Little Witch Academia (TV)

I've been at a loss of what to review lately. Nothing seemed to speak to me lately. Then I heard some buzz about a title called Little Witch Academia by studio Trigger and the disappointment that it was going to Netflix so the wait to watch it legally would be longer than anticipated. Hey, it works on my lazy schedule of usually being behind three months on a series anyway, so why not check out now that the first season is available officially? After watching the short film and the Kickstarted follow-up that preceded it, I had a little regret in my decision. The first short is what I'd call "pleasant," which is sort of a back-handed compliment. It means it's nice enough that I don't really want to start rambling about all I found wrong with it because it may not deserve it. The original short was designed is part of the Anime Mirai projects to develop young animators (though how much it actually helps young animators or gives money for extra projects on already established animators is still up in the air give of Little Witch Academia's staff were already well established in the industry), and as a demonstration of animation prowess, it's really damn solid. Lots of colorful, flowing scenes of animation with only a reasonable amount of editing.

But... it's one of those titles that is trying to copy successful formulas and it wears its inspirations on its sleeves to the point of distraction. A trio of students at a magic school where one doesn't come from a magical house finds she is the chosen one for... something through an event involving an item called the sorcerer's stone. Seems familiar. Would noting main character Akko has a rival who is blonde and snooty be piling on? Also, the script is dumb. REALLY dumb. One of the students accidentally unleashes a most dangerous beasts for beginner witches that can absorb all magic to make itself stronger. Fair enough, but it was originally sealed away in a training dungeon for students who are encouraged to get as good of a grade as possible by using their magical abilities to their limits in order to bag the more challenging creatures. That situation seems exceptionally avoidable. The follow-up, a Kickstarter-supported feature called The Enchanted Parade, was better, taking the focus way from the Harry Potter influences and trying to be its own thing (With a scoche of Fantasia), but it still had some similar scripting quirks like when one character explains her own motivation to herself for the sake of the audience. And can we just drop the fat person whose only defining characteristic is how much they like to inhale food from children's and young adult fiction FOREVER, please?

Thankfully, Little Witch Academia the series is something of a reboot. Perhaps remix would be a better phrase since all of the characters look and act exactly the same, but the plot is mixed around to accommodate a different story from its predecessors. Instead of starting in the middle of the school year, the TV series goes back to when Atsuko "Akko" Kagari has her first day of school. Seeing the performance of famous witch Shiny Chariot as a child, she is inspired to go to Luna Nova Magical Academy even though magic doesn't run in the family. Unfortunately, she is way behind everyone else to the point that she can't even ride a broom and takes herself and future classmates Sucy and Lotte into a dangerous labyrinth woods with a cockatrice just trying to get to the school's opening ceremonies. Sucy has a dark personality with a penchant for mushrooms and mixing dangerous potions while Lotte is a more unassuming student whose interest lies more in an EXTREMELY long-running series of novels loosely parodying Twilight (Honestly, the more they explain the plot of the books, the less I understand. That's probably the joke). After their initial encounter gets them in serious trouble, they are all placed in the same dorm under the supervision of Ursula, one of the younger teachers at the school. Early on, Akko runs afoul of Diana, the most gifted girl at the school who is a mix between Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy in her combination of genius and snobbiness.

It doesn't take long for Akko to realize Luna Nova isn't all she expected it to be. The witches-in-training despise Shiny Chariot for turning their life's work into a fireworks show of parlor tricks. The curriculum is less wowie zowie magic and more history textbooks Akko doesn't have the attention span for. She's way behind everyone else, so even when she does get to practice magic, it goes wrong in embarrassing ways. So, she and her wrangled cohorts try to find shortcuts, which usually involve some of the most dangerous artifacts and secrets that could possibly destroy the entire school. Even though one or two of these instances would be means for expulsion, they get let off with cleaning punishments and being grounded to the premises... which they ignore half the time. Perhaps the reason they have a longer leash is magic is falling out of favor with the world and they're losing funding and popularity, so they need Akko's tuition. While the sorcerer's stone in the school provides more than enough power to run the school, a magic degree is becoming more and more as useful as a Philosophy major due to the lack of magic energy in the rest of the world.

The early episodes make this seem like a continuation of the attitudes from the previous works. I'm not going to lie, I was less than taken with Akko. The beginning makes her seem like the worst kind of main bright-eyed lead. She goes by Chariot's quote that belief is your own magic... which is fine until you have a task that has the slightest bit of complexity or a requires a smidgen of experience. She doesn't even try to earnestly catch up with her classmates, but literally tries as many easy ways out as she can find, even the most dangerous ones (Perhaps especially the most dangerous ones). The most irksome episode features a broom race Akko and her pals are eager to win despite Akko being unable to even ride a broom by herself. What to do? Well, they cheat, frankly. They nail down other racers with mushrooms, set up a path of donuts to distract fellow student Jasminka (See, it's funny because she's a fatty fat fat and her only major character aspect is she loves to eat). Akko finds a broom that doesn't run on magic, is muzzled up like Hannibal Lector, and she's explicitly warned not to use it, but what do people who've been involved in magic for years know? The trio have to show up that snobby know-it-all Diana who is actually one of the most reasonable characters in the series because she realizes the responsibilities that exist with wielding this immense amount of power. It doesn't help that most of this episode is narrated by one of those journalism club characters who exist to provide obvious commentary if the internet distracts you from actually watching it.

Here's the thing: The TV series knows all of this. Where the other features have a limited amount of time to tell a story, this one has more than enough length to develop and expand on its characters and setting. We get why the lead trio seem apprehensive with each other. Akko eventually learns that yes, belief in yourself is a good thing to have, but you eventually need to learn, practice, and work to get where you want or need to be. The universe is established and they have an internal consistency so there's a line of what's too far to get them expelled and how they don't have that happen even as they threaten to completely wreck the academy every week. This is boring stuff if you just want to talk about cool witch school stuff but it's ESSENTIAL if you don't want people to roll their eyes at a main character who snarls at her snooty rival yet doesn't do anything to be a rival except try cheats that nearly get fellow students killed.

With my biggest issues addressed, now to look at the series a whole. The animation is absolute candy from the stellar light show of the opening (That fabric embroidery on that title...) to the literal splashing of colors that greet the ending credits. Obviously, the television budget lowers how many overtly flashy scenes one can have, but it still manages to pull off plenty. Akko has serious problems getting metamorphosis spells right and the anime doesn't shy away from showing all the ways she screws up her form and the forms of others. The look is clean with welcoming hues around every corner. The only thing I'd say is there are WAY too many little references to Kill la Kill in the visuals. Not EVERY white object and being needs to have a star in the middle of it. We get it. You're the company that did that thing and that visual was a part of that thing.

While there is a storyline with its own progress and plot threads, the focus is more on episodic escapades. As I've said, there is an internal logic that prevents them from going on school-destroying adventures all day, every day (Though one episode essentially uses a reset button), but that doesn't mean they don't get crazy. Some are predictable wacky antics, like a cupid bee that makes anyone it stings fall in love with the first person they see loose at a well-to-do party. Others, however, take more unexpected turns, like the episode that goes into Sucy's mind and finds what makes her tick (For a taste: the visual representation of her mind features Pyramid Head executioners). Some are usual kids show stories of the week. Thankfully, the narrative for Akko as "the important one" moves away from possible fantasy fiction tropes and is a little more vague this time around, making her not so much a chosen special person, but the random student who could just happen to use certain phrases that unlocks a certain thingamabob that isn't explained in the first 13 episodes (I am only reviewing the episodes Netflix has available. Yes, I know there are more out there. No, I'm looking at them yet).

For an IP that seemed to have a chemistry problem among the characters early on (The delinquents in The Enchanted Parade got along better with Akko than her best friends and it was weird), the interaction gets much better as they grow and even gets good characters where you wouldn't expect. Akko gets a Darien in the son of a politician who only pays lip service to witches while wanting to completely scrub their funding, and they have the whole love/hate relationship going. They earn their respect for each other and their ire helping each other survive circumstances... that many times were completely avoidable. They become that lovable group of people you tune into every week because you like them, even if they don't start out that way.

A peppy orchestral score caps a solid first half for Little Witch Academia. I may not have been charmed by what preceded the TV series nor may I enjoy it as much as others, but I have reached an understanding. The leads being given far more definition and getting the screws put to their shortcomings goes a long way to forgiving them and enjoying their presence. The franchise has always looked beautiful and this iteration is no different. It simply needed to carve out its own identity from the other magic fiction that inspired it to become a rounded student.


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