Vox Machina has saved adult cartoons. Here’s why.

‘The Legend of Vox Machina’ set records as one of the most quickly funded campaigns in Kickstarter history, and the most funded Kickstarter for TV and film projects – ever. Here’s how this fan-backed project has proven that adult animation can be more.

Beginning life as a Dungeons & Dragons livestream that spanned two years and 115 episodes, the story of Vox Machina represented the best case scenario for a D&D game – long-running, complex and emotional. When creators Critical Role began their Kickstarter for one animated special, fans accidentally raised so much money that two seasons were put into production with Amazon Prime.

What a win, for such a nerdy phenomenon to be acknowledged by larger streaming services! But I was very worried about ‘TLOVM’. As a fan of Critical Role, D&D and animation alike, stakes were high. I watched the original stream, and couldn’t comprehend how 447 hours of problem-solving and roleplaying could be converted to TV without hurting the story, or being turned into glorified fan-service. Surely, I thought, no one unfamiliar with Critical Role or D&D would care. Right?

Happily, I was wrong. All my concerns were met with a wholly unexpected triumph, somehow fit for fans and ready for new watchers. I dare say that TLOVM has shown the industry what mainstream adult animation can be.

Here’s my problem with ‘adult animation’. More often than not that phrase means 2D visuals, risqué humour and a reliance on animation as medium, not animation as art. Think Family Guy and Bojack Horseman – loved, but forgive me, not pushing the boundaries artistically. These shows don’t necessarily need to be realised through animation. They just, are. And that’s fine, but ‘maturity’ means more than offensive jokes or existentialism with no in-between. Sure, these shows likely draw in broader audiences by being less ‘cartoony’ – I get that. But this has resulted in a lack of animated shows which balance genuine visual creativity and adult themes. Western shows, that is (you’re doing great, Japan!).

This is what sets TLOVM apart. From the get-go, it uses animation artfully to bring incredible concepts to life, taking its lead from more imaginative children’s cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Batman: The Animated Series and wearing that inspiration on its sleeve. Nothing stays childlike for long, however; audiences will be surprised by the deft jumps between romance, hilarity and genuine horror. It’s all controlled by a consistent undercurrent – like all good TV, this is a show about people. Despite condensing sprawling storylines from the original livestream into more succinct set pieces, the show takes its sweet time with its characters, allowing relationships to develop believably. After all, who does have time to pursue their crush when they’re trying not to get killed or arrested? Not me.

Plus, with seven protagonists, dynamics and development simply can’t be rushed. Reminiscent of many games, season one feels like a tutorial – it sets up a baseline understanding of the world and cast by centring on one character, Percy, as the group dive into his dark backstory and confront his (literal) demons. Mini-boss style villains are battled one-by-one, becoming increasingly dangerous until the team arrives at the final nerve-wracking showdown.

With its second season, TLOVM again throws the formulaic nature of most adult animation to the wind, allowing more characters to borrow the spotlight and tackling multiple threads at once. Thankfully, the season is guided by a clear overarching goal thanks to a new set of villains that raise the stakes tenfold: an impressively realised set of 3D dragons who inject the show with even more fun and visual appeal.

Having shown a clear willingness to pace itself carefully and give each beat and character the attention it deserves, the future looks bright for ensuing seasons of this show, and for mature animation as a whole. As an existing fan, I love this show for the way that it has honoured a beloved story, but even more so for the lengths it has gone to in carving out its own space in the wider cartoon landscape.

Minty’s takeaway:

Don’t let this show’s complex origins put you off. Fantasy fan or not, you’ll feel the love and care poured into every frame of this refreshing story.

2 Replies to “Vox Machina has saved adult cartoons. Here’s why.”

  1. Love what you did here and love you !
    Articulate, comprehensive and obviously a lover of the genre .

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