I want to start with a warning. The show you’re reading about is not for everybody. Adult language, drug-use and addiction, intense violence, suicide, murder, insanity. Don’t let the word “animated” fool you into thinking I’m talking about a cartoon. This show can get dark.
I am late to the party for the nine episode Netflix animated series Arcane: League of Legends, but squeezed it in over the holiday and can’t help but share some feelings about it.
A little backstory on the show’s subtitle: in a way, Arcane is an origin story for a large handful of characters from the 2009 Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) video game League of Legends by Riot Games. (It’s worth explaining that this game further popularized a fan-favorite map/mode called “Defense of the Ancients” [or DOTA] for Warcraft III. In it, the general idea of Warcraft – building up and battling two armies of varying strength against each other (called an RTS or Real Time Strategy) – is replaced with taking on the persona of one of a select group of “heroes” in a 5v5 match defending bases. Ten players playing ten heroes in two teams. League of Legends has gone on to inspire a generation of MOBA games and even worked its formula into first person shooters such as Overwatch, Team Fortress 2, and Apex Legends.) You do not need any of this knowledge to enjoy the show, but here’s why I mention it: While I’ve never played the game, I know that in League of Legends you can pick any hero before you jump headlong into battle – and you’ll have a fighting chance of winning. This is because in order to continue their decade (plus) of success, Riot Games has had to achieve expertise in one thing more than anything else – and that is the concept of balance.
And it is this concept that lends a sobering dose of realism to characters steeped in fantasy, magic, and impossible feats. Where many video-game related shows give us worlds occupied with heroes and villains, Arcane introduces us to an area devoid of obvious moral polarity. Protagonists and antagonists, certainly – but don’t be surprised if you find it a little hard to categorize most of them. Their failures and moments of brilliance – sudden acts of kindness or cruelty – combine to breathe humanity into their grungy animated skins. Before I was able to say if I liked or disliked these people as people, I easily cared about what was happening to them. Each of them seemed vital to the story, sure, but also to other characters, events and places. Even some of the minor background characters are still memorable enough that they stick with you long after the one scene in which they existed is over.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, you probably want to know about the story. Arcane is the struggle of two sisters orphaned as children attempting to make their way in the underground while considering unique paths to retaliate against the governing body responsible for their trauma. If that sounds a bit simple, just know that Arcane is a spider-web of tangents off of that main tale, told through each brilliant character – some from the well-to-do, some from ne’er-do-well, some from afar – and each of them sporting a unique worldview that drives conflict throughout and between them.
You can’t have a worldview without a world. Arcane is a master-class in world-building. I define this as the feeling that the characters inhabit an actual place that has all the internal organs of a real-world environment: politics, economic classes, weather, proximity, variety, scale. And as I said, Arcane does this believably. In virtually any scene, you can immediately tell which part of the city surrounds you. Without a signpost or map you can tell which characters aren’t from this part of town. That device they have there, where is that from? The curve of the design, the way the hinge works smoothly, the color of its fuel – its origin is obvious. Without so much as a scrolling text opener, Arcane invites you in and shines a bit of light on the current mechanisms of this society and everything in it – as well as its history. But imagine doing this without tipping the hat; imagine artistically weaving these elements into the story so deeply that each scene educates without hinting that it is doing so. This is a locale that cannot help but feel lived-in.
Again,I forget myself – I was talking about world. Arcane is set in the gleaming spires of the upper-class “city of progress” known as Piltover, and (across several bridges spanning a large body of water) the under-city of Zaun, spilling over with the area’s lower class and an unhealthy dose of shadowy corners. Balance, if you couldn’t tell, applies here as well. The haves and the have nots; the excited anticipation of advancement-unleashed and the oppressed struggles of those toiling just to stay alive, or feed a habit. Where you see the healthy residents of uptown, see them don gas-masks to visit downtown. Where you see established order above, only the strong survive below. I was impressed with the way the show implies other cities and lands outside of the scope of the story without watering down the language of this arc by widening that scope to actually visit them. You know those destinations are out there, but the implication is that there’s a wealth of story on and around these streets that needs to be told first.
The audio of this show is a ridiculous treat. The music is a careful mix of score to soundtrack and big names shine like so many Hex-tech stones from the songs they’ve chosen to the superb voicing of the characters. All of the voice work is so stellar that I find it difficult to know who to call out for such dynamic performances. I mean that when I say it – this matters to me a great deal. The wrong voice actors can ruin a show like this – but there’s not a bad one in this bunch. Musically the score is credited as “League of Legends” rather than to an individual – Ray Chen’s name is prominently displayed as well – but regardless – it is gorgeous and hits on all cylinders. I’d say the same about the soundtrack. “Welcome to the Playground” “Guns for Hire” “Enemy” and “What Could Have Been” are each steeped in a specific mood – and they kick in at just the right moments of the story. (A quick aside: while the audio is great all the way around – I did not notice that my receiver was refusing to pump out proper surround for the entire first episode before I figured out that I had used improper settings. It sounded alright, but it did not matter, I was so entranced by the rest of the ingredients. Eventually I corrected the issue, and with everything working in harmony, the visuals were that much more enriched.)
Finally, I’ve saved the best for last – balance and whole lot of care and passion went into the visuals and animation as well. French animation studio Fortiche has been called “God-Level” by some of the staff at Riot Games, and it shows in their mastery of the language of light and dark, composition, and color as a visual codex. (About the color – it is used to convey so much information – and this is such a natural match with video games. Blue is power and electricity, and a bit of purity. Green is poison or toxicity. Purple is danger and addiction. I am not entirely sure they aimed for this – but it feels a lot like primary colors are for the well-to-do, primary characters and pure magic; while secondary colors are for secondary characters and less magical – more chemical-based magic. If it is intentional – perhaps elements and/or people heading up are primary, down for secondary.) In recent years I think we’ve come to expect a lot from modern animation studios, and Fortiche delivers. But while these elements are great, what they do best is where they achieved a truly glorious balance. Hand-drawn 2D animation has been my favorite thing for years – there’s something about it – a frame-by-frame gesture that feels like only a human could compose. Ah, but the budgetary issues and time make it a difficult choice these days. I do also like 3D animation. The technical detail, the realism, the special effects, the motion and facial performance capture for added humanity – but still missing that 2D artistry. Watching these two areas slowly merge in my lifetime has been a guilty pleasure – and many shows, movies and video games are trying to find the sweet spot. The Clone Wars used hand painted textures applied to 3D graphics and it felt like a step in the right direction over the glossy geometry of 3D objects in the medium’s infancy. The video game Halo 4, on the other hand, had special cutscenes wherein they appeared to try to map a 3D graphics onto a painting – sort of the other way around from the approach of The Clone Wars – but whatever they were going for, it mostly died alone in an uncanny valley. Enter Arcane – and we have a new high standard for a middle-ground between these two styles. I find it difficult to tell where the more humans side ends and the more digital site begins. It has a harmony to it, and grabs the best attributes of both – without bringing along most of the less-than-beneficial characteristics. If you can’t see it anywhere else, look for the humanity infused in the camera movements and select-focus. It is absurd to see something like an unsteady pan during quick movement, and in your mind start to consider whether this is an accident of the “cameraman” — only to recognize that there is no such thing; this is animated! They spent time making something a little wrong, so that it could look absolutely right. Excuse the double-negative: I couldn’t not pay attention.
Why is Arcane amazing? It hits the perfect balance in every conceivable attribute that one could measure for a mature-audiences animated production. If you’d like to dock it points for not being kid-friendly, that’s fine – but this is everything I was hoping it would be, plus more. Is it perfect? No. There are a few scenes wherein the need to adhere to a given character’s trademark moves or weapons from the game does not serve it particularly well; but given that this show is also the greatest thank you and form of fan service that Riot Games could produce, I think we can let them have their moments. “But this just looks like a bunch of people fighting all the time.” It is exactly that — with a brain and a heart and most importantly a soul. These are the tiniest of flaws, and if they are the price of admission for this mad creature, I will gladly pay.
I will give Season 2 of this show (announced and due out post-2022) an embarrassment of tries to carve whatever path it wishes to take — so long as it continues to exceed expectations to this degree.