Sunday, 6 March 2011

Wakfu: season 1

I’m not ashamed to say that Wakfu is the first animation I’ve been really excited by in a long, long time. I’ve enjoyed various anime and have great admiration for a lot of the films I’ve seen lately, but it’s been months since I last watched something where at the end of each episode, I needed to start the next one, and if I ran out of time, looked forward to continuing until I did.

Wakfu is an interesting and idiosyncratic piece of work. Since the success of Code Lyoko, which I was never very keen on, French popular animation has had a bit of a renaissance. Wakfu comes from this tradition, and in my view is its best iteration yet, eclipsing the likes of Ōban and in fact being the first European animated weekly work I’ve been interested in since the rather lacklustre Watership Down series.

Wakfu has its roots in gaming: its original incarnation is as a MMORPG, itself a sequel – its predecessor being called Dofus. The animators working on the game begun working with Flash animation in the typical basic way: vectors moving with somewhat artificial smoothness, with some nice little perspective techniques such as you might see on Weebl’s Stuff. Pleasant enough, but not really the sort of thing I’d want to watch. I may have seen the early animation previews in 2009 when they were posted (a couple of years or more after being made) on the MCM Expo sites, but they made no impression. That all changed when I saw the stunning season 2 intro, and realised the astonishing things that could be done in Flash.

It didn’t do any harm that the theme song is amazing, either. It’s been stuck in my head since I first heard it. Sois!!

The story is full of fantasy clichés. A foundling is targeted by a malevolent and powerful antagonist, so with the help of his adoptive father’s friend, a princess and her (female) bodyguard and a knight indebted to them, he goes off to find his true family, while getting to grips with the mysterious powers inside him. Some of the stories are unoriginal to the point of being tributes – as when the ‘confrèrie’ teach a village of weak non-warriors to defend themselves from bandits – and I rather wish the unfunny direct references to Lord of the Rings and Star Wars were left unsaid. Some of the sprightly first episodes go overboard with silliness – the primary antagonist of one episode is an old person with a big robot made of bread – and after all a large part of the series is given over to what is basically a minigame, pure videogame plotting, but somehow these little silly things they manage to pull off and make so fun, and when the plot does turn dark and epic, as you always know it will, you are already so fond of the characters that it’s incredibly compelling. And the complexity of the antagonist, who after all thinks that he will be able to simply undo all his sins, makes for some really interesting ambiguity in the final stages.

Somehow the design works. Detractors could clearly call it ‘fake anime’, as that’s obviously the inspiration for the aesthetic, but the whole thing also looks very French/Belgian. Yugo’s hood recalls Les Schtroumpfs and those Tofus look straight off a yoghurt pot in a French supermarket. Actually, the things I most wanted to change were those cheaply designed-looking tofu mascots and the noseless iop race, who just looked too like RPG sprites beside all the rest.

But if I didn’t care for the characters at first, every one won me over. Tristepin? I thought he was annoying at first, another Sokka from Avatar (especially as Yugo is very like Aang), but when he carried Yugo to the goal line in the tournament? I was won over forever, which helped when he became central in some episodes. And even that silly birdy Az made me smile with every appearance by the end. Yugo and Nox I loved from the start, and Adamaï has such a great voice.

Indeed, the whole cast is superb. Not every episode is a classic and not every joke hits the mark, but it’s one of the funniest, most enjoyable, most affecting and cutest series I’ve ever seen, and I will definitely watch the extras and season 2.

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