A Bright And Silly Dip Into the Deep
Aquaman: King of Atlantis: "Chapter 1, Dead Sea"
I'll be honest, I haven't kept up with the world of cartoons and all the directions they've gone. While I watch shows like Archer, Rick and Morty, and Lower Decks, other shows like Adventure Time and Thundercats Roar totally passed me by. I don't have kids so I only have to watch the shows I want to watch without worrying about younger sensibilities.
I mention all this because the new DC three-part event, Aquaman: King of Atlantis, is obviously designed to mimic or mirror some other style of animation that I haven't watched before. It has a very specific sensibility that I could swear I've seen in commercials for other cartoons but I don't know if I've actually seen it elsewhere or I'm just making that up in my own head. It's made by Warner Bros., of course, and has James Wan's production company backing it, but whatever animation influence may have led to the development of this AquamanRaised by his fully-human father, Arthur Curry has a history even he didn't know about until he grew: that he was the half-human, half-Atlantean son of the once-Queen of Atlantis, and was destined one day to be it's rightful ruler, the Aquaman. series, I just can't say. It seems unique, but I'm not certain if it actually is unique or simply just reactionary.
The cartoon is certainly meant for younger audiences. In comparison to the so-called "Snyderverse", this Aquaman isn't grim-dark or gritty. It's quite the opposite, having the look and feel of an old Nicktoon from way back, just filtered through an animation style that seems to have exaggerated and amplified those old sensibilities. This does feel like a specific, natural evolution for animation, and for DC's brand, and experiment that had to happen if for no other reason than to take this style of animation and storytelling to it's limits. Whether or not the show is actually good, though, is another question altogether.
In this first episode of the three-part event we meet Aquaman (voiced by Cooper Andrews) who had just defeated Ocean Master (off screen) to become the leader of Atlantis. As Aquaman rightly points out, he had a fight with the king and that made him king, which seems like a terrible way to decide who gets to rule the undersea kingdom. Regardless, having ascended the throne, Aqua now has to rule a people that don't know him and frankly don't seem to care for him at all. Maybe that's just his anxiety over suddenly being a king speaking, but it does shove our new King of Atlantis to do something big and bold to earn the respect of his people.
When his advisor Vulko (Thomas Lennon), armed with a whole list of things the King needs to address, mentions that Outpost 4 on the outskirts of the kingdom hasn't been heard from in 7 years, the king grabs his best gal Mera (Gillian Jacobs) to head out to the outpost and see what's going on. What they find, instead of an underwater town, though, is a bubble of air, a dessert of ocean sand where there's supposed to be ocean. Something has drained away all the water and it might have something to do with a giant mining rig suddenly going after the ores of the ocean floor. Aquaman and Mera have to investigate, but what they find might just shake up the balance of power for all of Atlantis.
Episode one of Aquaman: King of Atlantis, "Dead Sea", was frankly not my cup of tea. Don't get me wrong, it was bright and colorful and silly enough that i could see a lot of younger kids really enjoying it. It's a largely cartoony) and not just because it's a cartoon) and harmless bit of fun without too much violence (despite it's superhero roots). Even what a big fight happens it resolves itself with baseball bats and robots. I've certainly seen worse, and I could understand how kids would find it fun while adults would find it largely inoffensive. In comparison to even some of what the old Nicktoons cranked out for kids (Ren and Stimpy and Rocko's Modern Life both come to mind), this is pretty darn mild for kids.
That being said, it was an absolute chore to get through this film as I am at least three decades removed from (what I assume is) the target demographic. I watched it because it has Aquaman in the name, and I assume a number of adults will sit down with their little tater tots to watch a bright and colorful cartoon. I just doubt many of those adults will make it very far into the cartoon before they get out their phones and start browsing anything else. This cartoon is just a mess.
We could get into many of the issues, from the fact that most of the characters we meet are absolutely obnoxious, and the named characters are the absolute worst. Mera, for instance, is a one-note character who just wants to hit everything, a far cry from her comic book characterization. The side and ancillary characters are worse in that they don't even have one-note, just silly voices and weird designs to make them funny. And then you factor in a running gag about baseball (for no reason) that only works when it's Aquaman doing the talking. There's very little of interest, or amusement, in this cartoon at all.
I also, frankly, hated the drawing and animation style. Again, I think this must be inspired by other cartoons that are out now (without knowing the names because I'm an old fogey apparently), but honestly, inspired by something else or not, this art style sucks. It has the weird, almost grotesque qualities of some Ren and Stimpy with an even more abstracted sense to character designs and movement. I'm not necessarily looking for reality with my cartoons -- I do enjoy Teen Titans, and that cartoon is far removed from reality -- but I like a certain amount of consistency, and a little artistic style, to my cartoons and I just didn't get what this show was going for. I feel so out of it.
That said, the one really bright spot was Aquaman himself. He runs the whole episode as straight man. He's a fish out of water (pun unintended but greatly enjoyed) that's thrust into a world so unbelievably foreign to him. His reactions to all the shenanigans around him are pretty good and it almost makes the special watchable on its own. It wasn't enough to carry the cartoon but the few times I did laugh were because of Aquaman and voice actor Cooper Andrews's delivery. Whatever else you might have to say about this episode, Aquaman is the center of his show and he does great within the confines.
Still, I just don't get what this cartoon was really going for. If the animation was supposed to provide a bigger draw than I was seeing it obviously didn't work for me. That, coupled with flat character personalities, a lack of good humor, and animation that left me less than thrilled, all combined to make a show I would have turned off if it weren't for Aquaman (if I even tuned it at all). There are two more episodes and I have to hope, due to the cliffhanger we got at the end of this episode, that the show finds a new direction to take the humor (with a lot less talk of baseball). There's a little tiny core here that works and the show needs to compound that to really make good on its premise.