Review of Arcane (2021)

Moving picture, 6 hours

Seen in 2022.

This review refers to the first season.

I have not played League of Legends, but that was not an obstacle to enjoying this series. It’s very much a story about superheroes, on patterns established in the ostensibly Golden Age of Comic Books, not in video games. The character designs are more elaborate but the narrative patterns are older, adding superficial ethnic and gender diversity to a family drama about crime and class struggle, which somehow produces superheroes in a big set piece and time jump.

The worldbuilding is perfunctory steampunk (e.g. octagonal rifle barrels, symbolic cogs) with magic as a volatile force that eventually turns into traditional black magic, obviously evil to the wise, and not worth the cost. Both the blue-coded magical “Gemstones” and the purple-coded narcotic “Shimmer” are used as generic fuels and crippling medicines, while real-word sources of energy—including labour—are never important. The fantasy premises exist not for storytelling but in service to the excellent visual design and animation.

The overall visual style is similar to “Suits” (2019), but the character designs are more elaborate and more stylized, blending the style-over-substance of 1980s manga with the cheaper surface detail and depth of CGI. The painterly quality of the digitally composited 3D models is extremely well done, with some faces (especially Silco’s) looking like they have visible brush strokes in motion. The characters are highly expressive, enhancing good mocap precisely to the point of caricature without ever falling into deliberately ugly cartooning.

Unfortunately, both the fantasy physics and the manipulative editing blur the outcome of the fights. Because it isn’t possible to predict or gauge the seriousness of an injury or the utility of a weapon (Jayce’s hammer is better at everything than Jinx’s Gatling gun), the violence is uninteresting. Thankfully, there are consequences; some characters do get killed and the situation does evolve, even to the point of Jayce pushing to enact Silco’s political vision for the independence of the downtrodden. It’s too bad this is interrupted. If it had actually closed the first season, and if the toil of the downtrodden had been more visible than the short example of Vi’s favourite chef, the story would have broken out of superhero territory, balancing substance with its brilliant style.

moving picture animation fiction series