Thursday, December 10, 2015

It Bugs Me - Miraculous Ladybug Episode 1

Back in 2012, I stumbled across this little preview for an anime known only as "Ladybug."

I immediately fell in love. Part of it was the fact that I had already started going by "DaLadybugMan" at this point and knew that I had to do something to cover it when it came out. But then time went by. The anime didn't come out. after remembering it and doing some looking, I found out that it was now a CGI cartoon called Miraculous Ladybug that was being produced for a global audience. Which, you know...kind of good, kind of bad. CGI isn't inherently bad, and the series got a huge budget for it so at least it's good CGI. I was going to miss some things, but I kept telling myself that it might still be good.

Then we saw the first trailer.

"Okay," I thought. "So maybe it'll be okay. I mean, I think the music sounds absolutely terrible, but at least the animation does look pretty fluid...."

I kept telling myself that I was ready for it to premiere here in the US under the name Miraculous - Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir. It was airing in South Korea first (for reasons I still don't quite understand), and I incorrectly assumed that no one would be subbing it into English. Then it did premiere, I watched it, and was as disappointed as I hoped I wouldn't actually be.

I watched it before work, so I pretty much had a full eight hours to ponder what exactly it is that disappointed me about this first episode so much. Was it because it was different from what I had expected? Were my biases towards how it looks in 2D affecting my judgment? I came to the conclusion that, no, they weren't. It's just a bad episode of television on its own.

What Could Have Been

Look, I'm not going to sit here and say that my experience of this show wasn't colored by the trailer I'd been hyping over for so long. It definitely was. But it's precisely because that trailer does so much well that I'm not seeing from the show. The Ladybug PV manages to, in three minutes, tell some form of story and set up a world that Miraculous just didn't quite give me. So let's take a look at some of these elements that don't quite work out right.

Note: To distinguish, I'll be using the term "PV" to refer to the 2D preview, as that's how previews for anime are labeled and referred to by the fandom. Conversely, I'll be referring to the CG animated product as either Miraculous or Miraculous Ladybug.

The Romance

The PV spends some time setting up the dynamic between Marinette/Felix and Ladybug/Cat Noir. At this point, let me just point out that Felix is the original incarnation of the character who would eventually become Adrien, the character who is Cat Noir in Miraculous. Honestly, just from the bit of personality and story we get from both Felix and Adrien, I feel confident in saying that Adrien is a better character and a good change. But back to the romance.

In the PV, there are two dynamics. There's the one between Marinette and Felix, in which Marinette makes advances on Felix and is turned down, and the one between Ladybug and Cat Noir, their secret identities, in which Cat Noir is the one making the advances and being turned down. It's this interesting love triangle that somehow manages to exist between only two people.

In Miraculous, the angle is still there...almost. Cat Noir is still crushing on Ladybug, Ladybug is still turning him down, and Marinette is still crushing on Adrien. However, in this case, Marinette's issue isn't that Adrien is turning her down, it's that Marinette can't bring herself to reveal her feelings. It's a slight difference, but it's one that completely changes the dynamic. Now, if they end up discovering each other's identities, there's an implication that they'll immediately get together, because why wouldn't they? Adrien doesn't dislike Marinette, he just doesn't know that he exists. On the other hand, were Marinette and Felix to discover each other's identities, there would still be tension. Would that knowledge bolster the crush or destroy it? It's far more interesting.

Also, the way it's presented now has the side effect of making our protagonist look like a creepy, obsessed stalker. Ew.

The Atmosphere

The PV had a very "fighting evil by moonlight" vibe, i.e., Ladybug and Cat Noir spend their days as ordinary students, but fight evil at night because, presumably, that's when evil typically rears its head. This particular trope doesn't necessarily make for a good show, but what it's provided here is fantastic atmosphere. The music is almost a bit wistful and melancholy, and most the shots of Ladybug and Cat Noir take place at dusk or night, accompanied on occasion by rather dramatic poses. This suggests that, while half of the show is a lighthearted and cute romp, the other half of the show will be taking itself seriously. In Miraculous, so far I've gotten the sense that everything is going to be fairly brightly colored, probably because of how CG in general looks. Still, it's no longer seems as somber and reflective as it originally did. Now it's much more bright and cheery, and I think that also makes it less unique.

What I hoped for

 What I got

What Just Wasn't

Okay, so let me just put aside what's missing from PV because that doesn't matter if the show can stand on its own merits. So let me go through the first episode of Miraculous and talk about why it just does not work.

A Nonsensical Villain

The villain we get in this first episode of Miraculous is called the Bubbler. Now, it looks like the villains in this show are going to be normal people who, in a moment of weakness, are turned evil by these dark butterflies called Akuma that the main villain, Hawk Moth, controls. The Bubbler is an evil form of Nino, Adrian's best friend. That's fine. The issue is that he's a terribly designed villain, just because his design doesn't make any sense. We see Nino blowing soap bubbles at a few points in the lead-up to him becoming the Bubbler, but it doesn't seem to be a big part of his personality or play any role in the story. The Bubbler's physical design doesn't seem to bear a particularly close resemblance to Nino. While the bubbles may look fairly cool in terms of animation, they also don't make a lot of sense thematically relative to the episode and most of what we see the Bubbler do isn't even bubble-related.

What about this screams "DJ?"

What Nino gets hung up on is the fact that Adrian's father refuses to let him have a birthday party, leading him to believe that all adults stifle kids' freedom and that kids would be better off without them. So he turns into a guy with a bubble-themed design, who then DJs a party where he forces all the kids to dance and have fun. What exactly is the link between these three things? If he had been designed around the idea of a DJ, okay, fine. At least that's consistent with what he actually does in the episode. He's brightly colored and looks a bit like a harlequin, so if he were themed more around a jester or a children's toy or something that either ties into acting like a child or encouraging fun, that'd again be at least somewhat consistent. But instead, we get the nonsensical atrocity that is the Bubbler.

Plot Threads, Tangled Up and Snipped Short

There were some really good ideas introduced in this episode. You had Marinette's jealousy and Adrien's indulgence getting in the way of their hero work. You had Adrien's relationship with his father. You had the idea that parents, while sometimes oppressive, are necessary. None of those ideas went anywhere.

The show's aimed more towards kids now than it originally was, but you can't do that even in a kids' show these days. The episode has multiple separate ideas it touches on, but none are explored fully. The episode isn't built around them. Marinette gets berated for abusing her power, but it's waved aside with a quick "I'm sorry." There's no real buildup for Adrien's revelation that his being taken in by the idea of a party has made him irresponsible. Adrien's relationship with his father doesn't have any sort of payoff. And you'd think that an episodic kids' show would try to shoehorn in a moral about how adults aren't trying to stifle kids' freedoms, but there's no payoff for that apart from a half-hearted argument in the midst of a fight scene, and it's undercut by Adrien's father not really having any real reason for being oppressive. Maybe if it had been twice as long, it could have felt more conclusive and executed on its themes better. As it is, it's just a jumble of ideas that don't go anywhere.

On Origins (and Origins)

So in looking a few things up for this writeup, I've discovered that Miraculous has, in the US, been Firefly'd. This premiere episode was actually the second episode that aired in France and South Korea. So my evaluating it as a premiere episode is a little bit unfair, but that doesn't mean that I'm not going to do it anyway!

If Nickelodeon thought that this was the best first episode to put forward, that really does not bode well for the show. In addition to the meandering plot and the poorly designed villain, it feels like it's just a random episode of an episodic show. There's no indication of what's come before or what will come after. I can see every episode from here on out following the pattern of "person gets upset, Hawk Moth sends an akuma to possess them, Ladybug and Cat Noir defeat them, and alongside all of that there's some story about Adrien and Marinette's cat-and-mouse (or cat-and-bug) relationship." Sure, the details may be different, but it ultimately seems like it's a status quo show. And the fact that they're presenting the second episode as the first one really gives me the sense that they're all going to be interchangable.

Why do this? Why, in this digital era of television when people crave long-running plots that they can either marathon online or discuss on the internet each week? The people who do that are getting younger and younger. Does the show not realize this?

So how should the show have started? Well, probably with an origin story. It's basically a superhero show, and most superhero media begins with the origin story. Maybe that's there in the first episode, in which case Nickelodeon's decision is even more puzzling. But maybe it's coming later as a flashback, or maybe not at all. That can still work, but the first episode still has to have some sort of inciting incident. There's been a peace and something has disturbed it. Maybe Hawk Moth has appeared on the scene for the first time. Maybe it's an origin story for one member of the duo. Even the most episodic of shows more often than not take some time to actually set a few things up. Miraculous? Nah, it'll just throw you into any given episode. It's not that the show isn't straightforward enough that you can pick up on what's happening. It's that there's no long-term narrative, and consequently no reason to be invested.

A Bit of Positivity 

Look, I don't want to be completely negative. So at this point, I'm just going to say "there's still time." A lot of the ideas I'm drawn to are still in there. The original three villains we saw in the PV still all exist in some form. The fights might still be interesting. The rest of the episodes could be written better. It's not like a series has never had a bad episode before, especially early on. And it's not like it's a different series altogether. It's still the same series, it's just taken a slightly different direction. I may not be optimistic at this point, but I want to believe.

Don't let me down, France.

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