A Comedy and Animation Powerhouse!
February 25th, 2022
Far away on the Inkwell Isles, Cuphead and Mugman (Tru Valentio and Frank Todaro) go about their lives doing chores for the Elder Kettle (Joe Hanna) and consuming as much junk food as their adolescent bodies can stomach. One day, they get into a scrap with the Devil (Luke Millington-Drake) after destroying his soul collecting machine. Utilizing his right-hand game show host, King Dice (Wayne Brady), the Devil will stop at nothing until Cuphead and Mugman become paperweights for his office in Hell.
Cuphead is one of the biggest indie game successes of the 2010 decade, selling six million units as of 2020. Envisioned by sibling duo Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, the brothers remortgaged their homes just to get funding for their dream project. The game combines the Fleischer animation style with modern technology as you travel the Inkwell Isles to collect souls in order to save your hide from the devil after a gambling faux pas. Its difficulty sent the Dark Souls series to the corner with the amount of rage quits YouTubers and Streamers shared with the world when they were less than a millimeter away from defeating a boss. It’s a one-of-a-kind title that stands out among the indie gaming community, though it is more entertaining to watch people fail than to raise your own blood pressure.
With the numerous awards it received for the animation alone, this was begging to be turned into an animated series. Distributed by Netflix and developed by Time Squad creator Dave Wasson (he also codeveloped Star vs. the Forces of Evil), the first season suffered production delays due to the pandemic, but that only built up more anticipation for this out of reality experience. And that’s what describes this wacky pilot.
As stated in my Uncharted review, the advantage of utilizing television to adapt video games is that the episodic format doesn’t compromise the rich lore that would otherwise be limited in a two-hour runtime. The Inkwell Isles are packed with lively anthropomorphic inhabitants ranging from animals to objects like telephones and saxophones. It wears the 1930s time period as a tuxedo from its reliance on radio, to its upbeat big band jazz score, to the New York accents, to the emphasis on hot dogs. Several episodes are filler, but the majority flesh out the world and its citizens by introducing a boss in the game and then building upon their antagonistic relationship with the two kitchen appliances. The shopkeeper Pork rind goes from an energetic ally to a sleezy, double crosser that daydreams of offing people who test his patience. The Devil is one of the best villains in modern animation. An egotistical, ambitious, diabolical demon with a set of pipes that could wake the ghost of Cab Calaway and powers that could cook you like his carnival hot dogs. Yet he’s also petty, impatient, a charmer, and always has a big grin on his face for any situation. King Dice also compliments his boss with suave showmanship, yet he’s also susceptible to the same impatience when Cuphead unintentionally gets the best of him. Any episode involving these two is comedic gold which thankfully outnumber the filler episodes. Not that those episodes are bad, but they don’t develop the world as thoroughly as others.
As for the leads, some fans pictured these characters as grown-up seeing as they were able to gamble in the game that led to their situation. But as kids, they work both individually and as siblings. There’s enough comradery with their devilish sense of adventure, yet they’re not too mean spirited even when it’s just as funny to see life blow up in their face. Utilizing new talents with a dash of a seasoned veteran on the last episode, the voice acting ushers in a new age of talent that puts professionalism over celebrity marketing. Tru Valentino and Frank Todaro as Cuphead and Mugman have a playful energy that radiates the situations to absolute absurdity. Luke Millington-Drake as the Devil brings a ferocity that’s balanced with his upbeat personality and Wayne Brady as King Dice has a smooth flexibility that compliments the animation.
Speaking of which, this pulls out all the animation tricks of the last century that have only been documented by the likes of Disney’s Nine Old Men, the Fleischer brothers, and Richard Williams. Not only is the gorgeous traditional animation as expressive as Ren and Stimpy, but the timing is pitch perfect for all the jokes ranging from slapstick fence painting to velocity that breaks the speed of light. There are a plethora of nods to some of the most famous animation sequences in history like the Skeleton Dance and The Old Mill. It even incorporates tricks from the 1930s like the setback process where live backgrounds are filmed before animating characters in the shots: the Fleischer brothers pioneered said technique with their Popeye cartoons.
The Cuphead Show is just as unique as its video game, bringing everything to the forefront in its animation, world building, voice acting, and comedic scenarios. Fans of the game should spend a weekend binge-watching this powerhouse of comedy and animation if only to get away from the repetitive nature of restarting every boss fight till their veins pop. Newcomers can also appreciate the attempt to bring back classic animation styles in an age where computer animation dominates theaters. While a majority of theatrically released films rely on realistic textures from Pixar and other CGI giants, Netflix is doing everything they can to diversify both their content and animation from hand-drawn to stop-motion. Now that everything has been established in this first season, the next season will hopefully pick up from its cliffhanger ending to where the game’s story officially starts.