I've finally gotten around to seeing another cartoon series I’ve been meaning to watch for years, and my final verdict is that Sym-Bionic Titan is a good show, but no so good I’d desperately campaign for it to be renewed.
Sym-Bionic Titan is directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and the first Star Wars: The Clone Wars series. I’ve always admired his directing style, which manages to take stylized, simple designs and give them gravitas. His name, as well as the presence of giant robots, was what drew me to the series.
Watching Tartakovsky’s style in action is doubtless the best part of Sym-Bionic Titan. The greatest scenes feel cinematic, have a grandeur that is unexpected for a flat, “simple”-looking cartoon. The other aspects of the show are not... bad, but they’re usually formulaic and predictable. There are exceptions, there aren’t enough to ensure the series didn’t fade from my mind after I watched it.
Sym-Bionic Titan is about three heroes fleeing their war-torn (human alien-type) planet for Earth, where they are pursued by a new monster for every episode. The heroes are Ilana (Tara Strong), princess of Galaluna, her bodyguard Lance (Kevin Thoms), and a robot, Octus (Brian Posehn). They take a house in the suburbs and assume the identities of high school students, with Octus acting as their classmate and their father in two different holographic guises. Ilana and Lance can both summon mecha suits from their watches, and merge with Octus to form a gigantic robot, in order to fight enormous monsters sent by a traitor to their kingdom and his alien allies.
Sym-Bionic Titan is a mostly smooth fusion of anime homage and American high school stories. The “anime” part depends to a large degree on the robot shows of past decades (defining which shows, I’ll leave to the experts), in which giant robots are treated like superheroes, and battle enemy robots and giant monsters. However, Tartakovsky has also cited other anime as his inspirations.
High school settings in anime are also extremely common, but the high school side of Sym-Bionic Titan is very American, with dumb jocks, moody goths, nasal nerds, and bitchy cheerleaders (though we find out that one isn’t so bad). The high school stuff is serviceable, competently produced but not groundbreaking.
There is a little continuity between episodes. G3, a mysterious government organization, as well as a trigger-happy general are both hungry to find out more about this Titan, but episodes can go by without seeing them. Octus, as the teenage “Newton” (who looks shockingly like Peter Griffin) gets into a romantic relationship with Kimmy the cheerleader, and his apparent death forms the major conflict for the final episodes.
A lot of the episode plots are conventional for TV cartoons, such as the cute but dangerous creature, the transformation/assimilation of one of the heroes, the whole-episode flashback to the past, the monster that can regrow from a single fragment, etc. It puts a few interesting twists on these formulas, like the grotesqueness of the possession episode, but again, it’s not rocking my world.
The series does play with conventions in a few places. While Lance is normally quiet and intense, he has moments of genuine joy and enthusiasm. Octus acts very human, but is blase about it. Ilana is proactive and enthusiastic about aiding people, and feels like a true figure of authority rather than a generic “princess”, one who suffers because she cannot help her citizens. (And her mecha suit Corus even has some offensive capability, which is more than I was expecting). The Titan crew also ends up working with G3, despite how sinister the organization first seemed. But these breaks aren’t common, and usually you can follow the beats of the series easily.
Octus and Kimmy’s romance is, at this point in popular culture, completely conventional. It’s not badly written, just predictable. And yes, it’s also the source of the infamous “booty dance” scene, where Kimmy turns up the radio and shakes it, trying to convince Octus to do her homework rather than be her tutor. Sym-Bionic Titan does manage to push the envelope at times, and is good for that.
For the most part, Sym-Bionic Titan is an earnest show, putting forth everything straight as an arrow without irony or parody. The assumption that current popular culture has lost earnestness is a load of noise, but it’s still engaging to see a series being approached with such heart. It can get quite dark and serious, but like Tartakovsky’s other action series, there are moments of light comedy.
Thankfully, the typical Tarakovsky-show designs are fused with homages to the stereotypical Super Robot style, giving the series a distinct rather than imitative look. The robot and monster designs are all very cool, and combined with the Tartakovsky touch, it’s clear that this is a series that uses anime as just one of its many influences, in the same way that Avatar: TLA does, rather than slavishly trying to imitate anime and coming off as artificial.
Overall, I enjoyed Sym-Bionic Titan, but I was just expecting it to be better than it was. I was hoping, at least, for its visual quality to be able to transcend how by-the-numbers it was. Instead, the directing quality helped spice up the series, but didn’t make it as mind-blowing as I hoped. Cliches produced with loving conviction are still cliches, and sometimes that particular hurdle can’t be overcome for a viewer. I liked the series, but I wanted to like it more.