Welcome to this week's animation round-up—now 66 percent larger but still fat free! This week, Khyber finally confronted Ben on Omniverse, Hondo made a move against the Jedi younglings on The Clone Wars, and Leo and Raph debated the merits of mercy on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Plus, we’ve decided to visit Equestria to see what’s going on with this Crystal Empire in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. And just in case that's not enough, we’re also traveling the Land of Ooo to help Finn and Jake face the Lich on Adventure Time. MATHEMATICAL!
“Of Predators and Prey” (Part 1) is the sort of episode that, for me anyway, tends to require more build-up than it receives. Partners split up over the course of the episode after some slight, as happened to Ben and Rook here, and it often feels too contrived since resentment doesn’t believably develop between the characters prior to the episode.
This episode was no exception. Ben has been cocky to a fault for a while, and as Rook pointed out, he’s needed saving much of the time, too. The issue I have is that Rook’s never displayed any animosity about this until now, and thus his departure felt more motivated by Ben stealing his spiel about being proactive in finding Khyber’s dog than anything else—not the most compelling reason to ditch Ben in Undertown. Sure, you can argue that Ben’s lackadaisical attitude toward Ester’s arrest in the previous episode was a sign of this conflict, but, again, nothing felt as fleshed out as it could.
It's too bad, since this aspect of their relationship helps to deepen the whole "mismatched partners" thing Ben 10: Omniverse has been attempting to do, even if it not very successfully. Despite the suddenness of the storyline, I do like Rook’s frustration with Ben’s attitude, and it’s something, hopefully, both should learn from.
Sadly, “Of Predators and Prey” pulled the rug out from under my earlier theorizing about Ben facing past enemies who have come back to haunt him. I assumed that Khyber was working for an old rival of Ben’s, but it turned out that Khyber’s employer, Dr. Psychobos, is a brand-new villain for the series, as is Malware, the character we’ve been seeing in the 11-year-old Ben flashbacks. I’m a touch disappointed with all this, but seeing as my ideas were based purely on experiences with this iteration of the franchise, I have only myself to blame.
Because The Clone Wars likes making me look like a jerk, we’re in for a four-episode arc with the younglings, and this was the second episode. While I maintain that “The Gathering” wasn’t the most interesting or even fun installment so far, “A Test of Strength” was a bit better, even if I had problems with Hondo’s presence.
First the good, and that’s mostly the delight of hearing a slightly modulated version of David Tennant’s voice as the lightsaber teacher droid Huyang. Tennant was in full Doctor Who mode here, as quick with a compliment as he was with an politely chastising remark and plenty of random asides as he searched through drawers for materials (if it weren’t for the context, I’d have sworn he was rifling through the TARDIS for something).
Hondo’s arrival, however, felt really forced. I get that he’s a pirate and that he’s a mercenary, but his chaotic neutral alignment makes him almost too flexible a character, a too-easy way to fill a gap in the narrative since his base motivation is, as he explained in the episode, simply profit. But he also veered into uncharacteristically creep-tastic territory at the end, when he decided to turn the captured Ahsoka “into profit.” While there’s little he can do with Ahsoka other than hold her for ransom, the implications of that statement are just icky, especially when directed toward a female character.
I still feel like the younglings are largely defined by single traits (Zatt’s good with machines; Petro’s an impulsive, if clever, brat) but given that we have two more episodes and they’re going to be on their own in saving Ahsoka from Hondo (where did Yoda get off to?), hopefully they’ll be developed a bit more.
While I’ve liked certain elements of individual Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episodes so far, I’ve never been keen on an episode as a whole... until “Never Say Xever.”
"Never Say Xever" was thematically coherent and provided an opportunity not only for Splinter to deliver a lesson to one of the turtles, but for the turtles themselves to engage in a discussion about the episode’s focus. Whereas previous episodes have been focused on just a single turtle with everyone else as a supporting role, this episode put Leo and Raph on opposing sides of an argument, and as a result, it had more of an ensemble vibe, which I really liked.
Leo and Raph’s opposing views on the value of mercy allowed growth for both characters. Leo learned more about the responsibilities of being a leader and Raph learned that his violence-first approach doesn’t always work. The show making room for these opposing views resulted in an episode that felt fuller, with good narrative calories instead of bad filler calories.
“Never Say Xever” also expanded the turtles’ universe a bit by introducing Murakami’s noodle shop. While I don’t expect TMNT to give up its lair scenes between action set pieces, at least now the turtles have someplace else to occasionally hang out (and April doesn’t have to go into the sewers to see them). And perhaps Murakami can give Splinter a week off in doling out bits of wisdom.
Plus, the show's action and the humor have both improved. The fight scenes in each act of "Never Say Xever" were well-staged and exciting. Even the big climax, with all the Foot Soldiers swarming, didn’t feel overworked and busy—as it easily could have, given all the characters in the sequence. One-liners and jokes weren’t overly hokey or too kiddie-pandering. Mike’s face tattoo idea being visualized as the 1987 version of Mike’s face? Terrific.
Did the episode have little niggling flaws? Sure. It employed two big cliches, with a hostage hanging by a fraying rope and villains in their moment of triumph becoming a bickering married couple, providing time for a last-minute escape. But while there’s not much excuse for the former, the latter allowed the episode’s theme to land, and I’m always in favor of a cliche being used for some larger purpose.
As is par for the course so far for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, it started its new season with a big adventure story. Celestia dispatched Twilight Sparkle and the gang to the far north as the Crystal Empire, a city in Equestria that'd been missing for 1,000 years, suddenly reappeared. But things weren’t all well there as the evil King Sombra, who cursed the city to disappear in the first place, was creeping ever closer to reclaiming control.
Cadence and Shining Armor were already there, with Cadence keeping a barrier in place by using her natural abilities to spread love to stop a smoky Sombra (complete with Lost-esque sound effects) from reaching the city. But Cadence was on her last hoof, so the girls (and Spike) set about trying to figure out how save the Crystal Empire and its subjects. The plan involved throwing the annual Crystal Faire and powering the Crystal Heart with the love and unity of the Crystal Ponies.
And it was this plot that mades the two-parter just a bit less effective than other adventure-heavy stories. There wasn't a huge connection between the gang and the Crystal Empire, and it lacked a real oomph as a result. Twilight’s concern over failing the test and no longer being Celestia’s student, along with Cadence’s faltering health, were supposed to provide the big emotional component, but it still felt disconnected from the rest of the ensemble, who were busing running the Faire while Twilight hunted down the Crystal Heart.
I think back to “The Return Of Harmony,” the Season 2 opener, as an example of when this sort of story works well. The main ponies were at the center of it, and it challenged their bonds and personalities in very real ways (not real enough to alter the status quo, of course, but I’m not expecting it to). “The Crystal Empire” lacked that particular emotional connection and suffered a bit for it. On top of that, we’ve done Twilight anxieties before, and we’ve seen Cadence look haggard.
Beyond all that, the adventure was still good on its own. It was well-plotted, and Twilight’s exploration of Sombra’s version of the castle was entertaining, particularly her gravity spell to scale the never-ending spiral stairs. And there was plenty of humor (Pinkie Pie in motley and juggling flugelhorns was a highlight, as was Fluttershy jousting with Rainbow Dash), and I really enjoyed “The Failure Song” in Part 1, but I almost always enjoy the songs in the series.
And perhaps the series is setting something up. Twilight had to rely on dark magic to make it to the Crystal Heart, and we even saw Celestia get a little dark. It was pretty creepy, and I was more than a little worried that Twilight was going to fall to the dark side, as it were. But given that Celestia and Luna gave a knowing nod after Luna summoned a book at the end of Part 2, I’m expecting that all to come back in some way.
And speaking of the dark side, Sombra is the third antagonist of the series who’s been colored black (I’m counting Luna during her Night Mare Moon time). I’m not thrilled with the racial implications of this, especially considering the apparent lack of other similarly colored ponies on the show. On a series that's generally good about positive representations, this is an odd oversight.
When Adventure Time's fourth season ended a mere three weeks ago, things seemed dire in the Land of Ooo, let alone for the fates of Finn and Jake. A quick recap of “The Lich”: Teaming up with Billy (possessed by the Lich), Finn and Jake gathered the magical gems from Ooo’s princesses and the Ice King’s crystals and put them in the Enchiridion. In the struggle to stop the Lich from harnessing the power of the Enchiridion, Finn broke the book, but it only opened a wormhole that the Lich then went through. Finn and Jake, of course, go after him.
Oh, and then the episode ended with Finn in an alternate reality, where he had a mom and a flute and a cyborg arm (and a nose!) and Jake was just a regular dog. This world had been hinted at in a few episodes, including “King Worm” and “Mortal Folly.”
So what did it all mean?
At it's core, the two-part Season 5 premiere was reflective of how both Finn and Jake behave. Finn wants to kick ass and go on adventures to save the world. Jakes wants to hang out and relax with a sandwich. So after learning that the Lich wished for all life in the universe to be eradicated, Finn wished for a world without a the Lich, and that resulted in the Alternate-Wish World we saw at the end of the “The Lich.” Things went horribly bad, of course, as the Alternate-Wish World was sort of like Ooo, but a place wherein Simon Petrikov (not fully the Ice King, but getting close) managed to stop the dropping of atomic/mutagenic bombs and saved the world.
But fate, as we all know, had other plans in mind. Alternate-Wish World Finn was still just as headstrong and morally pure as our Finn, and he did battle with the Destiny Gang (a plot device to get us to the inevitable end) by donning the Ice King’s crown (guarded by an ancient-er Alternate-Wish World Marceline, voiced by Cloris Leachman!). This caused Alternate-Wish World Finn to to go insane, and he inadvertently set off the bomb that Petrikov stopped centuries ago, putting Ooo on the same path as before and giving rise to the Lich, who possessed Alternate-Wish World Jake.
Elsewhere, the regular Jake was hanging out with the wish-granting Prismo in the Time Room, and he wished for a sandwich. Prismo, being a lonely god-like entity, simply offered to make a sandwich for Jake, encouraging him to hold onto his wish for someone who may need it (like Alternate-Wish World Finn, who was slowly losing his mind). So they relaxed in a hot tub, talking about relationships. The Cosmic Owl stopped by, and they watched the Alternate-Wish World on the wall. And it was so Jake; he was ready to step in when his buddy needed him, but he trusted his buddy, so, with the aid of Prismo (who REALLY wanted a friend), managed to wish for the Lich’s wish to be that Finn and Jake would just go home.
It was an incredibly compelling narrative; Adventure Time seems honestly dedicated to fleshing out its world. Even if it be an Alternate-Wish World, the show wouldn’t waste its time on a version of the events leading to the world Finn and Jake normally adventure in. Not only that, but even with all the craziness of the Alternate-Wish World, the centralness of Finn’s and Jake’s personalities kept the episodes grounded and meaningful.
And there was plenty of humor, including Choose Bruce instead of Choose Goose, Prismo’s inability to handle relationships because he didn’t want to debate what to eat with a woman every night, and his acknowledgment that his wishes are “like a Monkey’s Paw sort of thing.” And I’m all about references to “The Monkey’s Paw.”