Friday 25 October 2019

Anime REVIEW: Beast Wars Neo

Beast Wars Neo

Beast Wars and the wider Beast Era is largely considered one of the best (if not controversial) periods in Transformers history, but over in Japan there's much more to the story than some fans might realise. During the long delay between the release of seasons one and two of the original series, Japan took things in their own direction with two of their own 2D animated Beast Wars series – 1998's Beast Wars II and 1999's Beast Wars Neo. Now 20 years later, once again thanks to the work of Karyuudo Fansubs Beast Wars Neo: Super Lifeform Transformers joins its predecessor in being fully available with English fansubs. With its own cast of exclusive characters and the return of one of the most iconic figures in Transformers history, is Beast Wars Neo everything fans had hoped for?

Following Galvatron's defeat at the end of Beast Wars II, capsules of Angolmois energy have been scattered across the universe. Lio Convoy has also gone missing, and Big Convoy has been tasked with finding him. However he has also been assigned to mentor new Cybertron (Maximal) recruits Heinrad, Stampy, Break, Colada and Longrack – so now the "One Man Army" also needs to not only learn what it means to be part of a team, but also how to lead one.

The Angolmois capsules have also caught the attention of the new Destron (Predacon) Emperor of Destruction Magmatron, who plans to harness their power and succeed where Galvatron failed. As the two factions battle across the cosmos over capturing the capsules, a third group also has their eyes on the Angolmois energy. The entire universe is in danger as the threat of the Chaos Bringer looms once more.

When it comes to Japanese-produced Transformers series there are a certain set of expectations viewers should set for themselves, such as the fact the onscreen media tends to skew for a slightly younger demographic than its US counterpart. It's evident throughout the franchise, but particularly obvious during the Beast Era – where the script of the original Beast Wars was heavily altered when broadcast in Japan. With that in mind it shouldn't be any surprise to hear that Beast Wars Neo caters for a similar crowd, going in particularly heavy on over the top "anime" humour and tropes. It's a far cry from what you'd see in the original series, but a natural extension of the tone Beast Wars II previously set.

In fact Beast Wars Neo shares quite a lot in common with its predecessor, though not all of it is a good thing. Though it approaches things a little differently it again sets up a nice visual distinction between the two battling factions, with the Cybertrons comprised of modern day animals (Big Convoy being the notable exception) and the Destrons all dinosaurs or similarly prehistoric creatures. It does rather hilariously however abandon all notion of the beast modes serving an actual purpose within the narrative, since the characters all already have them upon introduction and the planet-hopping nature of the show lacking the need for any sort of disguise or power conservation. In some respects it feels more like the characters (particularly the Cybertron cadets) walk around in their beast modes simply because they're either less detailed to animate or can be more comically expressive. Transformation is done purely through the art of blank-background stock footage, which supports that the show perhaps sometimes needed to cut corners.

The more pressing similarity however is that neither show manages to get off to a particularly good start. Being formulaic is hardly a problem unique to Beast Wars Neo, but the first 24 episodes of the series are so repetitive that it makes even the original Transformers series feel fresh and innovative. The Cybertrons will touch down on the planet of the week in search of an Angolmois capsule, battle the Destrons, succeed in securing the capsule and then Big Convoy will say something "unlike him" via the wisdom of Vector Sigma. There is so little development or anything of value in these early episodes that a viewer could easily pick the show up at the point it becomes more serialised and not be lost at all.

This perhaps wouldn't be so bad if the characters were engaging enough to carry the episodes, but unfortunately Beast Wars Neo is severely lacking in this regard as well. It's a Transformers staple for one cast member to be designated the "kid-friendly" character, who as such tends to be the loudest/most obnoxious one that gets into the most trouble. But with Beast Wars Neo there's no clear winner in that regard, so all of the Cybertron cadets are vying for that title – by being as loud and obnoxious as possible. Each character has their own individual traits (Stampy's cowardice, Colada's recklessness, Longrack's obsession with the rules etc.), but very little of it shines through unless expressly addressed – making all the characters feel exactly the same. The Destron soldiers aren't much better either, having surface level personalities and being largely ineffective threats. Unfortunately the lacklustre characterisation even extends to Big Convoy and Magmatron, the two cast members you'd hope would be able to turn a bad situation around. Big Convoy's lone-wolf persona is constantly brought up but never adequately shown, while Magmatron grimaces and barks orders from his throne and rarely actually appears on the battlefield.

Of course with plenty more toys to sell this isn't the whole cast, though it is the only one you'll see on a regular basis. Those first 20 or so episodes also feature a number of one-shot characters on both sides, who come and go before they even make a proper impression. Only two of these characters become regular cast members – Mach Kick and Archadis, the latter of whom actually goes on to be one of the more memorable Destron soldiers. There are a lot of interesting and great looking characters among this bunch, but we simply don't see enough of them for them to even work effectively as a toy commercial. It's almost the polar opposite of Beast Wars II, which was too toy-promotion heavy in its introduction of new characters. But at least there everyone appeared somewhat semi-regularly and there was a lot of variety (vehicles, animals, combiners etc.).

But on a more positive note, Beast Wars Neo is another series that picks up dramatically if you're determined enough to get through all the bad. Episode 25 marks the arrival of Rartorata, Elphaorpha and Drancon – a subgroup known as the Blentrons. Unlike the Destrons this trio are truly a force to be reckoned with, swiftly defeating both factions and setting the story on course for a more cohesive narrative. Their plot is actually the most exciting element of the series for fans – the revival of Unicron, the planet-sized Transformer first seen in Transformers: The Movie. Though Unicron appeared a handful of times since then, this was the first time he had been properly resurrected since – not only making the series sound a lot more exciting than it actually is but also bringing the Japanese Beast Wars shows closer in line with larger continuity. There are still some odd discrepancies here and there, but for the most part it all fits in quite nicely.

Unicron's arrival gives things a sense of urgency, and at last we begin to see characters acting in ways that make them interesting to watch. Magmatron genuinely seems to fear Unicron's resurrection, and as the first character to realise what's going on becomes single-minded in his goal to put a stop to it – even at the expense of his own soldiers. This creates an interesting divide in the Destron camp – one that's not exploited quite as much as it could have been, but at least it gives them a dynamic to work with. The Cybertrons meanwhile suddenly find their cadet training halted, as Big Convoy deems the threat too great and tries (and of course fails) to go back to his lone wolf ways. Suddenly there are plot threads worth watching the show for, and even in a smaller body Unicron poses himself as a big (if very different to his movie incarnation) threat. It's a shame that the story throws a lot of these good graces away with a rushed ending and a finale that’s two thirds a clip show (the third in 35 episodes), but it's nice to suddenly be invested in what happens. Seeing great characters like Lio Convoy and Galvatron is always a plus too.

But even though the story and characters are lacking, surely you can just enjoy seeing the various exclusive character designs Japan came up with for the series in action? The answer to that is most certainly, if you don't mind a very specific design aesthetic that is. It's commonly known amongst Transformers fans that Beast Wars Neo suffers from a huge "shellformers" problem, in that pretty much every completely original character is just a robot wearing animal parts which close up to form their beast mode. For some characters it works really well – Big Convoy is well realised as a hulking "one man army", and how Colada's entire body folds up into the head of a snake is rather impressive. But since almost every character, Cybertron or Destron, shares these design traits Beast Wars Neo seriously suffers from a lack of design variation. The only brand new character that's an exception to this rule is Magmatron and his unique three-animal combination. But with the main cast being relatively small the cast/toy line is fleshed out with a fair few US Beast Wars repaints – some of which never appear in the original show. These designs are executed far better on the whole, and it's actually quite fun to see what Japan have done with the likes of Dinobot or Polar Claw to make them into original characters. The Blentrons are especially good in this regard, since there were so many fantastic looking Fuzor toys that never made it on screen.

Much like Beast Wars II, Beast Wars Neo is a series Transformers fans have waited decades to properly experience only to find that it isn't actually all that great. While Unicron's revival gives the series a much needed jolt of energy and ties it nicely into the wider Transformers mythos, the largely unlikeable characters and painfully formulaic episodes make it almost worth not getting to. Simply seeing the likes of Big Convoy and Magmatron in animated form will make this essential viewing for Transformers completists, but nothing here feels by any means essential. Karyuudo should absolutely be commended for making this often-forgotten piece of Transformers history properly accessible to Western fans after all this time, but now that it is the mystery around it can finally die down and we can all see Beast Wars Neo for what it really is – not very good.

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