It comes as no surprise that American animation companies still turn to Japan for inspiration. Cartoon Network has seen it work with the likes of The Powerpuff Girls and Teen Titans; Nickelodeon also tried it with My Life As A Teenage Robot and Kappa Mikey. This time Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack) gives another nod to the Rising Sun in the form of the new series Sym-Bionic Titan.
Sym-Bionic Titan follows the story of three aliens from the planet Galaluna who crash-land onto Sherman, Illinois. The aliens, composed of Ilana (Tara Strong, Teen Titans), the princess of the royal family; Lance (Kevin Thoms), a rebellious solider; and the robot Octus (the always recognizable Brian Pohsen, The Sarah Silverman Program), who takes the form of the parent figure to the two others. With their home world torn by war the trio hides out on the human world in order to study how this world thrives, but not without problems from the traitorous General Modula and the dimwitted American General Steel (played with toughness by John "Bite My Shiny Metal Ass!" DiMaggio). Will the aliens ever get home, and will they be able to protect the Earth from the same evils that destroyed their planet? With the help of their giant robot Sym-Bionic Titan, perhaps there is hope.
The cartoon appears to be following the same path in regards to the worldly perception of the giant robot appearing in Sherman. Cops want to take down the actual hero (Batman), with townspeople speaking highly of the deeds that have been done to help save their homes (Spider-Man). Meanwhile the heroes go undercover as regular citizens, with hopes of understanding the new world around them (every alien-based comic/cartoon ever made). They learn the true meaning of teamwork and other child-like PSAs (perhaps a humorous nod to 4Kids, infamous for trying to fit kiddie messages into some of the grittiest shows), and how many shows can we count that has a giant robot in it? (I lost track after Megas XLR.)
Despite this overused formula, the series works well in the setting it's been placed in. These characters come to life on their own terms, and while Lance's tough-guy-having-a-secret-soft-side attitude has been done before at least there's reason behind his demeanor. The character design gives a big wink to fans of Shotaro Ishinomori, creator of Cyborg 009 and whose looks helped stylized the popular Kamen Rider series. The hair is big, the eyes are mammoth-sized and the body language is over-exaggerated; all of it blended together to make memorable-looking people. The animation is as solid as it was in Tartakovsky's Samurai Jack, and the usage of CGI for the robot creates the sort of atmosphere that hasn't been done this perfectly since Brad Bird's The Iron Giant. Let's not forget to mention the great voice work from Strong, Pohsen and DiMaggio, although Thoms's can come off as a bit wooden in some areas.
Even with the usual clichés Sym-Bionic Titan works well with conveying the story lines, as well as keep viewers interested with great battle sequences and humorous alien misunderstandings. Tartakovsky knows exactly what he's doing with this series, and those that are familiar with his past series won't doubt his ability to write a great story. It might not have a unique voice at the moment, but Sym-Bionic Titan might be able to bring itself a solid fanbase if it keeps doing the formula right. After all, why try to fix something that isn't broken?
**** (out of five)