Wednesday 27 April 2011

Series REVIEW: Power Rangers Wild Force

Power Rangers Wild Force is the 10th entry in the Power Rangers franchise, following on from Power Rangers Time Force. It is the last season to have involvement from Saban until 2011’s Power Rangers Samurai, and the last season to be filmed in the US. Closely based on the Super Sentai series Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger, the story follows Cole Evans – a young man who has lived with a jungle tribe for many years, until they send him out to find his destiny – with only a picture of his biological parents and a mysterious red orb. As he arrives in Turtle Cove, he meets the rest of the Wild Force Power Rangers - Alyssa Enrilé (The White Tiger Ranger), Danny Delgado (Black Bison), Max Cooper (Blue Shark) and their leader Taylor Earhardt (Yellow Eagle). They take Cole to the Animarium, a floating island in the sky shaped like a turtle, where they meet Princess Shayla – the guardian of the Animarium who serves as the series’ mentor character. She explains they have all been chosen by their respective animals to protect the world from the threat of the Orgs and their leader, Master Org. Cole becomes the red lion ranger and the leader of the Power Rangers Wild Force. They are later joined by Merrick, and Animarium warrior from 3000 years was trapped by the spirit of Zen-Aku – an evil wolf whose power is contained in a mask. After shedding Zen-Aku, Merrick becomes the Lunar Wolf ranger.

The core cast is strong, even if some of their roles are rather one dimensional. As the main protagonist, Cole gets the most development throughout the series, growing from a rookie ranger to spearheading one of the best last stands in Power Rangers history. Taylor starts off as being irritating (shouting most of her lines) but eventually grows into a more likeable character. Alyssa is one of the more diverse rangers in the series (and my favourite of the group) but never really gets much time to develop. Max is presented as being insecure about his age (referred to as a kid by the other rangers, particularly Taylor) and Danny….doesn’t really do anything at all. The villains aren’t much better – Master Org, while having a decent back story, is rather bland in his early appearances and then temporarily killed off when his origins are revealed. His replacement Retinax (and most of the other Org Generals in fact) is even worse. The true stars are without a doubt Toxica and Jindrax, the two subordinate characters who develop from comic relief into some of the more interesting Power Rangers villains. The Zen-Aku story arc is extremely well written and draws a lot of parallels to ‘Green with Evil’ from the very first season of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, only instead of getting an evil ranger from the beginning Merrick’s ranger form comes from his monster Zen- Aku form, something that is much more visually appealing.

The wild zords are excellent – them being sentient provides a nice twist on their usual use as fighting tools and an integral part of the story. Aside from one exception (which is expanded on further below) I have no complains and the four Megazords (The Wild Force Megazord, KongaZord, Isis Megazord and the Marrick’s PredaZord) are all excellent. The rangers handheld weapons vary a bit more, their initial weapons are terrible (and include a baton of all things) and their combined form isn’t much of an improvement. Their second set of weapons are better, but are only really used in their combined form. The biggest waste of potential though, is the claws each ranger is shown to have when morphed. Using these as weapons would have been a far more unique take for animal-themed Power Rangers, but as the series progresses they are used less and less, really only appearing in call out sequences following morphing.

And then of course there’s Forever Red – the 10th anniversary Power Rangers episode that included every red power ranger than had come so far (save for Rocky DeSantos). The episode itself is full of plot holes, continuity errors, physics which is ridiculous for even Power Rangers standards and its ending is incredibly underwhelming. But as far as a 10th anniversary episode goes, it is fantastic. Amidst the continuity problems are some of the best fight sequences of Wild Force, including an excellent unmorphed fight between most of the red rangers and the cogs. Its full of homages – including not only red rangers but also the Machine Empire, Serpentera and the Astro Megaship. Seeing all the rangers together is nothing short of epic, and makes me wish that more epic crossovers had been done in the following series. The Time Force crossover is also excellent, and not only helps to further develop the Wild Force cast but also provide a satisfying conclusion to the Time Force arc.

But there are several things that bug me about Wild Force, and they really bug me. The first thing is the aforementioned Armadillo zord, who’s entire purpose in the whole series is to be….used as a football. Yeah, seriously. As if that wasn’t bad enough on its own, several of its uses are also coupled with some stock footage of the Wild Force Megazord in a (badly done) CGI football stadium doing some football skills, complete with cheering crowds. My second problem (and the one that stayed apparent throughout the series) is the morphing sequence. Wild Force (and Gaoranger) started the trend in which most PR/Sentai teams that followed had mobile-phone like devices in order to morph, but in this instance it really doesn’t feel right. Finally is the Wolf Ranger’s finishing move, in which he….plays pool with his animal spirits. Well, I suppose it is a change from the usual ‘gun that turns into sword and vice versa’ finishers we usually get and it does later bring on some nice development between Merrick and an elderly bar owner but the problem here is the same thing as with the others – it simply doesn’t fit the aesthetic. I’m not one to think Power Rangers should be a strictly serious affair, but none of these fit the ‘wild animal’ aesthetic I liked about Wild Force. The rangers’ base of operation is a very mystical looking floating island in the sky and then they use mobile phones for morphing? That being said I did like the animal gems, which were very reminiscent of MMPR’s power coins.

There are a couple of other things that bug me about the series but they are far more nitpicky. For example - if the rangers are supposed to be maintaining secret identities, why do they each were jackets that coincidentally have the slogans each ranger calls out when they morph (noble tiger, soaring eagle etc.) emblazoned on them? Why does Merrick switch between between the ‘Lunar’ wolf and the ‘Howling’ wolf on a regular basis? And finally, since these rangers don’t seem to have the ability to teleport, just how exactly do they get back and forth to the Animarium? (Although in the final episode the Animarium is shown to have the ability to teleport people on-board, but even then it’s in a far closer range of said person).

Power Rangers Wild Force is not by any stretch of the imagination a bad series – in many ways it really does feel like the true spiritual successor to the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, but at the same time it lacks a lot of the things that made that series truly special. There’s a lot to like about it – the core ranger cast is particularly strong, power struggles between the antagonists, superb ranger costumes which display each animal motif perfectly, excellent zords/megazords that aren’t hampered by the increasing use of CGI and most importantly two brilliant team-up stories. However there’s just as much to dislike about the series – the dialogue is often clunky, Princess Shayla, the fact the writers weren’t quite sure what to do with Merrick (one minute he’s adamant he works alone, the next he’s the best of friends with the rangers) a lead villain that is completely outclassed by his comedy relief henchmen and preachy environmental messages. It’s not as bad as some of the seasons that preceded it, nor is it as bad as some of the seasons that followed – but as visually pleasing as it may be, its flaws prevent it from gaining the recognition it could have had.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Anime REVIEW: The Big O

The Big O is a 26 episode noir-style mecha series that possibly received just as much praise in the West as it did in Japan. The setting is Paradigm City, 40 years after a mysterious occurrence known as ‘The Event’ led to its citizens, both human and robotic, losing all of their memories. The protagonist is Roger Smith, an ex-military cop now turned negotiator. Aided by his faithful butler Norman Burg and later the gynoid R. Dorothy Wayneright, Roger provides the city with this ‘much needed service’. When it is needed, Roger is able to call upon the colossal ‘megadeus’ Big O, a robot that is a relic from the city’s past and may also be the key to its future.

The first season (13 episodes) provides fairly stand-alone stories, but overall work toward to larger story that is explored in far more detail in the second series. As stated earlier, the series is very much in the style of 1940s film noir – with Roger filling the role of the private detective type character and the mysterious Angel as the femme fetale. Another comparison that could be drawn from watching is Batman (except switch out costumed hero for giant robot) – Paradigm City having a similar look to Gotham City, Roger being aided by his faithful butler. Roger himself could be considered as some sort of Bruce Wayne/James Bond hybrid. He also has a fair few rogues in his gallery – from Beck - a crook who has regained some memories, to Schwarzwald – a bandaged former reporter bent on bringing Paradigm’s past to light, to Alex Rosewater, the series’ main antagonist and son of Paradigm City’s founder.

The second season contains far more continuity between episodes, exploring Paradigm City’s past and what caused everyone to lose their memories. While the animation certainly got a bigger budget (it’s simply gorgeous quality) the drive for a more focused narrative is actually the series’ only real downfall. The plot steadily becomes incredibly difficult to follow and the end result is a conclusion which makes Neon Genesis Evangelion seem understandable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent ending – just expect to do quite a bit of reading up on it afterwards.

The Big O robot itself is excellent, and its design has arguably become rather iconic over the years. From its humanoid head and clash of dark grey/black and bright orange to its chain weaponry and hulking arms, the megadeus stands completely apart from the rest of the robots present in the show (well, apart from Big Duo and Big Fau, O’s megadeus counterparts). That isn’t to say the other opposing robots are forgettable, because they are full of retro sci-fi charm. Big O’s battles aren’t simply confined to robots though, as it also does battle with a fair share of monsters. The monsters and set-pieces, even the sequences themselves pay homage to yet another film genre – this time Japanese kaiju (monster) movies such as the Godzilla and Gamera series’.

I’ve already briefly mentioned the animation so it makes sense to also talk about the music, which also pays homage to several different things. The opening theme (titled ‘Big O’) will be instantly recognisable to most people, since it’s a direct homage (practically a cover) of ‘Flash’ by Queen, albeit with different lyrics. The actual score of the series is also a variety of styles and musical homages, which nicely compliments both the film noir and kaiju elements of The Big O.

To summarise, The Big O is an excellent series that draws on a variety of different styles and genres to create a unique science fiction story, but becomes far too wrapped up in itself and thus falls a bit short at the final hurdle. Until then though, it’s almost flawless – top notch animation, great character designs, an engaging narrative and characters and a wonderful musical score. Definitely one to check out.

Monday 11 April 2011

Toybox REVIEW: Bandai Robot Spirits Taubarn

Just over a week after one of my new favourite animes finishes I manage to get my hands on its star robot. Star being the keyword here, as what we have here is Taubarn, the cybody piloted by protagonist and Galactic Pretty Boy Takuto Tsunashi in the anime Star Driver.

The first thing that should be mentioned about Taubarn is its size - what it lacks in bulk, it certainly makes up for in height. The picture below illustrates it better, but most Robot Spirits/Revoltech/figures of similar scale only come up to around its waist. The sculpt lives up to Bandai standard - managing to accurately recreate the outlandish proportions of the Taubarn while retaining full posability. The colours are particularly vibrant - metallic red on top on white. The joints are gold The plume is moulded in clear plastic, and the propulsion parts that float freely on Taubarn's back in the series are held on via a clear connector to help carry out the illusion.

Tauburn comes with a variety of alternate hands (2 open, 1 close fisted and 1 set of sword holding hands) and its signature weapons - star sword Emeraude and star sword Saphir (both moulded in clear plastic). What's most notable about this Robot Spirits release is that it also includes a stand - something I've complained about the lack of on past releases. I imagine this is mostly due to the difficulty of standing (let alone posing) the figure unaided, but nevertheless the stand is certainly unique - a clear red star with a movable arm which can help with a variety of poses.

This is the first I've found it difficult to reach a (somewhat objection) final conclusion on. As a massive Star Driver fan I think its definitely worthy of full marks - posability isn't hampered by the sculpt, its the perfect representation of the robot and it even comes with a stand. The only thing I think its lacking is some sort of Tau missile effect part, and even that isn't a big deal. If you're not a fan of Star Driver, there's every possibility you'll hate Taubarn's design - it's certainly not your everyday robot. There's also the problem of it being difficult to stand on its own, but then how long could you stand for in such extravagant high heels?  Keep these things in mind and you should have much of blast with this figure as I do.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Series REVIEW: Samurai Sentai Shinkenger

The 33rd entry in Toei's Super Sentai franchise. For eighteen generations, the Shiba household have protected the world from the evil forces of the Gedoushu - monsters that enter our world through cracks and plan to flood the world with water from the Sanzu river (which is essential to their survival). In present day, their leader Doukoku Chimatsuri is freed from his seal and intends to continue this ambition. Takeru Shiba, the youngest head of the Shiba clan and ShinkenRed, must gather together his four vassals (servants from other households) to fight the forces of the Gedoushu. Initially Takeru maintains aloof and detached from his vassals, preferring to fight alone. But as the story progresses and Takeru's childhood friend Genta joins the Shinkengers as ShinkenGold, Takeru becomes far more comfortable around people, beginning to treat them as friends. But Takeru is different from the lords that have preceded him, and the vassals slowly learn that his dark secret may be the reason for the way he has acted.

Before I begin dissecting the plot, I have to say that Samurai Sentai Shinkenger is one of the most visually pleasing series I've watched in a while. I'm a huge fan of the costumes themselves - which give off a nice Samurai flavour without being too heavy or over the top (in comparison to, say, Hurricanger) and each have an unique symbol for the visor. Each are very distinct from each other, but maintain a very nice sense of uniform. The origami mecha are also very well done, despite being restricted by the shapes each of them need to be able to transform into. Their combination, Shinken-Oh, has quickly become one of my favourite Super Sentai mecha. It's a lot less universal than perhaps other series are, but one of its strengths lie in how uniquely Japanese it is. Aside from a few jokes which I found difficult to follow as a Westerner (Ebi Origami) it was still completely enjoyable and understandable, while teaching me a lot of new things about Japan and Samurai culture.

The plot itself is relatively series, but is not opposed to diverging into moments of comedy relief now and again (Genta's arrival really brings a new light to the series, and this firmly placed him as easily my favourite Shinkenger). The Shinkengers display a wide variety of character types, Ryunosuke (ShinkenBlue) as a loyal servant to his lord, competitive Chiaki (ShinkenGreen), big-sister Mako (ShinkenPink) and the clumsy but good-hearted Kotoha (ShinkenYellow). A few members of the Gedoushu even receive an ample amount of development - particularly Juzo, who is far more than a generic monster villain.

At 49 episodes (plus a mini-movie, 2 crossover films and various other shorts) Shinkenger is by no means a short series. Because of its length, its only natural that quite of the few of the episodes just come across as filler. However each of these episodes neatly manages to focus on one or two members of the main cast, and so none go without providing some form of character insight or development.

Another issue I found with the series was Doukoku, who in comparison to some of the other Gedoushu (particularly Juzo and Dayu, but later also Shitari and Akumaro) seems rather undeveloped. For the majority of the series he seems to do very little other than drink sake, shout a lot and occasionally moan about a hangover. When he suddenly appears on Earth for the first time toward the end of the series we finally get a look at how powerful he really is, but this is quickly dampened by him disappearing for several episodes so that Akumaro can take centre stage. Only in Shinkenger's final acts does Doukoku really come into his own and seem like a true threat. While head monsters often don't seem to do very much until the final episodes, atleast they're usually calling the shots. A final note in the flaws of Shinkenger is some of the later origami combinations (particularly Samurai Ha-Oh), which look like a mess of parts that could rival the ones seen in Go-Onger. Half of Samurai Ha-Oh is a goddamn battle platform that seems to serve no purpose other than for it to float around on and have a very big gun.

Admittedly the flaws are small, but at the same time its enough to stop Shinkenger from being the perfect series. It is however, an excellent series that any fans of the genre should check out. As my first full foray into the Super Sentai franchise (I saw Gokaiger first, but that's still ongoing) it has certainly interested me enough to keep on watching. Part of me is wondering how the US adaption Power Rangers Samurai - is going to cope if it keeps sticking as close to the Shinkenger storyline as it is now. Not only because the themes are extremely Japanese and will seem weird with a Western cast, but also because nobody on Samurai has the acting talent to pull off the development and plot twists that make Shinkenger so endearing in the first place.

Friday 8 April 2011

Toybox REVIEW: Doctor Who Classics ' Revelation of the Daleks' boxset

Another classics release, another Dalek boxset based on a Davros story. This time its 1985 2-part story ' Revelation of the Daleks' starring 6th Doctor Colin Baker. This boxset includes the 6th Doctor (with removable cape), Davros (with alternate hand), a Necros Dalek and a Skaro Dalek. Thoughts on each figure can be found below.

First off is the Doctor. Once again he is nothing more than a re-release of the Classics Wave 1 6th Doctor, which makes it the third release of the figure (the second being the 6th Doctor included in the 'Attack of the Cyberman' 2-pack, and as such I shall not be making any new comments about the figure as it has been previously reviewed). His new accessory comes in the form of the blue cape which he wore in the episode. The cape is made of PVC and is both light and dark blue, with gold trimmings. Its a pretty good likeness, and fits snugly on the Doctor (but isn't actually fixed in any way to him). As I already own the figure, I plan to keep the cape and sell the figure itself on.

Davros is much the same as his 'Resurrection' release, but bears a few little differences. While the spring loaded panel remains on the wheelchair base of the figure, but the mic on the head is on the opposite side (to reflect the difference in the episode itself) and the console panel has different paint apps. If this wasn't enough for people to consider him variant-worthy, he also comes with an alternate 'stump' hand, from when his hand is blown off by Orcini towards the end of the story. The hand is easily changeable, and the stump itself is a nice touch as looks as good as any bloody stump possibly could.

Next comes the Necros Dalek. Admittedly this is the main reason I bought the set, and I'm not disappointed with it. While its not completely accurate to the show version (the neck bin is raised up in the story) its still a very good likeness to it and accurately illustrates the differences between the Necros Dalek and the Imperial Daleks in 'Remembrance of the Daleks'.

Finally the Skaro Dalek, is actually the biggest surprise of the set. This version is easily the best 80s style Dalek that has been released by Character Options thus far (a much deeper and more appealing grey than the 'Resurrection' version, and far better mesh detailing than the 'Remembrance' one). The only downside is that once again the packaging managed to bend the eyestalk, making my Skaro Dalek suffer from the same problem as the 'Resurrection' drone.

Given the amount of alternatives this set held (such as the 'Great Healer' Davros decoy and glass Dalek) the variation in this set is relatively poor, but the figures themselves are still pretty great representations of the characters nonetheless. It is admittedly one of the weaker (if not weakest) Dalek story figure sets released thus far, but that Necros Dalek is too sweet of a prize to miss out on. The somewhat high price tag might mean it only catches the eye of the most hardcore Doctor Who/Dalek figure collector, but if it means filling in some of those crucial gaps in the lineup arguably that's the price we have to pay. 

Sunday 3 April 2011

Anime REVIEW: Star Driver - Takuto of the Radiance

From acclaimed anime studio Bones (responsible for Eureka Seven, Soul Eater, Fullmetal Alchemist and much more) comes Star Driver, a story of super robots gone fabulous. Star Driver tells the tale of Takuto Tsunashi, a young boy who arrives on the remote Southern Cross Isle. The island has a dark secret though, as a group of masked individuals known as the Glittering Crux Brigade are attempting to release a hoard of mysterious mecha known as 'Cybodies' from an alternate dimension known as Zero Time. To do this they must first break the seals of the four maidens of the island. Takuto has a secret of his own though, as he soon reveals himself to be the 'Galactic Pretty Boy', a legendary fighter who defends the maidens with his own Cybody, Taubarn. Takuto not only becomes popular at school, but soon enters a complicated love triangle with his two best friends - South maiden Wako Agemaki and Sugata Shindō, Wako's fiancee and pilot to the most powerful Cybody of all, Samekh.

With so many great things to say about this series, it's very difficult to decide where to begin. The story is very much super robot, explosive over the top action with little regard for logical sciences - but there's so much more to it than that. The Cybody action is only one segment of the series, Star Driver is also at heart very much a series about romance, comedy and school life. Unlike other animes which have tried to combine two seemingly contrasting genres and failed, Star Driver has succeeded. I want to say its like Ouran High School Host Club meets Gurren Lagann, but to make that comparison sells Star Driver to short (and to be honest, the narrative isn't particularly like either) but that's the kind of image it visually presents. Takuto is desired by both his friends and enemies, as is in some ways Sugata. While this and many other things (such as an interesting play performed by the main cast as the Drama club) are equally as focal as the main plot, what's at stake in Star Driver is never lost, nor is the plot spoon fed to the audience. There are plenty of plot twists, and revelations are kept to themselves until the very last minute (but with plenty of hints for people to draw their own conclusions before the big reveal).

Takuto's transformation into the Galactic Pretty Boy is a striking sequence, with more things in common with a Magical Girl anime than a Super Robot one, but somehow it works. With a flowing coat, dual hair and knee high boots, the only way to describe the Ginga Bishounen is fabulous. Not to be outdone, the Glittering Crux have their own 'unique' look, with costumes featuring feathers, masks, suspenders and various levels of bondage (and with aliases like 'President', 'Window Star' and 'Scarlet Kiss', it seems rather appropriate).

But what probably drew me to Star Driver in the first place were the robots. Star Driver already had its fair share of unique designs with the Crux's wardrobe of choice, but it doesn't stop there. The Taubarn isn't like any mecha you've seen before - it has a plume on its head, a tiny waist with huge hips and pointed high-heeled feet. It looks more like its about to strut down a catwalk than engage in a massive sword fight, and the majority of the other Cybodies in the series also follow suite. The battle sequences are extremely interesting, operating outside the real world in Zero Time, where the scenery is extremely reminiscent of the final battle from Gurren Lagann. The action is explosive, but in a very different way - there are times where Taubarn seems like it's dancing as much as its fighting.

In short, Star Driver is nothing short of brilliant. It maintains a level of being both equally serious and light hearted, each character is unforgettable and the art is simply stunning. Even the opening/ending themes, along with each maidens' unique theme song are fantastic. It is without a shadow of a doubt one of the best anime series I have ever watched. Even if you aren't the biggest fan of giant robot animes, there's enough here relevant to other genres that will keep you watching.