Judge Joel Pearce has an impressive Shen-Gong-Wu collection, but he would never use them to dominate the world.
Mystical, funny, and gravity defying!
Some genres come with low expectations. Children's television programming is one such genre as most shows simply try to be loud, colorful, and distracting. Every few minutes, they pause for sugary cereal and action figure ads. Every now and then, however, a show arrives that transcends our expectations for the genre. While Xiaolin Showdown doesn't quite attain this status, it deserves better than its throwaway Saturday morning time slot.
Facts of the Case
For centuries, the Dragon-Guard monks have defended the balance of the world against the rise of evil. (How come no one ever has to worry about the rise of good?) This balance was disturbed once before, when the witch Wuya battled with an ancient monk, using mystical artifacts called Shen-Gong-Wu to dominate the world. Wuya was defeated, but the dragon guards still train, ready to be called into action.
The newest dragon apprentice is Omi, a skilled and ambitious young warrior. What Omi has in talent, though, he lacks in humility and knowledge of the world. Three more potential warriors are brought to the temple to fill out the team and help Omi with his training. One is Kimiko, a tech-loving girl from Tokyo. Raimundo hails from Brazil and certainly has more street smarts than self discipline. Clay arrives from Texas; his bulky and dopey demeanor hide an uncommon intelligence and skill.
The other apprentices arrive at the perfect time. Wuya has awakened as a ghost, and has teamed up with evil boy-genius Jack Spicer to dominate the world by collecting the Shen-Gong-Wu. Now, the four must learn to work together as they rush to capture the mystical artifacts before they can be used for unspeakable evil.
As with most cartoon series, the formula in Xiaolin Showdown is pretty simple. Wuya and Dojo (the temple's talking Dragon-Guard) sense a newly activated Shen-Gong-Wu, and everyone rushes to that location. When they arrive at the same time, it sparks a Shaolin Showdown, a contest of skills in which each participant bets a single Shen-Gong-Wu in a battle for all three artifacts. While the showdowns feel gimmicky at first, it quickly becomes clear that this is the most inventive and entertaining portion of the series. Although it smacks of Pokémon, these contests are full of strategy and creativity, as various mystical powers are combined.
A few other things help Xiaolin Showdown stand above the pack. The dialogue is clever and slick, especially the banter between our four heroes. Omi's misuse of slang is consistently entertaining, and there is a level of sarcasm between them that is rare in American kids television. The dialogue in many of these shows is simply something to be endured between action sequences. Here, it's a highlight. The storyline is slightly stronger as well. Although most episodes are formulaic, there is a more complex thread that runs through the whole season. The villains become more powerful and gain more allies. Our team of dragon warriors becomes more powerful. They also grow as people throughout, and make interesting decisions. It's a series that could be watched occasionally, but viewers that stick with it are rewarded.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all of the fun I had watching Xiaolin Showdown, there are a few things that prevent it from reaching true enlightenment. The series' creators simply weren't gutsy enough to make a series that will stand the test of time. It is obviously trying to nail the formula that Samurai Jack used to capture a big cult audience. Not only is Xiaolin Showdown less exciting, but it's also quite a bit safer narratively, and not in a good way. Plot details are repeated endlessly, and there aren't enough true battles to keep an older demographic entertained. This is Samurai Jack simplified and watered down for kids. It's still a great series for the pre-teen crowd, but it should be a lot more unique, exciting, and clever.
The stakes aren't high enough in this first season, either. Jack Spicer really is a pushover, and Wuya doesn't start using any of her powers until the last few episodes. Since she has no physical form, she has no way of getting involved in the conflict—yet. The arc of the first season suggests that following seasons will raise the stakes considerably. I believe that Xiaolin Showdown will improve as long as the writing and inventive battles stay consistent.
Warner has done a surprisingly good job on the DVD transfer. This is obviously not top-notch animation, but it has been delivered on one of the cleanest full frame transfers I have ever seen. The lines are sharp, and even the scenes full of movement don't cause any interlacing artifacts. Even though a lot of shortcuts were taken with the backgrounds, I have no complaints with the DVD image. The sound is strong as well, even though it has the flat soundstage normally associated with stereo sources. Unfortunately, Warner didn't deliver with the special features. Other than a few trailers, these discs are completely empty.
While Xiaolin Showdown is far from a perfect series, I've had an enjoyable week watching the first season. I won't likely ever watch it again, though, and it hasn't earned a permanent place in my collection next to Samurai Jack. If you're looking for an amusing little martial arts series that your kids will enjoy, you could do a lot worse. Just don't expect true classic material here.
Though Xiaolin Showdown isn't as awesome as it could be, I have no choice but to set it free for keeping me consistently entertained.
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