Funimation // 2003 // 650 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // December 12th, 2010
What happens when you combine anime with Cirque du Soleil? You get cirque du anime...also known as Kaleido Star.
The first season revolves around Sora Naegino (Cynthia Martinez), a young Japanese girl who travels to California to audition for Kaleido Stage. This is the culmination of a life long dream to perform in the acrobatic circus with her idol Layla Hamilton (Sandra Krasa). Unfortunately Sora's enthusiasm doesn't eclipse her bad luck, she ends up being late for the audition and Lalya herself tries to keep Sora from performing for the troupe. Fortunately Kalos (Rick Burford), the owner of Kaleido Stage sees something in Sora that he feels will add to the show, so he decides to give her one chance to prove herself.
And so begins Sora's adventures with Kaleido Stage; she makes friends, rescues a seal, does her best to get on Layla's good side and even becomes the rising star of the show. But things take a dark turn as Kaleido Stage is destroyed from within, and Sora and her friends must come up with a way to keep performing or risk losing all their dreams forever.
Kaleido Star has got to be one of the most optimistic, colorful, and effervescent anime series I've ever seen. This is because of Sora, one of the most optimistic, effervescent and cheerful characters this side of the Tokyo. Her drive to be the greatest performer she can be is strong and no matter how dark things get Sora always manages to keep smiling, keep trying and always help anyone she can. And that is the big difference between Sora and Layla. Sora is ambitious, but she isn't ruthless. She believes that if everyone in Kaleido Stage looks good, then she looks good. So she helps everyone, and does it all for the audience. Layla wants the same thing, to get applause, but she has no qualms about hurting other people's feelings or doing her best to drive weaker members away. These two women have much in common and yet are coming from two different directions, and this duality really adds to the show, keeping things interesting as long as they are interacting.
The animation is very refreshing compared to some of the darker series I've been watching. Kaleido Star is bursting with color, motion and energy. The character design works well with the overall themes, with everyone looking cute or dashing. But it is the creative circus performances that are fun to watch. Each show has a unique theme like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Arabian Knights, and even a strange fantasy story involving fire spirits. Its just the kind of thing you'd expect from a Cirque du Soleil style show. There is some reuse of animation here and there, but it never becomes intrusive. Adding to the atmosphere is a nice score by Mina Kubota, who creates a variety of music for the drama, comedy and stage performances. The opening and ending songs (four in all) work well with the show, with my favorite being the bubbly opening theme for the first half of the show.
The voice acting from the English cast is pretty solid, with most of the performers matching well with the characters. There were a few minor characters that were a bit rough and some moments where the mouth flaps created some odd intonation, especially for Layla's voice actress, but all in all it was good job. Cynthia Martinez who plays Sora matchs the energy and optimism of the Japanese actress, but gets a bit shrill for my tastes.
This show seems aimed at young girls, and so it never gets overly complicated or too dark. Most of the drama results from the challenges Sora faces and dealing with her peers. There's no real romance triangles or evil villains to speak of, and while it was refreshing it also felt like the series was missing a true antagonist. While the Layla/Sora dynamic is interesting it isn't always the focus of the show and there are times when the series seemed to drag a bit because of its lack of conflict.
This becomes a real issue after the series crosses into its second half. While the moments with Kaleido Stage falling apart because of internal strife were interesting, Sora's reactions were just what we expected. The series seemed to run out of steam, and when it finally does start to pick up again a story arc that should have taken three episodes to tell is stretched out to six. It actually sapped momentum from the climax and made it a bit of a slog. You know you're in trouble when each episode contains flashbacks to moments that just happened five minutes ago.
In spite of those narrative missteps I found Kaleido Star charming and entertaining, especially in its first half. I'm unsure how a second season and an OAV could be made based on how this series ends, but maybe there is a bit more to Sora's story that can be told. Anyone looking for a fun lighthearted anime, especially for younger girls, will enjoy this series.
Funimation presents the first season on four discs with a solid visual and audio presentation. The 5.1 English dub sounds good, but doesn't have too much activity going on in the rear speakers. For extras you get textless opening and ending songs as well as a commentary track on the penultimate episode featuring the English voice cast members Cynthia Martinez and Sandra Krasa (who also directed the series). They chat about how their characters changed over the show and joke around plenty.
Sora tries so hard, I have to say not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 650 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Clean Open/Close