Even 11 years after it first debuted, Avatar: The Last Airbender is still considered one of the greatest animated shows of its generation. Brian Konietzko and Michael DiMartino, along with a talented team of animators, writers, voice actors, and directors, created a timeless series that deals with complex themes on war, justice, and duty. Which makes it sound very serious, but Avatar is also a fun show, with dozens of likable characters and light-hearted jokes. The creators took the show seriously, and they took their audience seriously, refusing to talk down to them or simplify things for kids. And the spin-off series Legend of Korra was cut from the same cloth, despite focusing on older characters.
So the fact that two Avatar veterans are helming the new series Voltron: Legendary Defender should allay fears that the 80s classic is going to be shooting for a silly, irreverent tone. Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos are not strangers to mixing high-stakes drama with moments of levity. Montgomery and Dos Santos began by re-watching the original show, and then going back and also watching the anime that Voltron was cobbled together from, Beast King GoLion.
Beast King GoLion, as it turns out, “he’s a little closer to Game of Thrones” than its American counterpart, said Montgomery. “There were men slapping women, people being beheaded,” Dos Santos added.
Because Voltron: Defenders of the Universe wasn’t a dub of GoLion. Back in the 80s and early 90s, production houses that bought up and imported anime sometimes just did not have any way of translating the series. Instead, Peter Keefe and John Teichmann watched the show, surmised what was going on, and created a new show to fit the animation (with the more violent scenes dropped).
In the end, Montgomery and Dos Santos decided to “cherry-pick” the high-stakes drama from GoLion while keeping the light-hearted tone of Voltron: Defenders of the Universe. “We wanted to make it closer to what we remember the show being versus what it actually ends up being when you go back and watch it,” Montgomery said. And anyone who has gone back to try and watch old cartoons from their childhood 20 years later probably knows this is a good thing. You remember the fun and excitement while conveniently forgetting paper-thin characters, hilariously tacky writing, and cheap animation.
The latter certainly won’t be a problem here, with Studio Mir helming the project. Korra wasn’t always the strongest show, especially in the first two seasons, but it always looked amazing. Studio Mir is the South Korea-based animation house that made that beauty happen. And Voltron: Legendary Defender does look beautifully animated. The style is modern, but there are certain design hallmarks of the 80s and 90s anime that have been carried through. Heck, Pidge especially looks like he’s stepped right out of the 90s.
We’re experiencing a renaissance in animated television shows, kicked off in part by the success of Avatar. Shows like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Gravity Falls have gained huge followings among older animation fans by going for broke in creativity and quality, creating rich worlds, complex characters, and refusing to talk down to their audience. And these shows are also really fun. The humor can be irreverent and goofy, but that’s grounded by the strong character and story work. The silliness doesn’t take away from any of the drama, and it doesn’t inhibit these characters from being taken seriously by the audience. In fact, it makes people love them even more.
Voltron: Legendary Defender is going to be different from the original series, no two ways about it. But if there was any time to do a remake, it’s now. There’s a heap of talent in television animation these days, from animators, writers, directors, and producers. Montgomery and Dos Santos have talked about how committed they’ve been to make a good show, and their work on Avatar and Korra gives us every reason to believe them. Animation is becoming less and less limited by studio overseers worried that kids aren’t smart enough to follow high-concept storytelling. Personally, I’m expecting a distillation of the original series, taking everything that made it so popular while adding the modern strengths of today’s television animation.
All 13 episodes of Voltron: Legendary Defender debut on Netflix on June 10.
Do you think it could be as good as Avatar and Korra? Share your thoughts below!