While Netflix's Western distribution has certainly derailed some of the hype I had for the series (chopping the current 25 episodes in half, not releasing the series on a weekly basis as other distributors are able to do), I'm pretty satisfied with what we got. 13 episodes of a great looking, cute, Looney Tunes inspired series that needs juuuuust a little more depth.
Little Witch Academia (Season 1)
Director: Yoh Yoshinari
Release Date: June 30, 2017 (Netflix)
Akko's (Megumi Han/Erica Mendez) been dreaming of going to the Luna Nova Magical Academy ever since she was a child. Although she has no real magical abilities herself, she's been inspired by her idol Shiny Chariot, a famous witch entertainer who disappeared ten years ago, to become a great witch herself. The first season then follows Akko and her accidental friends, the studious Lotte (Fumiko Orikasa/Stephanie Sheh) and the poison lover Sucy (Michiyo Murase/Rachelle Heger), as they stumble and fumble through their first couple of weeks at the academy, unlock the mysteries of Shiny Chariot's Shiny Rod, and prove they're as good as everyone else.
You can't discuss a Studio Trigger series without getting passed the necessary praising of its animation. I was wondering how Trigger's fluid action animation would translate into a world with a tone completely offset from what they've done in the past, and it seems the choice was to embrace a more slapstick vibe. Drawing influence from everything from, uh, Pawn Stars to Looney Tunes (which was super noticeable when Akko accidentally gave herself rabbit ears), Little Witch Academia has tons of personality in every frame. It's slightly reflective of that art design philosophy where as long as you can recognize the character, they're on model. Trigger's most prominent squash and stretch techniques are used here primarily to emote. Akko is probably one of my favorite Trigger series characters because the team wasn't afraid to constantly make her look ridiculous. Giving her a true underdog charm that really helps elevate the standard formula most of episodes have.
As these first 13 episodes are about Akko's daily life in the school, most of the episodes share the same outline: Akko learns about a new thing, messes up the new thing, stumbles around until she fixes the new thing. It's super cute, yes, and doesn't devalue Akko as a character, but it really hammers home how standard of a hero's journey story the series is telling. Since the episodes tend to have a week-by-week pace (meaning most developments don't seem to carry over from episode to episode) rather than emphasize the greater story arc of the Shiny Rod and its seven super spells, some plot feels like filler. I'm sure some episodes are here for strictly character development, and it's great to see completely fantastical settings from time to time (such as "Akko's Adventures in Sucyland"), but I found myself not caring about whether or not Akko was going to pass her fish exam or whatever.
But even with a few weaker episodes, the strengths of smaller moments help give Little Witch Academia its own footprint. For a show about a magical school where crazy things are possible, at one point Akko chases a bee around a ballroom while "Flight of the Bumblebee" plays in the background. Rather than fuel utterly fantastical mayhem, the magic of the world is used to make situations more unworldly. This Looney Tunes-esque scene plays out in a natural fashion, oddly enough. This scene, goofy as it is, completely fits the series and Akko's character. Very few things are out of place. This grounded, yet otherworldly nature of the world eventually gives more weight to the more emotional beats toward the end of the season too.
Little Witch Academia, like its central character, has a ton of hidden potential. Since this first season was all about setting up the world-at-large, there's definitely something more interesting in its future. But as it stands, Academia is a fun, and light series that'll be worth watching for fans of great animation but light on plot you can truly invest in.
I can't quite recommend this series yet, but seeing as how it started as a short film, then a longer film adaptation, now a TV series, and even spreading to games, Little Witch Academia has an appeal not many other shows have. It's just so pure.
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