By Emma Picht
The first three episodes of the second season of The Legend of Vox Machina exceeded expectations.
The Legend of Vox Machina, streaming on Amazon Prime.
Dungeons. Dragons. A fantasy world full of thieves and heroes. And a rag-tag group of adventurers who are highly inappropriate and quite cowardly. No, this is not the impending disaster of a D&D movie — scheduled to premiere this March — that many feared. This is The Legend of Vox Machina, an animated TV production that D&D fans asked for and then funded themselves, Season two of the series premiered earlier this month, this time bankrolled by tech giant Amazon.
The first season of The Legend of Vox Machina grew out of popular fervor. According to Animation Magazine, “A group of voice actors gathered a few years back to have a good time and play some Dungeons & Dragons. Calling themselves Critical Role, they live-streamed their friendly match on Twitch, generating in the process a fanbase, known as “Critters,” enthralled with the lengthy campaign and the characters created to populate it. The group soon launched a Kickstarter campaign to adapt the characters to animation for a half-hour special titled The Legend of Vox Machina, raising a record $11.4 million in 45 days.” Fans of D&D were pleased with the first season because it was a faithful adaptation helmed by the story’s originators. Shortly after its premiere the show was picked up for a second and third season by Amazon. There was understandable apprehension about how the story would inevitably be changed to pander to a broader audience.
It turns out that the fear was unwarranted. Season two began on an alarming note of total destruction. The setting that had been meticulously built in the first season, the fantasy city of Emon, is razed to the ground in mere minutes by four fearsome dragons. The apocalyptic sequence dragged on for so long — most of the 20-minute episode — that it came off as gratuitous. However, given the coming twists and turns of the plot, the first episode did its job: to clear the ground in order to establish the inner workings of a group of villains as well as the personal challenges for each of the protagonists. The first season also introduced a dragon as an evil opponent to the story’s rag-tag group of heroes. Its CGI design and generated movements looked out of place amongst the digitally painted characters with their traditional animation style. That was strange, given that the quartet of dragons in this season (similarly created with CGI animation) blended perfectly amongst the smoky skyline of Emon.
The second episode moved the story forward at a steady pace, setting out the stakes (for the fantasy world) while underlining the reasons our heroes can’t hope to receive any assistance from a deus ex machina. Two fan favorites from the original series, Zahra and Kashaw, joined the cast and their comfortable banter with the main group was a comedic highlight. Still, the stand-out scene was when Grog, a beefy violent fighter, inexplicably loses a fight to an old man. Not only was the conflict played as farce — a welcome respite from the emotional end to the previous episode — but it also revealed that there are deeper levels (and motivations) beneath the ‘big dumb guy’ archetype, nuances that Travis Willingham convincingly voices.
The other standout performance is that of Marisha Ray, voice of Keyleth. Ray was the target of internet hate when she played the character during the original live stream. But now Keyleth — the awkward, insecure Druid — dominates every scene she is in. Ray has become a confident vocal performer, skillfully conveying the insecurity of a teenage girl who is thrust into responsibility too early. Her character has become central to the plot, driving it forward. Keyleth’s emotional growth carried the first season to its climax; her anger and fear of the new draconian threats bore the same weight in season two, although she is not the focus of the first three episodes.
But the dramatic standout was the cliffhanger of these initial episodes: “The Sunken Tomb.” Named for the live-streamed D&D session during which the events transpired, the installment dives into the backstories of two main characters, Vex and Vax, the roguish, sneaky twin siblings. We are given an intimate look at the sources of their quirks and pet peeves. Vex and Vax are half-elves — human mother, elvish father. Via flashbacks, we learn that they were discriminated against by their own father, shunned and spoken to as “half breeds.” Vex’s clumsy breaking of her father’s delicate tiara triggers the complete break between the twins and their father. The pair must face an ominous world with only each other to depend on.
The marriage of past and present timelines is orchestrated beautifully. Throughout the episode, as the children fight and separate, their adult counterparts are pulled further and further apart by circumstances beyond their control. The melancholic backdrop of the past conflict — constant rain — was heavy-handed but beautifully rendered. The soft, gauzy visuals — suggesting the fluidity of watercolors — were juxtaposed against the harsh stone dungeon of the twin’s present. The emotional crescendo made for powerful drama: a sobbing Vax, holding the dead body of his sister in his arms, remembers what he said to her as a child “Do not go far from me.” The fate he always feared — separation — has come.
The artistic success of The Legend of Vox Machina is a sign of things to come. Adults are a growing market for original fantasy content and animated shows, a point reinforced by the recent announcement that Critical Role has yet another animated series in the works for Prime Video. The popularity of Rick and Morty and various recent Animated successes (The Owl House and Arcane) are proof that young adults crave high-quality cartoons. Perhaps this fad is fueled by nostalgia, a reclamation of early Saturday cartoon binges in PJs with a soggy bowl of cornflakes.
Or maybe it is a desire for more imaginative creative content. The rise of fan-demanded shows, like those spawned by Critical Role, may reflect a hunger for more original and diverse storytelling than what’s coming out of the major media studios. If so, The Legend of Vox Machina has sated that appetite splendidly.
Emma Picht is a new critic on the block. She just finished her Master’s degree at Boston University and loves being introduced to new and old TV, Film, and Music.
Stephanie Strickland says