The Legend of Vox Machina is a definitively adult animated series that expertly balances humor and action while remaining true to the beloved Critical Role storylines and characters on which it is based. Over the past seven years, the cast of Critical Role has delighted and entertained millions of fans with their antics around the gaming table. The web series stars a group of voice actors who play Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy-themed tabletop roleplaying game. Critical Role started off as a home game between friends but eventually became a web juggernaut that helped revitalize Dungeons & Dragons and is now the top income-generating channel on Twitch. Critical Role is a massive success for several reasons – the world created by Dungeon Master Matt Mercer is deep and immersive with layers of mysteries and intrigue, the characters played by the rest of the cast are compelling and fully fleshed out, the camaraderie displayed at the table is palpable and heartening, and the show certainly knows how to sell itself with an ever-growing line of merchandise and tie-ins.
Critical Role's latest adventure is The Legend of Vox Machina, an animated adaptation of Critical Role's first campaign, starring a group of barely competent adventurers. The group funded production of the series through a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $11.3 million over the course of a month, breaking Kickstarter records in the process. As the Critical Role cast has deep roots in animation, the show brought in Titmouse Studios, a top-notch animation studio, and an all-star group of producers, composers, and designers to bring the show to life. Amazon quickly jumped on the chance to air the series, picking up The Legend of Vox Machina and committing to a second season of the show back in 2020.
Having watched the first six episodes of The Legend of Vox Machina, the new series is, in a way, a fantasy equivalent to Harley Quinn, another streaming series that couples high-quality animation with decidedly adult humor and situations. With character designs by Young Justice veteran Phil Bourassa, The Legend of Vox Machina looks like a show that could appeal to the mass market at first glance, with shades of Avatar: The Last Airbender or She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. However, while the show boasts an aesthetic that could appeal to just about anyone, the show immediately emphasizes that it's "for adults" in its opening seconds. In the opening ten minutes of The Legend of Vox Machina, viewers are treated to grisly dismemberments, repeated "F-bombs," an animated sex scene, both male and female nudity, and a scene in which a heroine vomits into the gaping maw of her opponent, which then causes the dog-person to wretch themselves.
The Legend of Vox Machina's mix of clean aesthetic with bawdy and bloody content perfectly captures the energy of Critical Role itself. After all, the web series prides itself on having an extremely likable and friendly cast who can't help but giggle at poop jokes or the occasional reference to anal beads. Occasionally, the tone shifts from heavy or heartfelt moments to dick jokes can be off-putting, but the show manages a weird balance that's weighted slightly towards humor. Not every joke or visual gag lands in The Legend of Vox Machina, but I found myself laughing out loud at least once during every episode.
Of course, the casting for the show is also impressive. In addition to the core cast of Critical Role (Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Liam O'Brien, Sam Riegel, Travis Willingham, and Matthew Mercer) all reprising their roles from the web series, the show also brings in an impressive group of guest stars that includes Encanto breakout Stephanie Beatriz, Game of Thrones actress Indira Varma, Arrested Development actor Tony Hale, Critical Role alums (and veteran voice actors) Khary Payton and Felicia Day, and Doctor Who actor David Tennant. There's no phoned-in performances at all, which is doubly impressive given that the series had to record remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another highlight of The Legend of Vox Machina is its action sequences. The Critical Role web series had some epic combat sequences, and The Legend of Vox Machina proudly pays homage to them through some epic and impressive battles. I particularly liked how the character's personalities seemed to shine during these extended fight scenes, without the characters seeming too overpowered or competent. Indeed, Vox Machina seems to thrive on squeaking out a victory (or simply surviving) by the thinnest of margins. One fight sequence in the second batch of episodes is particularly frantic, with the group desperately bludgeoning their undead enemies into submission with whatever they can find when given a tiny opening. Vox Machina aren't superheroes, but they are survivors and the show does a very good job in finding new ways to demonstrate that every episode.
As for the characters themselves, The Legend of Vox Machina finds itself balancing between servicing its longtime fans (known as Critters) with newcomers to the franchise. Fans who have watched Critical Role have followed Vox Machina for hundreds of hours and understand these heroes on an almost intimate level. This means that the writers have a toolbox full of fully fleshed-out characters with nuanced relationships, and we see these strong personalities reflected in the series right from the opening moments. What the show lacks is any sort of foundational explanation on how the group came together or the nature of the character's abilities. In a way, that reflects the origins of Critical Role itself (which famously launched its original web series halfway through the Vox Machina campaign) but I worry whether newcomers will be confused why the seemingly non-magical Vax has a belt that transforms into a snake or what the difference is between the various types of magic used in the show. I enjoyed that The Legend of Vox Machina opted to "show and not tell" when it came to its heroes' abilities, but the rich world of Exandria seems to get pushed into the background a bit too much. The show also suffers from some pacing issues in the early episodes, but that can mostly be explained away due to the unique circumstances surrounding the series and promises made during the crowdfunding campaign along with the desire to dive right into one of Critical Role's strongest storylines. None of these quibbles are major detriments to The Legend of Vox Machina, but simply byproducts of a show trying to distill a 350-hour story into 22-minute episodes.
I have a built-in soft spot for Critical Role and particularly this animated series. Critical Role was the reason my wife and I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, which not only strengthened my romantic relationship but also became my primary social activity during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. The launch of The Legend of Vox Machina Kickstarter also happened shortly after a personal tragedy had occurred in my family back in 2019, and seeing the cast celebrate the success of their crowdfunding campaign was one of the first times my wife and I found joy after that tragedy occurred. I probably would have loved The Legend of Vox Machina no matter what, but I'm happy to say that the show can stand on its own regardless of whether you've watched every episode of Critical Role or if you've never heard of the series before today. If you enjoy bawdy humor, big action sequences, and top-notch animation, you'll love The Legend of Vox Machina.0comments
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The Legend of Vox Machina premieres on Amazon Prime Video on January 28th.