TV: The Liberator

The Liberator, a visually striking animated miniseries from Netflix, is more interesting for how it tells its story than for the story itself. This is unfortunate, because the subject—Felix “Shotgun” Sparks, an actual American army officer who spent over 500 days in combat in the European theater during World War II—certainly seems to have lived a wartime experience worth commemorating. Sparks (Bradley James) begins his onerous journey in Oklahoma, where he’s tasked with shaping a company of army malcontents into a functional fighting force. His unit contains a testy mix of southwestern cowboys, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans, whose first battle is to overcome the stew of racial animosity they’re all steeped in. But Sparks, a stand-up officer and an idealist, gives them all a chance. Ultimately, he builds them into a committed, cohesive fighting force, which he then leads into harrowing, costly combat against the Germans across Italy, France, and Germany.

Based on the impressive breadth of Sparks’ experience, The Liberator seems like it should be a sure-thing war drama. It certainly isn’t a bad series. For one thing, it possesses an eye-catching look from its  effective rotoscoping animation, which gives the historical action a muzzy, surreal quality that is often quite effective. It’s generally well performed, led by James, who brings considerable charisma to a straight-arrow character in Sparks, as well as some of his more prominent subordinates, such as those played by Jose Miguel Vasquez and Martin Sensmeier. The historical look at a racially mixed unit also gives it a unique, under-explored angle.

Unfortunately, for a story that has at its core a character whose wartime experience was unusually long and arduous, The Liberator feels incredibly rushed. It blitzes past in four episodes that gap time so rapidly it’s difficult to settle in with it narratively. The emotional impact of the story hinges on the bonding and sacrifice of the unit, which we barely get to know before the story brutally tests their mettle. In this sense, it feels like Band of Brothers on amphetamines, aiming for the same beats without affording enough time to earn them. Meanwhile, the animation—while gorgeously executed—is also distancing, both holding the subject mater at an arm’s length and making it harder to discern the many soldiers who quickly pass through the story. It’s earnest and attractive, but ultimately it hints at the story worth telling without quite delivering it.

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