League of Legends is growing larger every year with frequent new champion releases and spin-off video games. For years, fans have requested that Riot Games attempt to branch out from video games. The franchise has released multiple animated shorts based on the characters of the popular MOBA which showcased the potential a movie or animated series based on the video game could have. Now, after several years in development, the first League of Legends series has been released. Arcane is a nine-episode animated prequel that serves as an origin story to some of the game’s most iconic characters.
Arcane is based on a video game property, so there were a ton of questions surrounding it due to the infamous video game adaptation curse. After watching the first season, the idea of such a thing seems almost comical now. This first season is nothing short of a masterpiece. The League of Legends spin-off features an amazingly complex cast and throws them into a world full of hardships. The animation and art style is the best I’ve seen in a series and rivals many animated films. The best part of the series is the fact that viewers don’t have to have prior knowledge of League of Legends. Anyone can jump in and after the breathtaking first season, everyone should.
Arcane is now streaming on Netflix.
STORY: A MASTERCLASS IN STORYTELLING
Arcane takes place in the prospering city of Piltover and the underground slums of Zaun. We primarily follow Vi and Powder, two sisters that have to overcome several hardships that cause a fissure in their relationship. That fissure extends from Zaun to Piltover, causing further tension between the two sides. It’s a story that is difficult to explain without going further into detail, but I believe the less someone knows, the better. Interestingly enough, I’ve played League of Legends and although I knew how certain things would go, there was so much more that I did not anticipate.
The story is quite unpredictable in the direction it takes. That extends from story beats to dialogue as well. Oftentimes in series, the audience has to stop and ask, “Why does this character not just explain the problem?” This cliche doesn’t exist in Arcane. The series treats the audience as though they’re intelligent. That trust in the audience is demonstrated with simple things such as visual storytelling.
For example, instead of having a character from Zaun say “the air is horrible,” the series will instead show an outsider wearing a mask. It’s not focused on, and the air quality is not brought up until it’s relevant. Otherwise, it just feels as though the character is explaining something to the audience. Visual storytelling is important here, demanding the audience pay attention.
Despite being based on League of Legends and set in a fantasy-like world, Arcane is mature and feels grounded. If I had one complaint, however, it would be the fact that a certain character in the series is “well placed” in a lot of situations. It seems coincidental most of the time. Apart from that though, the journey these characters take and where they end up at the end of the season is emotional. Most of this emotion comes from how great the characters in the show are.
CHARACTERS AND PERFORMANCES: COMPLEX AND FLAWED
By the time Arcane ended, there wasn’t a single character I didn’t care about. What makes these characters so engrossing has nothing to do with any powers, supernatural abilities, or that I recognize them from League of Legends. In fact, many characters aren’t from League of Legends and most are human. They’re also all incredibly flawed. There isn’t any character that someone could look at and think they’re completely evil. The same can be said for looking at a character and thinking they’re all good. They’re layered and initial impressions you might have about a character will most likely change by the end of the series.
This is due to the fact that a lot of information is withheld about the various characters. One character might seem evil or manipulative at first and then Arcane will decide to show their backstory 6 episodes later. You then understand the character’s motives and even feel sympathy for them. You want them to succeed. On the other hand, characters you thought were good might not stay that way. The show is quite unpredictable in that sense.
Apart from Vi and Powder, Arcane also primarily follows two scientists, Jayce and Viktor. These scientists’ goals are to utilize the power of “magic” to better the world. The choices they make were probably some of the more fascinating decisions. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Jayce and Viktor at first. I think part of that was because I wasn’t sure where Arcane was going to go with them. By the time episode 9 came around, however, all the puzzle pieces effortlessly fit into place. All the stories and characters are intertwined in such a magical and emotional way. With season 2 confirmed to be in development, it’ll be interesting to see what other League of Legends champions will appear.
SCREAM YOUR HEART OUT
Of course, these characters are brought to life by absolutely stellar performances. Standouts are Hailee Steinfeld (VI), Katie Leung (Caitlyn), Mia Sinclair Jenness (Powder), Jason Spisak (Silco), and Ella Purnell (Jinx). Although every voice actor does a great job, these performances listed stood out due to the emotion they brought to their characters.
Purnell had a very meaty role as Jinx and she completely stole every scene she was in. Jinx as a character is already fascinating, but without Purnell’s voice and control of her chaotic nature, Jinx wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. Her twisted dialogue and unnerving laughter left a mark on me. Additionally, Jenness’ Powder absolutely broke me early on. What worked so well was the very realistic dialogue and the honesty in Jenness’s voice.
PACING AND EDITING: QUICK YET METICULOUS
After the third episode of Arcane, the pace at which the series is moving along might feel quick to some viewers. It’s understandable given the circumstances that occur in the first act and where things go after. At forty minutes an episode, the series moves at a quick pace. That being said, the series makes the most of its screen time so viewers are never lagging behind. It doesn’t rush any scenes that need breathing room or rushes any conflicts.
It spends a lot of time building up characters and their arcs. Scenes never overstay their welcome. Since these characters are so interesting, the pacing never suffers. There was never a moment in the series where I was waiting for a scene to move along. Although there are many action sequences, it isn’t at the forefront of the series. Character relationships and the story always are.
What also helps Arcane move along at a quick and effective pace is the editing. There were more times than I could count where the editing heightened the impact of a scene. This is most noticeable in action sequences as well as transitions. For action sequences, the editing typically further energizes a fight, but it can also surprisingly add story context as well. Most notably is a large action sequence on a bridge later in the story. Two characters go head to head, but because of the way the scene is edited, you get an idea of where both these characters used to be. It’s easily one of the best scenes in Arcane. The series makes the most out of every scene. They’re each impactful and brilliant.
CINEMATOGRAPHY AND SOUND: A TRIUMPH IN THE MEDIUM
As soon as Arcane started, the gorgeous art style captivated me. This and the animation looked so superior compared to other animated series that most viewers will probably suspect mocap is involved. It’s not though which is surprising due to how detailed the facial expressions are. Each facial expression is nuanced and varied. Again, with that scene on the bridge, there is a moment where two characters are fighting. Towards the end of that fight, one of the characters simply looks at the other attempting to read their face and to understand their pain. No words are exchanged but as the audience, you feel the character’s reluctance and sadness.
Arcane truly features some of the best animation I’ve seen, series or otherwise. The series uses a combination of 3D models and 2D animation to achieve this look. It also utilizes that unique art style in order to exhibit the various settings in the world. Almost every frame could be a painting.
What’s also fascinating about how Arcane looks is the camerawork. Although it’s an animated series, at times it doesn’t feel that way. The framing of certain shots makes the show feel as though there is an actual camera recording the scenes. There are certain angles and shots that you’d have a difficult time finding in other animated series. Something as seemingly simple as having the camera placed in a grave and looking upwards as family members drop dirt, covering the lens, is not something many animated series would do. This composition adds a cinematic feeling to Arcane that makes the series stand out from others in the medium.
MUSIC TO MY EARS
Another aspect in Arcane that works so well is the realistic sound design. Sound adds a lot of weight to fights, with each hit feeling impactful from punches landing on a character’s face to that character’s body hitting the floor soon after. That realism that sound design plays during the action sequences is found throughout the series.
On the other hand, because of various objects in the Arcane, the series includes also includes magical sound effects. This is most present in scenes where the two scientists are involved. Despite Jayce and Viktor using science, the sound effects used during their experimentations are more often imaginary and mystical, a rewarding choice that gives the audience an idea of how far they’ve taken science.
As far as the music, the series brought the same musical style and talent from League of Legends’s animated shorts. The songs don’t feel out of place or jarring. They serve to heighten an emotional moment that is occurring or is used in a way to introduce a setting. The show even ends on a scene with a song playing called ‘What Could Have Been.’ It’s an idea that Arcane molds throughout its 9 episodes and one that remains stuck in my mind long after.