In 1981, the Japanese super robot anime television series Beast King GoLion made its way onto television, but it wasn’t until 1984, when this show was edited, trimmed, and Americanized into Voltron: Defender of the Universe, that the Lion Force truly made its way into U.S. culture. Now, more than 30 years later, a new version of Voltron roars to life in the Netflix series, Voltron Legendary Defender, a series that puts a twist on tradition but isn’t quite as ambitious as it could be, at least not in the first introductory hour.
While Voltron Legendary Defender will debut on Netflix June 10th, with all 11 episodes immediately available to binge watch, this review will be focused on the introductory hour, “The Rise of Voltron.” It’s a great origin story that serves to bring newcomers and longtime fans alike up to speed on the new voices playing old characters; it’s also a great way to show off the humor, action, and beautiful animation style of the new series brought to life by executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos (The Legend of Korra, Avatar: The Last Airbender) and co-executive producer Lauren Montgomery (The Legend of Korra).
Much like the original series, the central plot of Voltron Legendary Defender focuses on five disparate teenagers who find themselves piloting powerful robotic lions which unite to form the legendary defender, Voltron. The tradition is strong in this new series and the story doesn’t veer much from the tried and true: Voltron is the universe’s last line of defense against the ruthless and powerful forces of King Zarkon (Neil Kaplan), ruler of the Drule Empire, and his sorceress Haggar (Cree Summer). Moreover, original Voltron characters Keith (Steven Yeun), Lance (Jeremy Shada), Pidge (Bex Taylor-Klaus), and Hunk (Tyler Labine ) return, plus Princess Allura (Kimberly Brooks) and her advisor Coran, played to hilarious effect by Rhys Darby. (I’ll note that there are plenty of nods to the original that I won’t describe in detail here so that you can better enjoy them when they show up, but it’s worth mentioning that other familiar characters do make an appearance.)
However, there are obviously going to be some changes made in this new version; some of them are rather big departures from the traditional characters, though most of them are relatively minor. In previous versions, Keith piloted the Black Lion and was the de facto leader of the Lion Force; this iteration is quite a bit different. We’re introduced to Keith a little further down the road than I expected and he is about as far from being the leader as a character can be. Still, his introduction and arc setup are quite promising.
The core of the new version is the trio of Hunk, Lance, and Pidge, a team of friends who are in training together as part of the military’s Galaxy Garrison. Their characters are exactly what you’d expect since they’re more or less copied over from the original series (even if their eventual Lions are shuffled around slightly), but the new voice actors bring a lot of personality to each of them. The camaraderie here is fantastic with Lance acting as the overly confident ladies man, Hunk playing the lovable oaf, and Pidge providing the smarts and awkwardness the character is known for. You can really see the Avatar/Legend of Korra personalities shine through here, so if you’re a fan of those series’ sense of humor and dialogue, you should feel right at home with these three.
Where Voltron Legendary Defender departs from the original is with the addition of Shiro (Josh Keaton), named as an homage to the Beast King GoLion character Takashi Shirogane, who became Sven in Voltron. Shiro provides the mystery at the heart of this new series as he’s introduced as a member of a science team that was captured by Zarkon’s forces, a team that has personal ties to other members of the Voltron Force as well. Shiro’s year spent aboard Zarkon’s ship and his ultimate escape from captivity are shrouded in mystery with bits and pieces of evidence metered out in the introductory hour; it’s likely to be part of the overall season-long arc, an enticing mystery embedded in this action-packed series.
And if it’s action you’re looking for, Voltron Legendary Defender has plenty of it. The team members themselves get in on the action early on as they race away from their own Galaxy Garrison forces before encountering the robotic minions of Zarkon, using their various skill sets to save each others’ skins. The guys get a bump in the action department once they’re gifted with their color-coordinated pilot/paladin suits and personalized weapons (which are pretty cool accessories for both the characters and their eventual toy versions). One of my biggest gripes with the original series was how little the individual Lions got to do in battle before being forced into forming Voltron; if this introduction is any indication, each of the Lions will get their time to shine throughout the series without skipping right to forming the big bot.
Speaking of Voltron, the new series doesn’t make you wait long to see the fully realized version in action. While the original series took three full episodes and 20 minutes of the fourth to get the team together (literally) and combine to form Voltron, Legendary Defender gives viewers a nice taste of what that will look like fairly early on. The full reveal, transformation, and first battle for Voltron, however, has to be earned in this introduction. I’m happy to report that it was exciting to watch the team come together to pull off this feat, and that the moment Voltron finally forms is worth the wait.
With that being said, there are a few areas where I feel Voltron Legendary Defender fell short. There are minor disappointments like the lack of Voltron forming any of its signature weapons and the absence of a Robeast for it to fight, but these are likely being saved for future episodes to amp up the intensity. The bigger oversight, in my opinion, is the lack of diversity in the characters and a related shortage of ambition concerning the relationships among the characters. There’s something to be said for sticking to tradition, but I expected more from the folks behind Avatar/Korra than five amicable white guys saving the world while a Princess stays safely in her castle out of harm’s way. Allura does have some moments of strength and worth throughout the introduction-for example, she’s linked to the Lions, controls wormholes in space, and can access the wealth of knowledge stored on a holographic drive-but rarely is she given a chance to be proactive. It’s not like she’s a damsel in distress by any means, but I fully expect to see Allura getting more involved as the series goes on, especially with Shiro’s mysterious past possibly compromising the team and maybe even opening up a pilot seat for the princess. If they could do it in the original series in 1981, what’s stopping it from happening in 2016?
Voltron Legendary Defender is a worthy successor to the original series that stays true to its roots, though its ambition is tempered by its adherence to tradition. The animation is beautiful to behold, and the action is fast-paced and fun while striking a balance with the show’s comedic and sometimes touching character moments. Whether you’re a fan of the original or are new to the game, this Netflix series is worth the watch.
Update: After getting a chance to watch the 11-episode series of Voltron Legendary Defender in its entirety, I have to change my recommendation from “worth the watch” to “must watch.” This new version is an incredible accomplishment that straddles the line between paying homage to nostalgia and tradition while introducing new wrinkles to the storyline and vastly improving on familiar characters. I’m happy to say that the rest of the series addressed my concerns of inclusion and diversity in very interesting and compelling ways; I should have known better than to question the team behind Avatar and The Legend of Korra.
Voltron Legendary Defender takes the action level of the title hero and its multi-part team to all new exciting heights but doesn’t skimp on character development as it carves out time to explore increasingly complex relationships among team members and other sentient lifeforms. The writing is solid and compelling, brought to life by fantastic voice work from all involved, from the charismatic Keaton, the hilarious Labine, and the imposing Kaplan. It’s got heart, humor, thrilling sequences and jaw-dropping twists and turns that will have you glued to your screen; the only downside is that it ends far too soon after a climactic, yet cliffhanger-y, season finale. This is the closest I’ve come to feeling like a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons in a long time, and I can’t say enough good things about the series. I hope you feel the same way!
Premiere Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Season Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent
Be sure to check out our extensive Voltron Legendary Defender gallery for more images, clips, character info and other looks at Netflix’s newest animated series!