Voltron: Legendary Defender feels like a return for Saturday morning cartoons

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If you’re of a certain age, chances are you loved your Saturday morning cartoons. They were something akin to event television — that one block of shows like Beast Wars or Pepper Ann that you looked forward to every week. For a lot of us, that might have included watching Voltron.

Then the Saturday morning cartoon blocks of yore died. Jettisoned from network TV in 2014, kids’ shows are now in a kind of televisual diaspora. It’s into this new TV landscape that Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender makes its debut. What’s amazing, though, is that Netflix has created a show in Voltron that captures the feeling of watching those old Saturday morning cartoons. It’s certainly binge-worthy TV, but if you slow down and resist the urge to watch it all at once, it becomes the perfect weekend cartoon experience.

Voltron: Legendary Defender, produced by DreamWorks, is a reboot of the original Voltron series from 1984. (More specifically, it reboots the iconic first season.) Here, five humans discover they’re mystically linked to a pride of five robotic lions that fuse to form the mighty Voltron. Together, they use Voltron’s incredible power to defend the known universe from a race of evil conquerors called the Galra Empire. It’s simple, straightforward, and pulpy — this show is very much a child of the ‘80s, from the bright colors to the funky hair. Any lover of classic shows about good fighting evil with swords and energy weapons will feel right at home watching this series.

But this new effort raises the bar with sharp writing and even sharper visuals. The original Voltron dripped with cheese, and the reboot leans right into that heritage with glee, never batting an eye at how silly the premise can be. But shows like Steven Universe are already pushing the envelope when it comes to storytelling that’s exciting and thoughtful all at once. Legendary Defender is clearly taking some inspiration from those efforts, too. While the show’s mythology is given its due, every character feels fleshed out and, above all, human.

Viewers are made to root for each of the Defenders of the Universe based on how well they interact with one another. Shiro (Josh Keaton) is the leader, and he grapples with having been abducted by the Galrans. Lance (Adventure Time’s Jeremy Shada) is the loudmouth of the group, but is also the first to discover his Lion. Keith (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) is the rebel, Pidge (Bex Taylor-Klaus) is the computer nerd, and Hunk (Tyler Labine) is the mechanic with a love of food. To some extent, all these characters are cliched archetypes, but they’re each given depth. For instance, Lance believes Keith is his rival as a fighter pilot, but, much to his chagrin, Keith barely considers him a challenge. Meanwhile, Pidge is secretly a girl, and is trying to find her father and brother who were abducted with Shiro. Exposition is doled out slowly and organically, and as time goes by you care what happens to everyone onscreen.

Voltron

But Voltron would be nothing without its space battles, and DreamWorks delivers in that department. There’s a real thrill when the lions fly into formation against the Galran threat, dodging laser cannon blasts and missiles. Meanwhile, the Galrans themselves, including the dread Emperor Zarkon, are genuinely imposing. And when Voltron finally forms, the show earns how epic the moment feels. I had to fight off the urge to pump my fists when it happened, because the kid in me still loves a giant fighting robot.

A worthy revival of a classic series

Voltron: Legendary Defender is a worthy revival of a classic series. It’s fun, funny, and well crafted, and should satisfy anyone who grew up loving the show. But more than that, it’s full of the kind of joy that made Saturday morning cartoons special. If you want a series to come back to every week with a bowl of sugary cereal, you need look no further.

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