Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Miraculous, les aventures de Ladybug et Chat Noir / Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir / Miraculous Ladybug

What with celebrated movies like Persepolis and Les Triplettes de Belleville and weekly animation like Wakfu and the continuation of Les Mystérieuses Cités d'or, I’ve become quite a fan of French animation. Alongside the Belgians, they’ve always had a tradition of taking comics a little more seriously than Britain did, with the likes of Astérix having appeal to an older demographic way before that was fashionable worldwide. I absolutely love Wakfu and when I saw a lot of people raving about Ladybug, I thought I’d check it out.

It took a long time for me to get into. One big factor was that before it was on Netflix it was hard for me to find the French version with English subtitles, and while my French is decent enough to understand the basic gist, that’s not enough to enjoy the show. There are actually solid reasons to watch the show in other languages – by date of first airing, the Korean dub has priority; there’s quite a bit of focus on making it appeal to English audiences, including a lot of English on-screen text; and of course the creation, setting and lip-sync are centred on the French. Trying them all, it was instantly apparent that the French dub was the best-acted, matched the animation and of course made sense with the Parisian setting. So I had to make quite a bit of effort at that point to find it in French.

Moreover, at first I didn’t really get into the show. I had begun watching it in the American viewing order and they unfortunately kicked off the series with two of its weakest episodes, ‘Le Bulleur’ and ‘M. Pigeon’. I probably would have had an easier time getting into it if those particularly goofy episodes weren’t presented right from the off.

I also wasn’t that taken by the animation. This is a prevalent French style at the moment, as also seen in the recent adaptation of Le Petit Prince, in the Mystérieuses Cités sequel and in Un monstre à Paris, it’s CG animation done far cheaper than what you see from Pixar, and though individual frames tend to look great when you pause, it’s largely on the stiff, clunky, awkward-looking side in motion.

Yet I kept coming back to Ladybug, and finally binge-watched most of the first season and some of the second, and ultimately found myself fully won over by its charms. Actually, I can say quite specifically what made me go back and watch more, and it was a gif of Chat Noir looking stupidly cute talking about how black brings out the green in his eyes. The fact is what made me watch more of this than I otherwise would was the incredibly cute character designs, which are a very pleasant mixture of cool and goofy, which is a pretty tough balance to pull off. The attractiveness of the main cast is absolutely what got this show rolling and spread its influence far enough that some favourite Pixiv artists from Japan surprised me by drawing fanart of the characters.

In story terms, this is a very generic mix of classic American superhero clichés, with a healthy dash of magical girl anime, especially Shugo Chara. The kwami are little familiars very much like the shugo chara, and Adrien/Chat Noir is almost like a mash-up of the two boys from that show. The transformations of course bring to mind those of shows like Sailor Moon and the idea of people being manipulated by a magical force to turn evil was also done to way more goofy levels by Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z. Yes, goofier than the pigeon fancier becoming a pigeon-based superhero. Thrown into this is the silly but often fun conceit that just putting on a little mask completely hides your identity so that even those close to you can’t possibly recognise you, and a luck-based superpower that basically functions like Batman’s infamous utility belt in the old days where it always held exactly what he needed to solve any problem.

A simple formula plays out over the course of the show – someone in Paris, usually happening to be in the immediate vicinity of our heroes (including every single one of their classmates) ends up in emotional distress. Sinister villain Le Papillon, who somehow is always ready to observe these events, sends out an ‘akuma’ butterfly to turn them into a supervillain, in hopes they can draw out superheroes Ladybug and Chat Noir and steal the artefacts that give them power. It never works. Towards the end, they try to get a little more creative with this, like having two separate villains as a kind of cause-and-effect, or having a villain who can summon and control the previous villains, but generally things are kept episodic. Interestingly, as a season finale (in France at least), the heroes’ origin stories are told, basically showing that normal teenager Marinette Dupain-Cheng and, well, relatively normal teenager Adrien Agreste are given their powers essentially as a reaction to the rise of Le Papillon.

There’s nothing special about the set-up or the storytelling, but what really works is the leaf taken from Shugo Chara’s book and making the show incredibly good shipping bait. It’s all about the relationships, and the cute set-up that Marinette is in love with Adrien (after, typically, a rocky start) and that Adrien is in love with Ladybug. While neither of course know that the other is the superhero they fight side-by-side with every time a new villain appears. Superficially Marinette and Adrien aren’t the most interesting characters. Marinette has the interest of being half-European and half-Chinese (like me!), but is largely an everywoman character whose main defining trait is that she’s a klutz who falls over a lot. Adrien is a super-attractive 13-year-old professional model who is an expert at fencing, languages, acting and video games which makes him pretty hard to identify with – though later we learn more about his painful past and that he’s largely so good at things because of an oppressive home life. But the role switch as superheroes is what works so well. Marinette as Ladybug becomes capable, confident and a natural leader. Chat Noir, meanwhile, is a total goofball, often the butt of jokes and constantly making terrible puns, as well as openly flirting with Ladybug and constantly getting rebuffed. It’s just so cute, and while at first I wasn’t convinced by the ship, it gets cuter and cuter and now it just seems perfect. There are various other minor characters it’s easy to ship, from canon pairings to two cute chalk-and-cheese best friends who could so easily be an adorable lesbian couple. I earnestly believe the romantic elements paired with super-attractive designs on the main duo are the key to why this show succeeded with a wider audience than I’m sure was initially anticipated. Sometimes the shipping moments are a bit overly ham-fisted, with Chat Noir constantly landing on top of Ladybug or the possibility of a relationship being constantly raised, but it’s cute enough that it doesn’t matter and it’s so sweet that the two don’t know that they’re actually in love with one another in different guises.

I’ve started the second season and they’re starting to play with the formula a bit, which is a good idea because it’s already in desperate need of innovation – though I resent them changing ‘Une ladybug!’ to ‘Miraculous!’ in the opening theme, which was almost as fun as the Wakfu opening to follow along with and taught me the term ‘porte-bonheur’. I also really liked how the show unveiled the identity of the villain neatly so that it was more and more obvious to the point that most people will have figured it out just before the show explicitly reveals it. I’m not too sure about the show turning more characters close to the main duo into superheroes, but we’ll see how things develop. The more they play with the concept, even if it’s in a goofy way, the better I think it goes. And yes, that includes all-singing evil Santa-themed Christmas specials.

Not wholly sure they should have a bunch of new superheroes in season 2, and I’m especially not so keen on Queen Bee because Chloé is amongst the most detestable characters ever created. But I’m happy to have more Alya if only because Fanny Bloc’s voice always makes me think of Yugo, even when she’s not acting as a boy.

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