The Other Side of Animation 286: The Legend of Vox Machina Season 2 Review

(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keep the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Critical Role has made itself known as one of the most popular and best DnD adjacent series to watch nerdy voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons. In three major campaigns for almost 10 years now, Matthew Mercer and his cohorts have crafted some of the most iconic fantasy adventuring parties. While Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast higher-ups and execs are trying to put out the fire they have put out with the situation with the Original Game License as of writing this, it doesn’t detract that Critical Role is one of the series that has revitalized  interest in the gaming. All the while, the owners of said franchise are trying to burn the fanbase to the ground right when a new film is about to come out. Anyway, that doesn’t and won’t stop people from loving Critical Role, and this new season is worth all of the hype. 

Created by Matthew Mercer, based on his own personal Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and produced by Titmouse. Directly picking up after season 1, our group of heroes that includes sibling elves Vex and Vax Vessar, voiced by Liam O-Brien and Laura Bailey, Grog Strongjaw, voiced by Travis Willingham, Percy, voiced by Taliesin Jaffe, Pike Trickfoot, voiced by Ashley Johnson, Scanlan Shorhalt, voiced by Sam Riegel, Keyleth, voiced by Marisha May, now must take on an epic journey to save not only the kingdom, but the realm from a group of dragons called the Chroma Conclave. This is a group of ancient dragons led by a red dragon named Thordak, voiced by Lance Reddick. The other dragons include Umbrasyl, voiced by Matthew Mercer, Vorugal, voiced by Liam O’Brien, and Raishan, voiced by Cree Summers. Our motley crew of adventurers realizes they are not strong enough to take down any of them and decide to find some special magical items to help them take down these dragons. Along the way, they will go through their own personal story arcs and encounter personal roadblocks that will get in their way of killing the dragons that want to rule the world. 

So, what does season 2 improve upon and add on top of the stellar first season? Because, this is the story arc that takes up a mass majority of the first Critical Role campaign and while we all love listening and relistening to the video versions of their adventures that go on for a few hours, there is no way they could fit all of that into each episode. What’s interesting is how they have pretty much had to rewrite the entire backstory for some characters to fit an entirely new origin story. Now, it isn’t as dramatic as it sounds, because many of the characters you love in this quirky crew of dragon slayers keep their origins like Vax, Vex, and Grog. The only one who ends up getting any major change to the story is Scanlan, but you will find out what happens when you get to that point in the show. Still, they make some changes to how certain side or guest characters from the original campaign play into the respective arcs. From the trailer for season two, you will see the animated incarnations of fan-favorite campaign 1 guest stars Zahra Hydris, voiced by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (who is also a major part of the behind-the-scenes side of production for this show) and Kashaw Vesh, voiced by Will Friedle. Not much has truly changed about their personalities, but since we skipped the original arc where these two were introduced, they reworked their first arrival to the show as pretty good foils to the team with some backstory and some of the details and interactions intact and or changed for the better. At the end of the day, you have to recraft a lot of this show to fit a TV series that’s more story-driven than a streaming series. Not that it’s a bad thing, because while fans of the franchise will know or recognize certain story beats that will be tackled in this season, you would worry that out of 12 episodes, they are going to shove in too much and be a bundled mess of trying to get through as much story from the original campaign as possible. Luckily, every main character gets about two-three episodes to have an arc, and they tend to keep the most important story beats and moments from the start of the arc to the first encounter with one of the dragons. 

It’s a nice change of pace to see everyone else get some time in the spotlight. Not that the first season didn’t have any moments where everyone got to shine, because it did, but let’s be real, a lot of the first season is the Percy show due to how it becomes about his dangerous journey to get revenge on his family. Everyone had their moments to shine, but you wouldn’t say they got the most focus. It helps the new season feel more like it was all about the entire team. It helps everyone have more focused plots and they weren’t rushing to get to the end of this arc. That’s what happens when ya get renewed for a third season before the second season airs. Still, seeing everyone show off different shades and sides of their characters is a real high point of this season. 

Animation-wise, this is a vast improvement from the first season. The backgrounds look better, the movements look better, the compositing looks better, the dynamic action feels snappier, and its use of CGI is vastly superior to its use from the first season. The dragons especially look amazing. The way they craft their bodies and textures makes it look less like a cel-shaded CGI creature than the first season’s dragon looked like, compared to everyone else. It seemed out of place, but these dragons in season 2 felt like they were in the same shot as the 2D characters and backgrounds. The voice cast is as stellar as usual. When you base your entire DnD show with some of the industry’s best voice actors, then you know you are going to get stellar performances, and the new actors they brought in for the new cast members include Henry Winkler, Billy Boyd, Lance Reddick, Cree Summers, Will Friedle, Alanna Ubach, Cheech Marin, Troy Baker, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Ralph Inerson, and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn. 

Critical Role’s The Legend of Vox Machina Season 2 is how you do a second season right. You up the stakes, you don’t slow down the pacing, you expand upon the characters, you build up the world around them, and for those that don’t watch the video form of the first campaign, feel welcome into jumping into this world that will probably get them interested to see the original campaign. It’s a win-win for everyone because both are a great way to experience solid storytelling and fun character interactions from some of the industry’s best voice actors. The only difference is that while the video form of campaign 1 is great, season 2 cuts a lot of the fat and streamlines it. Since everyone who is a major part of season 1 has creative control over how they tell the story, and how to tell it the best, this is how you do perfect adaptations. It’s a shame that Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast were or still are trying to burn as many bridges as possible by trying to make Dungeons and Dragons as monetized and hostile as possible, please don’t take it out on the people working on the game when the higher-ups are at fault there, and don’t let their antics take away from enjoying Critical Role and this new season of Vox Machina. Definitely give it a watch on Prime Video and it’s doing the usual three-episode-a-week release strategy. You will definitely be down for some dragon slaying with this party. Now then, next time, we will be talking about a particularly self-titled “amazing” cat with The Amazing Maurice

Rating: Essential

The Other Side of Animation 129: Batman Ninja Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

You know, there is only so much you can do with a character, before you have to start getting creative. You either find new ways to tackle a character that has been around forever, or you simply stop their story right then and there. There are also tactics and plans to be had in-between those two decisions, but when you are someone like Batman, you have pretty much done it all. Batman Ninja, directed by Junpei Mizusaki, is one of the rare DC animated features to not be tied down to the more strict DC-animated film tropes. It’s a Batman film that decided to take a big shot of anime in its veins, and that is what we got. It also had some big names attached to it, like Takashi Okazaki, who was the creator of Afro Samurai, and Yugo Kanno, who did the music for Blame!Psycho-Pass, and the PlayStation 4 game, Nioh. It’s also one of the more interesting animated features, due to its mix of CGI and 2D animation. So, is it as good as the best action anime out there? Is it one of the best DC animated films out there? Let’s find out.

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The story starts us off with Batman, dubbed this time by Roger Craig Smith, during a mission at night, as he tries to stop Gorilla Grodd, dubbed by Fred Tatasciore, from selling another mighty invention of his to the black market for supervillains. These villains include Poison Ivy, dubbed by Tara Strong, Deathstroke, dubbed by Fred Tatasciore, Two-Face, dubbed by Eric Bauza, The Penguin, dubbed by Tom Kenny, Harley Quinn, dubbed by Tara Strong, and of course, The Joker, dubbed by Tony Hale. After Batman gets into a fight with Grodd, the machine goes haywire, and sends all of them, including some of Bruce’s closest allies and partners, back into feudal-era Japan. Now, along with Catwoman, dubbed by Grey Griffin, his butler Alfred, dubbed by Adam Croasdell, Nightwing, also dubbed by Adam Croasdell, Robin, dubbed by Yuri Lowenthal, Red Robin, dubbed by Will Friedle, and Red Hood, also dubbed by Yuri Lowenthal, must stop the villains, turn back time, and save the day.

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So, what’s so amazing about this film? Well, for one of the rare occasions, DC decided to let someone else take the wheel, and they take the wheel hardBatman Ninja is unapologetically dumb, fun, over-the-top, Japanese, and it will not stand down. Out of many of the DC-animated features I have seen the past few years, this one felt like it had the most consistent tones outside of the Adam West Batman films. It’s Batman in Japan, fighting a version of the Joker, whose grand master plan is to make a giant mech, and rewrite history. It will not let up on how anime this entire film is. From the designs to the action-packed fight sequences, it was clear that they knew what they were doing. Heck, they even have giant robot fights. Again, giant robot fights between the villains and Batman in feudal Japan. While there is definitely a story arc for Batman having to remember to rely less on his gadgets and more on his closest allies and his own skill, it’s balanced out enough within the main plot to keep you invested among the insanity.

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While I was fairly disappointed in how this film was going to be mostly CGI, and CGI on a small budget can be a gamble if you do not have the right creative team, I felt like it worked. Sure, they act like puppets sometimes, but the models used are way more expressive, detailed, and they feel like they have some kind of life to them. I was concerned about how action sequences would be handled, but I never found it distracting that they were CGI. The action is fast, brutal, satisfying, full of energy, and very entertaining to watch. The last fight between Batman and Joker is probably one of the best fights among these animated DC features. I never found myself wondering what the heck was going on during the fights. I think that’s because, unlike the Berserk anime series that uses CGI, Batman Ninja has proper direction in how the fights flow. On top of the crazy action, the color pallet is used well, the CGI models look good on the 2D planes, and they even have an entire surreal sequence done in 2D animation, and it looks fantastic. The music by Yugo Kanno was also matched up well with the film’s pacing and style. The big action theme that plays near the end is quite heart-pounding, and it makes the final fight so intense to watch.

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In terms of the voice cast, I was surprised. While we have some returning faces like Roger Craig Smith, Tom Kenny and Tara Strong reprising their roles as Batman, Penguin, and Harley Quinn, the rest of the voice cast is pretty spot-on. I was curious to see how Tony Hale would do as The Joker, and while a bit off-putting at first, he does a good job capturing that zany crazy nature of the character. As you can tell, many of the actors in this film pull double shifts with voicing multiple characters, but they are each unique sounding enough to not be an issue or a distracting element to the overall film. It was also simply fun to see other villains outside of the main Batman library, like Gorilla Grodd, who is definitely one of the more entertaining aspects of the film.

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While I do love this film in terms of how willing it is to be not only visually creative, but fun with its plot and setting, I do have a few complaints. I get why they used CGI animation, and it’s not the worst I have seen, but it definitely shows itself at times with how limiting it is. Sometimes characters seem more like puppets, and less like actual characters that are on the screen. It’s even more distracting when you can tell that not everyone is a CGI model. It is better than what I have seen Polygon Pictures or the Berserk series use, but I wish they went full-stop 2D animation for this film. For as fun as the action is, the final battle that is not Batman and The Joker is really underwhelming. You have all of these amazing villains and characters with the unlimited creativity of anime fight sequences, and the villains end up losing in under a minute. It’s really underwhelming, because all the other action sequences in the film are great. The one full 2D sequence was fun to see in the film, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. I don’t think I fully got why it was only that one scene, and why it was animated in such a way. The rest of the complaints are minor, like even though I respect how much the film wrapped itself up in the anime culture, some parts were just a bit much, like the little monkey sidekick. Some of Batman’s sidekicks also don’t have a lot to do, or get that many line reads.

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Overall, Batman Ninja is just a fun movie. By the end of the year, it probably won’t be in my top ten or five, depending on what else comes out, but it will be one that people should definitely pick up. If you were burned by their other animated features, definitely pick this one up. I had a lot of fun, and it’s easily one of the most entertaining DC animated films you can get right now. For now, we must move on to the 130th review as we take a look at another film that may be good or bad for infamous reasons. I won’t say what it is, but you will have to see next time! Thanks for reading the review! I hope you enjoyed it, and I will see you all next time.

Rating: Go See It!