I was determined, for quite some time, to wait and write this review until at least after season two had aired. Well over a year and change later, my patience has finally run out. That’s the downside with some of these shows: those that have to keep producing season after season after season every single year often stagnate in quality – I’m looking at you, Arrow – while those that can follow a looser broadcasting schedule can take so much time to craft that they tend to leave us wanting and waiting for far too long.
Arcane is inspired by the popular online video game, League of Legends. In the game, teams of players can play against each other as various characters with a wide range of abilities, each one with their own background, from a variety of nations and cultures. With well over one hundred of these champions to choose from, and more being developed all the time, there is an ever-expanding abundance of lore which can be explored here. Much of this lore has been touched on in dozens of animated shorts, but never really fleshed out in cinematic format. Thus, the very premise of Arcane, to tell stories which feature many of these popular champions, is immense right from the get go, not least for how many characters there are to choose from, how to make the fights entertaining, how the drama between the fights must matter, and how all of it would necessarily need to be crafted in such a way that even those who do not play the game could enjoy the show.
Facing such a monumental task, the first season of Arcane not only succeeds, it is quite nearly a masterpiece.
I say, “nearly,” because, alas, it does include some content which is more explicit than it needs to be. It walks a finer line than most, perhaps, but there’s no denying that the nude and/or sexual material, no matter how occasional it is, is ultimately a pointless, needless indulgence, especially considering how much time and effort had to go into animating such. Some things should not and do not need to be lingered on for us to know what’s going on. I find myself tired and frustrated by such content, and longing for something more clean and wholesome.
Outside this, I find every aspect of Arcane to be nothing short of masterful.
The plot is intricate without being convoluted, where every thread entwines with every other thread without turning into a Gordian Knot, and all of it is driven by very human characters. The audience can understand them, but they’re not simple cutouts. They elicit a certain form of caring for them, with their desires, strengths, flaws, travails, losses, sorrows, and rage, which feels entirely natural and reflexive. Who can’t care about these people as they strive to fulfill their respective dreams and ambitions in the midst of a complicated situation in which every choice they make could be the spark that sets off the powder keg?
Bringing these characters and their world to life was no small task, but this may be where Arcane truly shines most brilliantly. The animation style is artwork in motion, like a comic brought to vivid, fluid life. Details don’t just add to how visually appealing the CGI is, they truly make it that much more lifelike and realistic. Every corner of every frame is beautiful, exquisite, and riveting. The set designs, the character designs, the lighting, the coloring, the shading, the cinematography, all of it is magnificent. And in this world walk heroes, villains, and ordinary folk, the lines between such being easy to confuse, whose every movement speaks to who they are, and who are finally made into truly living beings within our imagination, the sort who leap off the page – or screen, in this case – and into our hearts through some of the most commanding voice performances in cinematic history.
One can choose almost any line of any moment of any episode, and it will demonstrate just how capable the authors of this show really are. They crafted a script of such quality that most others seem like rough wooden cutouts in comparison to the finest statues of the Renaissance. Even better, they cast and directed voice actors whose work makes even some of the finest voice work in both live action and animated works look like finger painting in the shadow of the Sistine Chapel. That is the quality of this writing and this voice work, not just a cut above most others, but far, far, far greater than even most masters of the craft ever achieve, the pinnacle which sets a new bar for the industry as a whole.
That might be an overly poetic description, as I am wont to do, but I certainly do not exaggerate.
And, oh, the music! It may not have one of those single refrains which are easy to hum, a’la the works of John Williams or Hans Zimmer, but it’s every bit as emotive, evocative, and powerful as the work of any master composer. As well it should be, for characters, stories, and themes such as this.
Those themes include elements discovery with all of its dangers and opportunities, the competing forces of loyalty and corruption in every hall of power, the questions of conflict and prejudice as the peoples of two cities seem to be deadlocked in eternal confrontation, and even issues of insanity, of madness, as the rational and the irrational collide in contest of redemption that seems doomed to destruction.
The big question, of course, it what comes next. Indeed, what can come next, in a world so vast and sweeping, when this, one of the most epic stories yet told, has taken place within such a small space, a single corner of this world, in a single city, albeit one that has been riven in half? So many characters to choose from, and with such work as Arcane has already demonstrated, fans are certain to clamor for more and more and ever more, and yet this tale has been weaved so expertly with only a handful of them so far, culminating in one of the most artistic and sadistic cliffhangers of them all. What happens next? Where does the story go next? Who will still be playing a part, and what new, familiar faces will show up? How can future seasons match, let alone exceed, the first?
In short: Arcane is a good, intriguing story, masterfully-crafted, exceptionally well-told, and almost flawless.
Rating: 9 stars out of 10.
Grade: solid A-Plus.