‘…even more than story, the appeal of any production, whether dramatic or comedic or both, comes down to the appeal of the characters, and this is the great strength of The Legend of Vox Machina’
Review: John Winterson Richards
The story of how The Legend of Vox Machina came to be is in many ways far more interesting than the animated series itself. It resembles one of those "let's just put on a show" Hollywood films where a bunch of eager kids do something simply because they enjoy it and it turns out to be an unexpected success.
It also illustrates how several trends in entertainment media can come together and offer a new business model for the future. While some consider it a sign of the decline of Western civilisation that so many film and television projects are now adaptations of "comic books" and video games, it cannot be denied that the best of them have genuine merit. The recent Netflix Arcane shows the potential of video game characters given a strong storyline and some clever world building.
If video games are still generally in the basement of respectability as source material for adaptations, The Legend of Vox Machina takes us lower still - to a sub-basement that most people had forgotten. It is based on a game, but nothing so sophisticated as a modern video game.
Older people might remember that in the days before video games there were multiplayer games in which players interacted in real life, hard as that is to imagine now. Some were board games of considerable complexity, such as realistic wargames. Some, called role playing games or RPGs, involved players assuming other characters. The most famous of these was, and still is, 'Dungeons and Dragons,' which is set in a Tolkienesque high fantasy universe. 'Dungeons and Dragons' has developed its own film and television franchise, but to date it has not been a great success. The Legend of Vox Machina is not part of that franchise.
Indeed, The Legend of Vox Machina is not based directly on the game itself but on a particular session of people playing the game - or rather a webstream of a particular session of people playing the game.
Anyone who has ever played a serious board game over a few drinks with friends might wonder why someone would bother to record it - and why anyone else would bother to watch it. The appeal of such a thing becomes even more incomprehensible when one reads that, like many 'Dungeons and Dragons' sessions, it was rather long, and the session became many sessions. It was given its own name, 'Critical Role,' and each session is titled, more appropriately, a "campaign." At the time of writing 'Critical Role' are in their third campaign. The first, on which The Legend of Vox Machina is based, ran to 115 episodes of about three hours each.
So who would want to spend hundreds of hours watching someone else play 'Dungeons and Dragons'? Apparently, quite a lot of people. The first episode has over 18,000,000 views on 'YouTube' at the time of writing and 'Critical Role' has grossed over $9,000,000 on 'Twitch.'
It has to be stressed that 'Critical Role' is more than the traditional stereotypical geeks playing D&D. The regular participants all just happen to be established voice actors. The in-joke, mentioned but not explained in the animation, is that 'Vox Machina' means "Voice of the Machine," referencing the participants' vocations. They also seem to be people of considerable imagination skilled at improvisation. Yet in spite of their obvious professionalism, they are apparently genuine friends - including two married couples. The webcast is therefore a lot more enjoyable than it sounds (while it has not been possible to watch all 115 three-hour episodes as part of this review process, they have a pleasant atmosphere that makes them easy listening).
Seeing that all this was doing no harm to their careers, the participants in the game decided to make an animation to introduce their characters. They launched an appeal for funding on 'Kickstarter.' They gave themselves 45 days to raise $750,000 for a 22-minute cartoon. They raised the whole sum, indeed over a million, in the first hour. Then the money kept coming. They ended up with $11,000,000 from over 80,000 individuals, enough for a ten-episode season.
It was at this point Amazon stepped in. There seems to be a sort of arms race between Amazon and Netflix in the animation for grownups market. Amazon had a breakthrough with Invincible but Netflix went one better with Arcane, a huge critical and "cult" hit. Amazon is now enjoying similar success with The Legend of Vox Machina. In addition to buying the ten episodes funded by the 'Kickstarter' appeal, Amazon commissioned two new episodes to round out the first season and a complete second season of twelve episodes, fourteen in all.
The lesson for all those struggling for their big break in the entertainment industry is that it will come only when you are already successful.
It is worthy of that success? Well, it is to be said that for a cartoon based on a webcast of a gang of actors playing a 1970s RPG for hours on end, it is a lot better than it sounds. The key to this is its sense of humour and, perhaps more importantly, getting the balance right between the humour and a healthy respect for the conventions of the high fantasy genre. It is a proper dramatic story, with characters about whom we care in real jeopardy.
In the opening seconds we are introduced to a Fellowship of stock noble fantasy characters whose subsequent fate sets the tone for the whole season. Amusing lines have greater impact when the situation is serious. This is what Joss Whedon understood in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. He also understood that, even more than story, the appeal of any production, whether dramatic or comedic or both, comes down to the appeal of the characters, and this is the great strength of The Legend of Vox Machina.
The original cast of the webcast reprise their roles in the game. This would normally be a recipe for disaster, and, in buying the rights, Amazon would normally have insisted on replacing them with more familiar names. In this case, however, they are all seasoned professionals who know what they are doing and they are thoroughly familiar with their roles, far more so than any celebrity guest voices could be. It is obvious from even a brief glance at the webcasts that they put a lot of thought into the development and backstories of the characters, and grew with them through hundreds of hours of gameplay, so that they knew instantly how they would react in any situation.
As a result this two dimensional animation has more three dimensional characters than most live action fantasy and science fiction drama. Our heroes are a financially unsuccessful band of mercenaries, very much the B-Team of heroic Fellowships. Percy (Taliesin Jaffe) is an aristocratic gunslinger whose desire for revenge is literally eating his soul. Keyleth (Marisha Ray) is a slightly ditzy druid with low self-confidence who ran away from her responsibilities but is now forced to master what seemed too much for her before. Scanlan (Sam Riegel), a gnome, is a promiscuous bard with an odd set of minor powers. Pike (Ashley Johnson), also a gnome, is a kindly cleric who, like all religious people on television, has a crisis of faith. Vax and Vex (Liam O'Brien and Laura Bailey), half-elves, are a highly competitive twin brother and sister, whose common front of bravado hides differing vulnerabilities. Vex has a pet bear called Trinket, who is criminally underused. Grog (Travis Wllingham) is a hulking brute, apparently a "Goliath Barbarian," not overly blessed in the intellect department, who proclaims he has only two interests in life - ale, women, and combat - which sums him up fairly accurately. Matthew Mercer, the "Dungeon Master" of the 'Critical Role' game, voices a number of supporting characters in accordance with "Dungeon Master" tradition.
Since The Legend of Vox Machina is an ongoing series, this is technically a spoiler light overview of the first season rather than a full review, but the plot really does not matter that much. Suffice it to say that there are dragons and vampires and zombies. The real story is the growth of our protagonists and the relationships between them.
The 'Critical Role' team are joined by a number of more familiar guest voices, including Gina Torres, David Tennant, Stephanie Beatriz, Dominic Monaghan, Stephen Root, Kelly Hu, Tracie Thoms, Indira Varma, Esme Creed-Miles, and a perfectly cast Rory McCann.
The animation references the cheap and cheerful 'anime' style. Some of the movement sequences may remind older viewers of the cartoon segments of The Banana Splits show. However, even more than in Invincible, the animators include enough beautifully drawn panels, especially landscapes and cityscapes, to remind us that they are being ironic and that they are quite capable of being sophisticated when they want. The cruder sections are themselves marked with a great deal of inventiveness and wit, not least in a childlike planning sequence. One can see a lot of film and television influences, especially the Living Dead films and Game of Thrones. There is good use of colour and light.
One suspects that the high viewer appreciation scores on IMDb and 'Rotten Tomatoes' may have been inflated a little by having a million fans so dedicated that they will watch three hour webcasts of someone else playing a game, including 80,000 who will put their own money into a 'Kickstarter' appeal. Nevertheless, The Legend of Vox Machina is a superior product with a great sense of fun - subject to the reservation that the four letter words, scatological humour, fairly explicit sex, and graphic violence, including the deaths of children, animals, and sympathetic characters - will not be to all tastes. While it is difficult to see how long the animation format can be sustained, and it is unlikely to run to 115 episodes, it has certainly earned its second season.
Published on February 23rd, 2022. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.