Review for Steven Universe Season 1
And now, I finally reach the last title on the English language animation pile from Manga Entertainment. Towards the end of last year, Manga went on a Cartoon Network spree, bringing over titles like Adventure Time, Samurai Jack, Over the Garden Wall, and from Netflix, Bojack Horseman. You can see why they would do that, as animation aimed at more mature audiences is their stock in trade, and in recent years, the US has moved away from the ‘cartoons are just for kids’ mindset. Manga previously had success with a Rooster Teeth tie-up, so this looked promising. Alas, it seems that the Cartoon Network connection turned out to be tenuous, and it also seems we’re not going to see the second half of Adventure Time from Manga, and worse, the second season of Steven Universe was cancelled before the first season was released. That’s made me most reluctant to start reviewing this show, as we only get one season of this ongoing TV series (Cartoon Network are up to season 6 at the time of writing). What if I get hooked? I’m already jonesing for more Bojack as it is.
The Crystal Gems protect the universe, bad-ass Garnet, the reckless Amethyst, and the level-headed Pearl, as well as the chubby kid Steven. Steven’s mother was a Crystal Gem, and he’s inherited a gem (in his belly button). He can’t yet control his powers, and his youthful exuberance is more a hindrance than a help in a crisis situation; which is usually why he stays home while the other Gems are saving the world. But a boy’s got to learn some time...
This first season collects the 52 episodes of Steven Universe Season One, split evenly across two Blu-ray discs from Manga Entertainment. Each episode runs to around 12 minutes, and all told, there is some 10 hours of content in this collection.
Steven Universe gets a 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p transfer, and while the quality of the pilot episode might feel like an upscale, the same isn’t true for the series proper, which is in true HD. The image is clear and sharp, line art is crisp, and colours are rich and vibrant. The animation is quite imaginative and accomplished well, although it takes a bit of a while to get used to the art style. The problem is with the transfer. Pans and scrolls are jerky in a way that were this a DVD, I’d suspect one of those dodgy NTSC-PAL conversions which repeat every 24th frame to get PAL’s 25 frames. But this is 24p video, no frames need to be repeated, and while background motion may stutter, foreground character animation remains smooth. Quite frankly, the show doesn’t look good.
The discs offer Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo English with optional subtitles, and the audio is fine enough. The dialogue comes through clear, and the music and action, and especially the songs come across without any glitches or drops.
The discs present their content with static menus.
Disc 1 has the Pilot Episode which lasts 7:56. It introduces the characters of Steven, Amethyst, Garnet, and Pearl, and serves as their mission statement, although the settings and the character designs are markedly different from the broadcast series.
Disc 2 squeezes in quite a few extras given that there is already 5 hours of footage on the disc.
Behind the Music is a 10:17 making of, with an interview with the creator, Rebecca Sugar.
Listening Party is a Q&A stage event, again with Rebecca Sugar interviewed, and there’s a theme song sing-along as well. This lasts 18:16.
There are five Music Video Performances which run to a total of 11:47.
There are 5 sets of Animatics, moving storyboards for the episodes, Gem Glow, Full Disclosure, Steven the Sword Fighter, Steven and the Stevens, and Island Adventures. These run to 55:50.
Finally there are two song demos lasting 3 minutes.
As mentioned, with Part 2 of Steven Universe cancelled in the UK, I approached this review from completely the wrong angle, hoping for the show to be a stinker so that I wouldn’t be hooked, and lamenting the loss of this series to the UK home video market. I was certainly happy for much of the first disc, with the episodes not really appealing to be me... But damn it! By the end of the second disc, I was surfing over to an Australian e-tailer to see how much it would cost to import the rest of the series (they’ve only released up to Season 4 at this point in Australia and there is no US release). Steven Universe is another great show that offers entertainment for all ages, and really develops in an interesting direction.
I do wonder how Steven Universe survived its first year though, as in an industry where shows can be cancelled at the drop of a hat, the first twenty or so episodes out of the 52 in this collection just didn’t appeal to me. At first glance the show is really juvenile, and I have to say that the characters are simplistic and unimpressive. Steven is a child of course, but there’s a limit to how much childish behaviour I can tolerate. It’s pretty straightforward, or so it appears. Steven is a little boy who lives with three superheroes, the Crystal Gems, Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, who go off to save the world from various Gem related dangers on a regular basis. As the theme song says, Steven is one of the Crystal Gems, but other than a gemstone for a belly button, there’s nothing special about him at first glance. The women do the world saving, while he spends his days as a generic kid.
So the first few episodes really just introduce the characters and the world, including Steven’s father Greg, a hippy musician who lives out of a van, and the other residents of Beach City, an eclectic bunch if ever there was one. Steven also makes a friend and potential love interest in a girl named Connie.
At this point in the series I was really concerned about the perceived similarities to Adventure Time. Creator Rebecca Sugar has also written for Adventure Time, including many of the songs, and I did feel that the writing in Steven Universe had the same voice. Early on I had the opinion that you might like Adventure Time, or you might like Steven Universe, but the similarities would preclude you from liking both.
Also quite early on, Steven is revealed to have inherited his mother Rose Quartz’s powers, although he can’t control them when they first manifest. From that point he’s joining the rest of the Gems on their missions, and he starts training as a Crystal Gem, and as the show develops, we learn more and more about not only his abilities, but those of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl, as well as bits of back story regarding his mother and father. The show is doing quite an insidious job of grabbing your interest, but for me, I didn’t really sit up and take notice until episode 25, where the character of Lapis Lazuli was introduced, another Gem, and one that had been confined by the others. It’s like at that point, the existing characters suddenly gained dimension and clarity, while the scope of the world and the story suddenly expanded in all directions, and it became capable of so much more. In retrospect I could see the way little snippets of back story and casually thrown away lines had been building up all through the first 24 episodes, but it still felt like a switch had been flicked.
I also felt that at this point Steven Universe also established its own identity and tone, and I have to say that I was hooked to the series for the following 27 episodes. It still did its own thing, unfolding in an episodic manner, with little 11 minute stories, but you could see how this pyramid of world building kept being added to. The characters were all fleshed out, and shown to more complex and interesting than at first glance, and I was hanging off every word as the season came to its conclusion, revealing more about the Gem home-world, and introducing some more characters from that world. I admit that it started getting a little ‘Land of the Lustrous’ towards the end, but it still remained good enough for me to wander over to that Australian retail site this morning. I haven’t placed an order though, as this time I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Manga Entertainment can eventually resume releasing this at a later date. It’s certainly worth doing so, and confidentially, I like it even more than Adventure Time.