Back in 2005, Man of Action Studios and Cartoon Network studios launched Ben 10, an animated action-adventure series focusing on 10-year-old Ben Tennyson (Tara Strong) and his newly discovered, super-powered alien watch, the Omnitrix. Three sequel series followed an older Ben (Yuri Lowenthal) as he learned to harness old and new powers while coping with the complications of adolescence. More than 11 years later, Ben 10 is going back to basics with a newly rebooted series that finds Ben Tennyson being 10 again.
The age change, and the return of Strong voicing the lead, make sense for a number of reasons. First of all, the previous series tracked Ben from a 10-year-old to a teenager, more or less taking that arc as far as it could go for Cartoon Network’s target audience. Secondly, this reboot is a new start for a new generation and it follows that the tone of this Ben 10 is more in keeping with the modern culture of kids’ TV. Teen Titans morphed into Teen Titans Go! after a decade, favoring silliness, gags, and simple stories over the more complex themes the original series became known for; Ben 10 is getting a similar treatment.
But that’s not a bad thing, as long as you know what you’re getting into. Fans from the old guard of Ben 10 have already discounted the series, sight unseen, for a number of reasons: the different style of animation, the disconnection from the previous series, and the sillier nature of the storytelling. In short, the new Ben 10 isn’t the old Ben 10, and that has people upset. But if you come into the new series knowing that it’s intended to introduce the title character, his supportive family, and his super-powered alien personalities to a younger, less jaded audience, the new Ben 10 quickly becomes a delight to watch.
Make no mistake, Ben 10 is one of the most lucrative animated properties in history, to the tune of well over $4 billion, so of course Cartoon Network is going to want the next generation of kids to fall in love with it. And there’s a lot to love here: Strong is as charismatic, quirky, and sometimes downright cocky as always when channelling Ben Tennyson, who curiously comes pre-packaged with his Omnitrix in this version; this is not an origin story. Cousin Gwen (Montse Hernandez) and Grandfather Max (David Kaye) do their best to keep Ben in check and teach him tough life lessons along the way: do your chores, have patience, that it’s okay to lose, and intuition vs planning, are just some of the early episodic themes. Ben walks the line between earnestly understanding these lessons and coming up smelling like roses out of sheer luck, but that’s part of the character’s charm. This version of Ben is more Dennis the Menace than hero-in-the-making, though he certainly has fun battling aliens during the family’s endless road trip.
Speaking of aliens, I quite like the redesigns of some of Ben’s alien transformations. There are a lot of returning favorites, a new reworking of an old character, and even interesting mash-ups you’ll never see coming. It’s a good thing Ben is already somewhat familiar with most of these powers since the bad guys come fast and furious from the outset. Radioactive mutants, weather-obsessed robots, mythical monsters, and more await our hero, but it’s not just the episodic villains that antagonize him, there’s something bigger at play that’s teased in the premiere’s closing moments.
It’s not all serious though, in fact most of the show’s early arcs are very silly, bordering on Looney Tunes-level slapstick. It works with the tone they’re going for and the writers sneak in plenty of references to the show’s mythology and running gags that have been going since 2005. Gross-out humor abounds, owing to the 10-year-old boy mentality, but the stalwart Max and the usually level-headed Gwen help to keep Ben grounded (sometimes literally) time and time again. Ben 10 finds a good balance between the absurd and the action-focused while packing in some very easy, very obvious moral PSAs along the way.
For my final thoughts, the new Ben 10 series is certainly a change of pace from previous iterations, one that favors younger-skewing comedy over the more mature storylines that longtime fans may have become used to. When the jokes land, they’re very funny, though some of the easier gags are hit or miss. The action itself is still fun, but in keeping with the tone of the piece, even the fight scenes slant toward the funny side of things. However, this take on Ben 10 succeeds very well at being the kind of show it intended to be, if not necessarily what fans were expecting. I was wavering on giving Ben 10 three out of five stars, but the premiere’s closing moments suggest that there are bigger threats at play here than simple episodic baddies; that cliffhanger alone is worth another star and has me eager to see more.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Check out the hour-long series premiere of the new Ben 10 tonight at 5pm on Cartoon Network.