TV: Arcane (Season 1)

Given what I’ve come to expect from video game adaptations, nothing short of intense critical buzz would have made me go out of my way for Netflix’s new animated release Arcane, but boy is this an incredible series. Based on the League of Legends game universe, Arcane takes place in an elaborate secondary-world fantasy metropolis where the rich, cultured city of Piltover lords over the serfs and unfortunates of the Undercity below. Tensions run high among the citizens of this society, which has both a charged history and an imminent threat of violent conflict. That threat returns in the wake of a heist masterminded by the mischievous Undercity thief Vi (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld). Along with her crew, Vi loots the office of wealthy scientist Jayce (Kevin Alejandro), where Vi’s sister Powder (Ella Purnell) comes into possession of magic artifacts. The theft of these items, which Jayce is working to harness into a new magic-based technology called “hextech,” becomes the trigger point for renewed hostilities, and drives an emotional wedge between Vi and Powder that becomes central to an incendiary situation in the city.

Seasoned gamers will likely recognize the video-game ingredients of Arcane’s world: a gorgeous fantasy setting, character design inspired by the genre’s usual race and player class dynamic, and an emphasis on spectacle-based combat between rival factions. It’s a credit to writer/creators Christian Linke and Alex Yee, however, that these generic gaming-world seeds, while perhaps not invisible, will largely be unnoticeable to non-gamers. Such is the skill with which the scripts flesh out the world, a rich, politically complex landscape filled with memorably designed characters in dramatic conflict. The minutiae of the plot is occasionally lost in the weeds, but by and large the story is compelling and coherent, driven by strong characterizations that make the people of the city much more than just flashy avatars. They’re legitimate characters, often at odds, but all of them with relatable points of view, and they’re so well rendered that their fates are impossible not to get invested in. First-rate voice acting—from Steinfeld, Purnell, Alejandro, Shohreh Aghdashloo, JB Blanc, Katie Leung, Harry Lloyd, Toks Olagundoye, Jason Spisak, Reed Shannon, and Mick Wingert, among many others—only contributes to the overall effectiveness of the drama.

But really, the most impressive aspect of Arcane has to be its gorgeous animation. The character design, backgrounds, and scenery are all incredibly detailed, each frame a work of art. The sound design is similarly effective, heightening the drama and intensifying the experience. The only real drawback is a theme song so clearly out of contemporary 2021 that it yanks the viewer right out of an immersive fantasy world and back into our own. But if that’s the only problem with Arcane, it’s a minor one; in every other respect—incredible animation, epic fantasy narrative, great characters, intense drama—the show is outstanding.

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