Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Animation Deviation: The Castlevania Animated Series

So Castlevania got a show and it isn't a walking garbage fire.

Let that sentence sink in for a minute.

The gothic action horror series, one that has been a core part of video games for thirty years with over forty games to its name got an animated series. A series owned by a publisher that has been firing their staff left and right, psychologically pummeling what little people they have left into staying, and have turned their series into making pachislot machines in Japan.

Quick aside. Whoever it was up the corporate ladder of one of the biggest punchlines in the industry gave the thumbs up to a production studio to make an animated show, please keep taking whatever crazy pills you are on and see if you can't get a proper re-release of the Silent Hill games on PC and consoles.

But now on to the actual topic at hand. Producer Aki Shakar somehow got television rights for Castlevania from Konami and managed to bring together a pretty fantastic all-star team of writing and animation talent to make a season of the show of the epic battle between the Belmonts and Dracula for Netflix. Legendary comic writer Warren Ellis wrote the script, something he's been trying desperately to do for about ten years. Channel Frederator was on hand for the animation, whose line of work is so vast it'd be exhaustive as hell to name everything. And they got the voice talents of Graham McTavish and Richard Armitage to play the villain and hero respectively.

There is just so much good here there is no way this could possibly be terrible!

Having said that, it does manage to disappoint.

But first, a basic synopsis. The plot basically takes elements from the games Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Castlevania 3 respectively. Specifically Vlad Dracul Tepes falls in love with a mortal woman who opens his mind and heart to the wonders of science and technology, which he reciprocates with his grand castle full of resources collected across the centuries. Then she is burned as a witch by the church, because fifteenth century Romania was a major turning point for the Catholic Church and shit like that happened in that day and age by the new heads of the faith. Dracula finds out what happened and gives the people of Wallachia one year to pack their shit and get out before he unleashes hell on earth.

One year passes and the church...celebrates the anniversary of burning a heretic because God truly protects them from the influence of the devil.

Then the sky starts raining blood. Then demons show up and massacre everyone. Then the church gets incinerated in a column of fire as Dracula's castle rises from the ground, spewing more horrific demon and monster death.

Welp, so much for that!

Then enters Trevor Belmont, the last of the family of the Belmonts as he winds up going through a pretty rote but decently executed Reluctant Hero arc. The conceit this time around is that the Belmonts were allies of the Church with every single generation of the clan trained in the arcane arts and in strict weapon disciplines to hunt down creatures of the night. Hence the insane skills with silver daggers, throwing axes, holy waters, crucifixes, and of course the family heirloom that is the Vampire Killer whip. But once again, fifteenth century, radical reform of the Church, etc., so the Belmonts were excommunicated and demonized as devil worshippers by the populace. Which has lead to Trevor being the last of his clan stumbling around like a drunkard going on about how he doesn't care anymore.

And that is basically the spine of the season. Trevor Belmont being called to make his way to Castle Dracula and kill the lord of the undead, him saying no because he doesn't care, and a bunch of allies giving him a big old word sandwich of “yes, you do.”

It is odd that a series called Castlevania only has the titular castle pop up twice, and even then in very short scenes. For the most part, the show takes place in a small village that Trevor winds up protecting from corrupt enforcers of the church and an inevitable demon attack in the penultimate episode.

In fact, the only real progression of the plot that happens comes at the very last episode when Trevor and a mystical priestess discover a coffin hidden under the city holding Dracula's son, Alucard. Which of course leads to a misunderstanding, a fight, then a team-up for them to storm the castle.

First, let's focus on the good. First of all, this might be the first video game adaptation to another medium that understands the fundamentals of the source material and pays it the utmost respect. The games have always been straightforward, but subsequent installments have hinted at a deeper mythology and reasons for why certain things happen. Case in point, why does Dracula give the people of Wallachia a year to leave? At first its read as some sort of compassion, a grace period. Then we get a scene of him inside a library yelling that it would take him a year to summon all the monsters and demons he would need to raze the entire country to the ground. Perfect justification for why there's an entire menagerie of death roaming around slaughtering people. Why was Alucard in a coffin? Because he was arguing for the good of humanity and daddy slapped him around. Why is a priestess helping out? Oh, they're a part of a secular order of mystics that have aided the Belmonts in the past and they were about to get lynched by the Church for witchcraft.

Alright, that last one is a bit of a stretch to justify another Castlevania 3 shout-out but I'm fine with it.

Also, the action sequences are bloody and visceral as hell. People have commented that they feel very anime-inspired, and that especially shows in the fight scenes. Flashy, kinetic, and dripping with a silly stylized vibe, which gels well with source material that always straddled the line between gothic drama epic and cheesy action B-movie.

Finally, while I've glossed over it before, the performances and character arcs are believable and understandable and get just enough screen time. There is a bit too much dedicated to the over all drama involving the village and the vicegrip the Church has on it in a desperate attempt to maintain order, mostly because its message about corruption was pretty much sent once the bishop got EVAPORATED INTO ASH BY DRACULA'S CASTLE MATERIALIZING IN A BLAZE OF HELLFIRE!

Which is a good place to start on about the bad.

The animation quality isn't exactly amazing. A lot of it is hidden by having multiple scenes be dialogue between multiple characters. Less to animate, re-used assets; a lot of money saved. But it also leads to janky action save for a few fights like the demon filled blow-out at the end and Trevor's sword fight with Alucard.

And, most damning of all, the season is only four thirty-minute episodes long. The good news is a second season has already been green lit with eight episodes planned, but it makes the whole production feel more than a big two-hour pitch for a series rather than a complete show in its own right, let alone a binge-worthy experience on Netflix.

However, I am still really glad this has happened and you bet your ass I will be checking out season 2 when it comes out. If you're a fan, give it a look for yourself.

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