“Arcane: League Of Legends” Part 1 Review!

As someone whose only second-hand experience with League Of Legends is through the massive multiplayer online game’s soundtrack of epic original music, I’ll be totally honest: until last week when I finally started getting bombarded with marketing for Arcane: League Of Legends, I had almost no interest in nor preconceptions about the Netflix adaptation which longtime fans of the game have been waiting for with bated breath. And the biggest thing holding me back was my concern that Arcane would be inaccessible to anyone unfamiliar with League Of Legends, its complex worldbuilding, and its sprawling ensemble cast of heroes and villains.

Arcane: League Of Legends | engadget.com

But for every time that Arcane suddenly throws an out-of-context piece of lore at the viewer and usually expects you to just roll with it (which is fairly easy in most cases), the animated series doubles down on establishing a single approachable storyline with just enough characters and fantastical plot devices to keep things lively, but never so many that a viewer new to the franchise will feel completely lost. Arcane‘s first three episodes provide a concrete baseline from which to expand and develop the world of League Of Legends in the near future.

And when I say near, I mean like next week. The three episodes currently available on Netflix are only the first segment of Arcane season one, which will be released in intervals between now and November 20th. Binge-watchers might take issue with this release strategy, but Arcane‘s episodes are significantly longer than the norm when it comes to animated television, so these three episodes together could make for at least one thoroughly satisfying evening. Each episode leaves you urgently wanting more, but episode three especially delivers in that regard, with a cliffhanger ending that actually got me to gasp out loud. Fans of the game are possibly familiar with certain…developments, but I definitely wasn’t.

Arcane follows two sisters, Violet (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld of Hawkeye) and Powder (voiced by Mia Sinclair Jenness), who as I understand it both become major characters in the League Of Legends game universe. Arcane, however, opens during a pivotal moment in their childhood, and explores their early days on the streets of Zaun, a dimly-lit and crime-ridden city built underneath the prosperous town of Piltover, where a steampunk renaissance is underway. Navigating a rapidly growing social and class divide requires the sisters to make hard choices and more than a few sacrifices if they’re to survive.

Violet | netflix.com

The series packs a surprisingly emotional wallop, wrapped up in an impactful message about how those in power will do whatever they possibly can to keep oppressed and marginalized groups at a disadvantage by turning them against each other. The series revolves around bridges built and bridges burned, whether that’s manifested in the terrifying rifts in Violet and Powder’s own family that they feel powerless to fix, the ideological divide between their father Vander (voiced by JB Blanc) and his friend-turned-supervillain Silco (voiced by Jason Spisak), or the literal bridge between Piltover and Zaun that burned during the last conflict between the two cities. Okay, so not a subtle metaphor, but an effective one nonetheless.

As much a pleasant surprise to me as its mature themes, Arcane‘s animation style should be particularly exciting to anyone looking for the next evolution of the medium – because this is it. All the depth and richness of a painting in every shot, but brought to life with the same fluidity and awe-inspiring direction that distinguishes League Of Legends‘ own cinematic trailers, which have racked up hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. Video games are the blueprint for how to wed the unique sensibilities of animation and live-action, and it’s only fitting that Arcane is actually building upon that blueprint.

And of course, no adaptation of League Of Legends would be complete without a heart-pounding original score and soundtrack that makes you want to tackle a dragon or two. The game’s music has become widely popular outside of the core fanbase (as I mentioned, it’s the only reason I was familiar with the game at all), and Arcane‘s first three episodes feature catchy contributions from Bea Miller, Curtis Harding, Jazmine Sullivan, Ramsey, and a theme by Imagine Dragons. Harding and Sullivan’s “Our Love”, an upbeat yet nostalgic romantic duet, is my personal favorite track.

Vander with Powder and Violet | thegamer.com

It’s safe to say that Arcane exceeded my expectations and then some. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next chapter in Violet and Powder’s story, especially because it will pick up after a significant time-jump during which the two characters will have matured into young women. I’m not going to get into spoilers for episode three here, but let’s just say…I’m very interested to see how the years will have changed them. That’s all I’ll say. If you want to know what I’m talking about, you’ll just have to watch the show.

Series Rating: 9/10

“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” Review!

It’s appropriate that the most purely, unironically wonderful movie of this gloomy year goes hand-in-hand with “the most wonderful time of the year”, the holiday season. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is adorned with all the  embellishments of the most nostalgic classics, but this lighthearted yet surprisingly impactful steampunk Christmas epic has a potent, forward-looking magic that is entirely its own. To say it’s epic is no joke either: the story is action-packed, punctuated by dazzling musical interludes, and spanning five generations of one incredibly inventive family.

Jingle Jangle
Jingle Jangle | variety.com

That this magical, multi-generational family happens to be Black and specifically comprised mostly of Black women is not merely a more accurate and inclusive reflection of the world we live in, but is also deeply important to the film’s hopeful message. Although I will leave the matter of whether or not Jingle Jangle is good representation to Black film critics and viewers, I will say that the film’s joyful, diverse, steampunk world left me feeling so inspired and empowered that I truly hope it will do the same for Black audiences of all ages, who haven’t seen themselves represented anywhere near enough in mainstream media: neither in holiday movies, nor in steampunk – which, to be honest, has never been translated particularly well to a live-action medium until now. And whereas a majority of steampunk gets justly criticized for what often feels like an inability by the genre to break free of the same-old Euro-centric, imperialist tropes, Jingle Jangle brings with it an entirely fresh and unique “Afro-Victorian” aesthetic: something that is layered into the styling for the hair, make-up, and costume design, as well as some of the film’s most inspired musical selections – most notably a remix of Ghanaian artist Bisa Kdei’s Afrobeat hit “Asew”, which plays over a lively snowball fight.

With Grammy and Academy Award-winning singer/songwriter John Legend producing, it’s no wonder that Jingle Jangle has the lineup of standout vocal talents and songwriters that it does – including Legend himself, who contributed his talents personally to what is, unsurprisingly, the film’s best song: “Make It Work”, an epic duet between stars Forest Whitaker and Anika Noni Rose. Thanks to compelling dance choreography by The Greatest Showman‘s Ashley Wallen and David E. Talbert’s eye-catching direction, none of these musical numbers fall flat, though a few are simply too short: with Ricky Martin in particular being given very little time or material to work with, and the aforementioned Rose (the iconic voice behind Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess) only getting one opportunity to flaunt her vocal strengths – so deep into the film’s runtime I was scared she wouldn’t get to sing at all.

Jingle Jangle
Jessica Jangle | ew.com

Rose’s Jessica Jangle, however, has a fairly small role; and it’s understandable – though regrettable – that she doesn’t have more to do. The majority of the film focuses on the dynamic between her father, Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), and her own daughter, Journey (promising newcomer Madalen Mills, whose equipped with an incredible voice). Jeronicus, once the most imaginative toy-maker and inventor in all the land, is now a cranky old man living above a pawnbroker’s shop, while Journey is, of course, the bright and sparky young soul who must help him save himself and the last of his long-lost inventions, a robot named Buddy that flies and talks and runs on belief (“believepunk” doesn’t sound quite as catchy as steampunk, though), something that Jeronicus has been sorely lacking as him and his business have fallen into disrepair over the years.

The supporting cast are all excellent, but the one standout whom I simply have to mention is Lisa Davina Phillip, who plays the mail-carrier Ms. Johnston. Fun, flirtatious, and constantly accompanied by a trio of random backup dancers who pop up out of nowhere like sidekicks in an animated movie, Johnston is one of the most delightful comedic relief characters I’ve seen in a while, and I hope that Phillip, whose filmography is still relatively small, gets much more work off this outstandingly good role. Her expressive facial acting and comedic timing even overshadow the film’s campy bad guy.

Keegan-Michael Key plays this character, a hopelessly unimaginative inventor by the name of Gustafson who is somehow under the sway of a narcissistic toy matador named Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin), who plots his escape from Jeronicus Jangle’s emporium early on in the film after overhearing his maker’s plan to mass-produce him for the enjoyment of children worldwide. With bland writing, unclear motivations, and a string of jokes that simply aren’t funny, Gustafson and Don Juan are the weak links in this movie. The plot misses a golden opportunity with their characters, too: if Gustafson’s plan is to become fabulously wealthy by stealing all of Jeronicus’ inventions, and Don Juan’s only fear is of being mass-produced and sold, wouldn’t that create a potential conflict of interest between the two? Especially since Gustafson doesn’t actually have any reason to obey the tin toy’s orders (since he is, you know, a toy and all)? Apparently not, since this glaringly obvious solution to all of Gustafson’s problems is taken off the table by Don Juan having apparently “forced” Gustafson to destroy the blueprint for his design offscreen…and again I ask, how can a toy force a human to do anything?

Jingle Jangle
Gustafson | denofgeek.com

Jingle Jangle‘s costume designer Michael Wilkinson can only do so much for Gustafson’s half-baked character, but his talent is on display everywhere else in the film, in the elegant array of costumes created from a clever mixture of European and African-inspired patterns and styles. Hairstylist Sharon Martin, meanwhile, was assigned the task of recreating Black Victorian hairstyles based on rare photographs from the era: her designs in particular come across as both authentic and beautiful, a tribute to the enduring power and artistry of Black hairstyling.

In a year as exhausting as this one has been, fun and lighthearted films like Jingle Jangle are especially necessary for the respite they offer from day-to-day fears and worries. This is doubly significant given how often Hollywood continues to depict Black characters onscreen only as they exist in relation to traumatic subjects such as slavery and racism, subjects that Hollywood usually exploits for easy Oscar-bait: to see Black heroes and heroines starring in a cheerful holiday musical adventure movie that exists simply to be fun is groundbreaking because of how simple it seems. But that simple magic is what I find to be Jingle Jangle’s strongest asset, and the secret ingredient in this delightful story that will keep audiences coming back for many Christmases to come.

Movie Rating: 9/10