When people talk about Netflix Original Series, we think of shows like House of Cards or Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Netflix has generated a number of acclaimed, live action series that have strong followings and rave reviews, and their brand is one that has generated a great deal of respect and anticipation over the last year or so. What many don’t discuss, however, are the animated original series that Netflix has worked to develop.
Though many of Netflix’s animated series have been continuations of other network’s work (see Star Wars: Clone Wars Season 6) or target young audiences, Netflix has also worked with a variety of animation studios to develop new, engaging titles aimed at an older viewership. These animated series develop new stories, introduce nuanced characters, and even breathe new life into old franchises. The three series below are just a handful of what Netflix has been working on, that have been flying under the mainstream radar.
Voltron: Legendary Defender
A reboot of the 1984 Voltron franchise, Voltron: Legendary Defender was produced by DreamWorks Animation and World Event Productions, and animated by Studio Mir (known for their work on Legend of Korra). The first season aired on Netflix back in June, and has quietly been growing in popularity since. The trailer for season two dropped last week, and is set to air in January of 2017.
Voltron is a delightful blend of Power Rangers meets the visual playfulness of Korra to create a fun, character-driven narrative about five Paladins who are chosen to form the weapon, Voltron, in order to save the galaxy. The cast features a wide range of characters, from the seasoned soldier, Shiro, to the sweet, tech-oriented Pidge and the capable Princess Allura. Each character has unique motivations that viewers watch develop as they’re pulled from their average lives and into a ten-thousand year old conflict with the Gallra–a race of aliens that conquered the galaxy and hope to capture Voltron to secure their reign.
What makes Voltron unique is its character focus. We’ve seen the ‘save the galaxy’ narrative time and time again, across multiple mediums. Voltron adds a fresh twist with new characters that defy their stereotypical tropes and face their problem with the realization that they don’t have the resources they need to complete the task they are given. They cope with feelings of homesickness, loss, trauma, identity, and it shapes and drives the narrative, rather than being hollow afterthoughts thrown into the rush of a linear plot. It brings an unexpected depth to the narrative, and provides empathetic hits with believable characters.
Voltron is accessible to multiple audiences, finding viewers in young audiences, as well as adults who knew the original series, or are familiar with Korra and enjoy Studio Mir’s work. It takes the benefits of its predecessor, and combines them with quality animation and nuanced writing to create an animated series you don’t want to miss.
BoJack Horseman got off to a rocky start when it debuted on Netflix back in 2014, but has since reached critical acclaim amongst its viewership. Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and designed and illustrated by Lisa Hanawalt (both known for working together on the webcomic, Tip Me Over, Pour Me Out), BoJack follows the lead character, an anthropomorphic horse named BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett), as he navigates his life as a washed-up, former sitcom star who’s looking to reclaim his celebrity status. He plans to dictate his autobiography to his human ghost writer, Diane Nguyen, to break back into the scene, while also navigating the various relationships in his life and the complex network that is the setting of Hollywood and the film industry.
BoJack has become known for its satirical nature and heartbreaking blend of bleakness and joy, as it takes the familiar tropes around a middle-aged man (or horse, in this instance) making bad decisions, and develops them in a believable, empathetic manner. BoJack’s behavior is not excused, or justified when he blows opportunity after opportunity, but is cast in a sympathetic light in the face of his depression and leads viewers to empathize with his pain. His character is a classic anti-hero, but is built in such a way that one can understand where he comes from and empathize with him, in spite of his flaws.
The setting is also filled with colorful characters, who each have their own struggles and flaws, their own intimacies and backgrounds that provide a bright, expansive world. BoJack is not the only POV the viewer has access to: each character stands on their own, rather than as hollow stereotypes. Princess Carolyn is a great example of such a character, who is introduced as BoJack’s off-again-on-again girlfriend and agent. She struggles to find the intimacy she seeks from dead-end relationship to dead-end relationship, while also dealing with the pressures of her career and the constant ladder-climbing that has been a part of it. She’s a great example of a sharp, motivated talent agent who often puts her work before her relationships, and lacks foresight when she becomes involved with someone new. Her writing is refined, making her relatable as she struggles with her work and the stresses it places on her personal life.
Season two is the fan favorite, though three has had a similar impact after its release back in July, with a fourth season set to air Summer 2017. BoJack Horseman is certainly targeted at an adult audience, and gives new energy to the adult animated comedy-drama genre with a healthy dose of heart and emotional impact.
Knights of Sidonia
Netflix’s animated genre collection would not be complete without at least one anime title, of which they now have many. Knights of Sidonia was Netflix’s first original anime series, based off the mecha manga by Tsutomu Nihei, and produced by Polygon Pictures.
Set in the year 3394, the narrative opens one thousand years after Earth was destroyed by a shape-shifting alien species–the Gauna–and humanity fled to space aboard hundreds of massive spaceships built from the remains of the planet. The narrative follows the Sidonia, one of these planet-fragment ships which has built its own culture and adapted to survive in the expanse of space. The narrative follows pilot Nagate Tanikaze, who was born on a lower level of the Sidonia and trained as a Guardian (the weapon robots used to protect the ship) pilot with his grandfather. After his grandfather’s death, he moves to the surface of the ship, and is selected as a pilot as a new conflict with the Gauna begins.
A bit heavier in narrative weight, Knights of Sidonia does grind at points, but develops a complex world and breaks away from some of the expected anime tropes. The conflict with the Guana is complex, and the interactions between characters feels genuine and realistic, edging away from the more gimmicky end of the anime genre. The animation also combines 2D visual design with 3D animation to produce a look that is becoming familiar in many of Netflix’s anime: Knights set the standard.
Knights was a huge success in Japan when it aired, reaching critical acclaim and receiving nods from many industry professionals. Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear game series, went so far to claim that, “It’s a kind of anime that we haven’t seen for a while that has that sci-fi spirit. Using digital technology cultivated through games, it creates animation that encapsulates Japan’s cultural assets like manga, cel animation, kanji, giant robots, etc. What’s born is a unique made-in-Japan work that could never be cooked up in Hollywood. Japanese culture has lost its “cool,” and Knights of Sidonia will be the white knight that saves it” [Anime News Network, June 2014]. American audiences reacted with a different level of eagerness, as many enjoyed the series, but found it a touch slow at points, and found some of the plot twists to be strange and unexpected. All the same, Knights of Sidonia is worth the watch, and is another series that Netflix has quietly distributed through its platform.
There are many other series that Netflix has been adding to their Original Series, and they continue to build a breadth of programing for all ages. Be sure to check out some of their new animated series, as there are hidden gems in their programing that would else wise go overlooked.
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