Arcane is a 9-episode animated TV show on Netflix which mixes 3D animations and 2D hand-painted animation styles and tells the steampunk tale of the conflict between the dystopian underworld of Zaun and the utopian city of Piltover. Anyone familiar with the game League of Legends will recognise some key League champions along the way especially Vi and Jinx who are central to the story.
Yes this is a spin-off from the multiplayer online battle arena computer game League of Legends, developed and published by Riot Games, but you would be unwise to look down your nose at the show as just some kind of marketing tool as it is one of the best animated shows currently on Netflix. I had not heard of the game until I Googled the ‘League of Legends’ subtitle from the show’s thumbnail on Netflix and didn’t have a clue about any of the characters. So for me it was akin to how some people feel feel like Star Wars watching for the first time in that there’s a clear depth to the worlds depicted and you know this show is almost like a gateway drug to a much wider universe.
And like most drugs it is addictive and also won’t be everyone’s taste. There’s certainly an unavoidable amount of sexist anime / game character design tropes going on in the show which at times feels like going to a Cosplay convention and dropping some acid. The design of Jinx in particular, with her abnormally long blue pigtails, pale skin, slender frame and wide eyes is reminiscent of DC’s Harley Quinn or Titan Comic’s Tank Girl and sets off an inner monologue in my mind, which I like to think is encased in the brain of a modern-thinking man, as to whether I really should be enjoying her madcap antics as much as I am.
Anyway, if you can get over that (and I’ll be honest it’s easy if you just appreciate the craft that’s gone into the characters) and the glorification of violence (it’s a show based on a battle game so par for the course) then you’re in for an absolute treat. The set up of low-living underclasses looked down upon by high living moneyed society is hardly ground-breaking and the sci-fi trappings take you to make obvious comparisons to Alita: Battle Angel, but it’s the sheer beauty of the animations and the level of storytelling that elevate it beyond anything else I’ve seen recently on Netflix (apart from perhaps some of the shorts on Love, Death + Robots).
I’m trying to keep this post short and spoiler-free so I’m not going to go into any great details about the story, but suffice to say that there are a lot of intriguing characters in the mix and most have interesting back-stories and arcs that are revealed or develop in a satisfying manner. It’s even possible to relate to the main bad guy’s struggle to control and elevate underdog’s city of Zaun to become an equal to richer Piltover. He goes about it in all the wrong ways, but you can see why he is doing it. Love for family and friends is a strong theme throughout, in between all the punching and kicking and explosions. And the voice acting is great. This is so much more than 9 x 45 minute extended cutscenes from a computer game.
What really grabbed me though is the aesthetic. The blend of computer generated three-dimensional characters and hand-drawn two-dimensional effects and backgrounds is beautiful to see and almost every frame if paused is like a work of art. When unpaused, the action is oftentimes superbly kinetic and visceral, there’s a weight to the body blows and a bright heat to the explosions. Sound design is obviously key to selling the suspension of disbelief that any of this is real, and also the music is great.