A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW BY HENRY HUNTER
I can't say I personally have a whole lot of prior experience with League of Legends or it's universe but I did spend a short period of my life playing the game. I could probably list off a few characters names but I couldn't tell you anything about the wider lore or world that the characters live in. As it would happen, the time I spent as a (psuedo) League of Legends player happened to coincide with the introduction of a playable character known as Jinx. At the time, she just seemed like the archetypal Harley Quinn type of character, y'know, the mentally unhinged quirky and giggly loose cannon clown punk with a gratuitous artillery of assorted firearms and explosives in the place of a moral compass. I can still recall first seeing her introductory cinematic during her debut way back in 2013. It's almost poetic that my return to the franchise's universe all these years later would happen to feature Jinx in a starring role.
Now, because of my alienation with the franchise (the gameplay never really clicked with me and as my friends who played moved away and fell out of touch I had no reason to keep playing,) I didn't really have any intention to watch a League of Legends animated series-- that was until I saw the trailer. Arcane is animated by Fortiche, a Paris-based animation and production studio, and let me tell you, this is some of the most gorgeous looking animation I've seen in a long time. Fortiche cut absolutely no corners in making this series look as amazing as it possibly can. It's usually safe to be a mite more wary when it comes to 3D animation because things can often end up looking a lot more janky and uncanny much more easily with 3D animation but there isn't even a trace of that here. Every single frame of this series looks like a work of art; I can't remember a single show that had me pausing the show just to admire the composition and aesthetic of a single frame. From the moment I saw the trailer I was obsessed with not only the animation but the art direction of this show, too. Every single thing in this world looks magnificent, and if you don't believe me go ahead and see for yourself. From the intricate and thought out character design to the tactility and rationality put into the world and how it's interacted with, every single element put into this show was done with a masterful care and precision. Characters are always moving, never robotically stagnant, and they're endlessly expressive in such realistic ways. Every single last fantasy machination is designed with such innovative thought and masterful portrayal. Everything moves with such perfect movement, even the tiniest little motion is worth observation. There is absolutely nothing in this show that's not worth looking at. It is stunning down to the last frame. Even if you hate League of Legends, this show is enjoyable on the basis of just the way it looks alone. And we haven't gotten to the world, characters, plot, or... anything else yet!
Arcane introduces the viewer to the dichotomous world of Piltover and Zaun. Piltover is the high society upper echelon city of innovation, academia, and governance and Zaun is the grimy and rowdy underbelly where all the cutthroats and other such unruly misfits skulk about. The audience is introduced to Zaun via a downward-panning elevator shot of the green-tinged undercity and all it's shady dealings outfitted with a very fitting musical accompaniment of Bea Miller's "Playground," a perfect snapshot that utilizes stellar soundtracking and cinematography to establish the setting and atmosphere for the starring debut of the trench where a good portion of the show takes place.
Up topside, Piltover is shown as a sprawling city of golden buildings and a thriving society. Governed by a council of upper class aristocrats (all of which sporting their own fantastically creative and fun-to-look-at character designs, I could honestly go into how amazingly each of these characters are designed,) Piltover juggles a long-standing tense standoff with the unruly behavior of their downstairs neighbors with pushing the envelope for magical and scientific advancement that we get to see have real world effects on the world around them. It's a believable world that kept me longing to return to watch it's characters run about it again and again. It's endlessly deep and offers so much intrigue for the audience to explore. It drives the political drama angle with an intimate web of compelling characters with varied relationships and agreements threading between each of them, making the act of delving into this world even more exhilarating. There is nowhere that the show does not forget to account for any perfect little intricacy, it's a marriage of masterful story-telling and beautiful presentation en masse. It's an immaculate specimen of world-building, managing to give us an extremely engaging world to get lost in alongside uber-compelling and emotionally-loaded characters to live in it.
In fact, speaking of the music used to introduce Zaun, the entire soundtrack is brought to the absolute upper limits of its potential throughout the show. Whenever music starts playing, you absolutely know it's time for something crucial to go down. The amount of resonance and perfect utilization put into the feel and timing of every song you hear is perfect. From the very beginning you pick up on the show's spirited punk tones with the opening theme, Imagine Dragon's "Enemy." Hearing the in-your-face rebellious swagger from Imagine Dragon's brought me right back to hearing "Radioactive" and "Warriors" in middle school and imagining my own fantasy characters brawling with these songs in the background. The entire show invokes the feeling of an old YouTube AMV because of the original tracks and borderline Skrillex-esque songs that overlay the character-vital moments and big important scenes... and I know that could be interpreted in negative ways but trust me when I say that I mean that in the absolute best way possible. You're just gonna have to trust me on that one but man does the music accent everything going on perfectly well. Almost every time a song came on, I was on my feet again, eager to see what unfolds next.
Yet another aspect of this show to be absolutely enamored by is the action. The fight scenes are gritty and gripping. In the very first episode there's a street brawl between young undercity kids and it's not a scene of meticulously choreographed backflips and flying crane kicks, it's genuine portrayal of a white-knuckle slugfest between rowdy young kids beating the shit out of each other and breaking bones. You can feel the gut-wrenching impact of each strike as blood and spittle fly from flapping slow-motion lips. We get to see the fighters awkwardly lurch on their feet as they reel from pain while still having to fend for themselves. When the stakes raise and the action gets a little bit more high-concept this measured approach to fights is still there. There isn't a moment when a battle breaks out that isn't a marvel that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Every single thrown punch, kick, tackle, or lunge has a deliberate weight to it and the show goes to lengths to make the audience feel the shuddering intensity every fight scene invokes. It's brutal, it's gruesome, and it is awesome.
For as pretty this show can be to look at, it doesn't shy away from showing you up close and guttural human emotion. The way Fortiche manages to capture expressions flickering on character's faces is so human and accurate, there are multiple scenes where you can see characters experience consecutive emotions in the span of the few seconds and witness each of them pass across their faces in a very subtle and real way. It's not afraid to have you see how ugly a character can be when they're truly broken and sobbing; the emotional depth in this series is heavy and realistic in such an impactful manner. There are so many powerfully written characters, every single character's intentions are clear and actions are motivated. There are so many different difficult decisions that characters are hopelessly faced with. Tense situations that have the audience grinding their teeth and balling your fists in anticipation of the character's decision. The character writing is some of the most emotional I've seen in a long time, these characters deal with such hardships and tragedies that pull the audience's heartstrings along with them as their whisked along against all sorts of trials and tribulations. Even the characters I didn't expect to like as much ended up presenting a level of morality and vulnerability that made them fascinating to watch.
Let's come back to Jinx, the ruthless cackling nutcase with a gatling gun. I would have never expected this character to have so much depth and intricacy to her. She isn't treated as a quirky female Joker who kills for shits and giggles, the show instead opts to handle her with a very real fragility. The audience is shown her thought process, allowing us a peak at how things move for her from her point of view. Whenever she's on screen she'll frequently jump cut around the frame sporadically, appearing here and then there and then here again and going on about various things only loosely related to one another. She's portrayed as manic and with self-destructive tendencies. It's an honest depiction of someone with serious mental illnesses who frequently struggles with her inner voices and own vulnerability instead of being depicted as deranged in some superficial way just to have an outlandish character do outlandish things. She's still a loose cannon who acts on her own whimsy but she's also an emotional and very lost person with a soft depth to her that I never expected. The show takes it's time to show her past and how the events take the place maker her into the person she is in the present. But I won't go into that for the sake of keeping this review spoiler-free because I highly recommend you watch this show for yourself; I don't know if my nonstop gushing thus far has given it away but I honestly believe this show is an absolute treat to all the senses.
This show does not pull it's punches, it's a nonstop engaging thrill ride that keeps your attention in an iron grasp the entire time. I can think of several different times where my jaw fell open and my muscles tensed in desperate anticipation. The end of the first act alone is a very strong contender for the category of peak fiction, managing to ruthlessly pluck at heartstrings while still driving beautiful animation and world-building with powerful and enjoyable action. This is an engaging and evolving world we're introduced to with a cast of incredibly emotionally-driven and impactful characters. I can't help but want to know what happens next to these characters and this world. I am beyond stoked for season two. If you haven't figured it out yet, I enjoyed this show to the nth degree. It does not let up with the pinnacle-tier quality throughout it's entire runtime. Watch this show. It is worth your time and definitely a contender for show of the year. Easily.
It's no surprise but my final verdict here is gonna be a 10/10. This show is a favorite and I'd happily recommend it to anyone. You could hate League of Legends and this show will still be worth the watch. Hell, you don't even have to know what League of Legends is to recognize this show as a masterclass of animation and storytelling. There is just so much I could get into here and go on about how much every single frame and step forward in the plot is another reason to watch this show and enjoy it for yourself. I've really just barely scratched the surface here on all the things this show does incredibly right. I am giving this show my golden seal of enjoyability; you should absolutely watch Arcane.