for vengeance came?

I don’t know what part I loved more: when they brought down the villains, or when they saved one of their own from a very personal darkness. It is something I have often wished I could do, to help those I love like that.

“We are awesome!”

There is an abundance of stories where a band of misfits somehow comes together as a family in the face of ultimate evil. Yet, somehow this one feels more true, in a way I’m not sure I can define. Perhaps it’s because things keep going wrong, and the misfits keep ragging on each other in every circumstance, be it at home or on the battlefield. There’s no magical switch or training montage that turns them from ragged outcasts in a well-oiled crew. Vox Machina does not do well-oiled. They roll with the punches and make it up as they go. Sometimes that doesn’t work out so well, and sometimes it is absolute, mad genius!

Speaking of, though I have not watched the first campaign, I have read the book, The World of Critical Role. The author mentions a number of details about the cast and their respective characters which, while I was watching, I could actually see playing out. I saw Travis Willingham’s tendency to dive instigate and dive into situations manifested in Grog when the jolly giant dives into a pool of acid to save his friends or throws methodical attacks out the window when fighting a stronger enemy. I saw Sam Riegel’s improvisation and willingness to leave dignity in the dust, embodied in Scanlan’s insane, and wildly inappropriate, antics of distraction. I saw Laura Bailey’s class and skill, Liam O’Brian’s casual intensity, Marsha Ray’s personal struggles with confidence, Ashley Johnson’s dichotomous quiet ferocity where she is a happy ball of sunshine that her enemies should be terrified of, Taliesin Jaffe’s labyrinthine mind and force of will, and Matthew Mercer’s endless ingenuity and adaptability, all on display within their respective characters.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Though many of the other significant characters were left playing regrettably smaller roles for this season, their several voice actors were perfectly cast, and it’s a truly star-studded roster! Oh, I love that particular aspect of production! 😀

“We are fewer than we seem, but we are great!”

On the note of production, this may sound like a bit much to say, but I sincerely mean it when I say that this is one of the single best animated shows I have ever seen. The fluidity of motion is almost lifelike, the magic is wondrous, and the cinematography suits every mood, ranging from horror to humor to tragic to magical to joyful. There is a dimension to the characters, the creatures, and the environment which is very easy on the eyes. Titmouse Studios (right?) did an absolutely phenomenal job, animating everything from dragons to undead in ways that… well, they felt quite nearly real! They should be commended! They should be awarded! They should have lots and lots more business come their way!

Of course, they had plenty of great material to work with, the sets and character designs being produced by some of the foremost talent in the world. As was the music. Oh, the music! I could listen to this soundtrack for hours! It is truly a work of passion and art! Sam Riegel’s contributions as Scanlan are largely humorous, and a bit annoying, but, even so! The themes and the moods and the epic, emotional weight are all enhanced nigh unto the brink of dramatic perfection! Oh, I love it!

In short, all of this – the story, plot, themes, animation, design, music, casting, voice acting, all of it – can be properly summed up in one phrase: worth the wait!

Seriously, I was not the only one waiting impatiently for the debut of The Legend of Vox Machina. But for quality like this, it was worth it! I am looking forward to the show’s second season, and quietly hoping for a third or even a fourth! Yes, they only have so much material to adapt, but still! And then, oh, I really hope the adventures of the Mighty Nein, from their second campaign, are also thus animated! I can already see three or four seasons’ worth of material, easy. Of course, that does also come with some due trepidation because, unlike the first campaign, I am actually quite familiar with the second, so I’d absolutely notice the inevitable changes more. But if they did as good with it? I’d offer no complaints! 🙂

Ah, I wish I could actually buy this show on DVD and own it! Oh, how I wish it were so! But, alas, Amazon is keen enough to make it available on Prime, but I have no idea if it will ever be available for home purchase! Such sadness and uncertainty! 😉

The Tal’Dorei Council is not pleased with the lack of home purchasing options!

It is exciting! It is hilarious! It is gripping and thrilling and amazing! And it is not at all meant for kids! That is about my only gripe against the show. There is graphic violence and adult language, yes, but it would be Scanlan’s antics, and that moment where the camera lingers on a naked woman, full frontal, which made me most uncomfortable. Definitely not meant for kids. And, of course, I can’t help but bemoan how, really, moments like that don’t actually add anything worthwhile to either the story or the characters or anything else. Small disappointment, but it shall not be said that I recommended anything without duly warning my audience of something that they might prefer to avoid.

Outside that particular, crucial detail, I definitely enjoyed The Legend of Vox Machina quite a bit! If you want an exciting time, have no children in the room, and don’t mind an inappropriate moment or two, then this is probably a good bet!

Rating: 9 stars out of 10, thus far.

Grade: A-Minus!

“Sweet!”

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