Friday, July 25, 2008

EP1 Analysis: Three Delivery

When approaching a new series, the first impression is often one of the most important things in evaluating whether or not it is worthy of your time and/or money. With the proliferation of both new and classic anime and Western animation, it can be hard discerning which show fits personal tastes and deserves to be given a chance. While factors such as pacing and genre can greatly impact a first episode, they are generally perceived as an appropriate representation of the tone and expectations of the series as a whole. With that in mind, EP1 Analysis will be an on-going column that will review first episodes without prior knowledge of future events. The first entry will cover the Western-produced show about three teenage Asian heroes saving Chinatown, Three Delivery.

From left to right: Sue (Stephanie Sheh), Sid (Johnny Yong Bosch), and Tobey (Robby Duncan Sharpe).

There have been some interest and skepticism surrounding the series since its Nicktoons Network debut last month. While there have been many Western animation shows that have been influenced by Asian art styles and culture, this one is unique. Its mostly non-Asian* production crew is providing their interpretation of modern-day Asian-American culture, history, and lifestyle and fusing it with an anime/comic book style and odd mix of stereotypes. This action adventure sitcom decides to forego a traditional backstory episode and relegates the important historical facts in its intro. An evil apprentice named Kong Li has unleashed the power of a magical cookbook, spreading the potentially dangerous recipes throughout Chinatown. A mystical barrier keeping the magic sealed within the area limits has protected the outside world from harm, but now Kong Li has returned to unleash these powerful recipes and take over the world. Three teenage orphans, skilled in kung-fu, are recruited by Nana to work deliveries for a Chinese restaurant and protect Chinatown from Kong Li and recover the lost recipes. It sounds very stereotypical, especially knowing that it comes with very little first-hand knowledge of the culture, martial arts, and from Asians themselves. But it's not without its good points.

Episode one, "I Feel The Earth Move", jumps right into the action without much of a foundation about Nana, Kong Li, the magical cookbook, or other pertinent details. They do a good job of introducing the three main characters and orphans, Tobey and siblings Sue and Sid. You can immediately see the playful jabbing and chemistry that they have together, whether it's hanging out at the restaurant, making deliveries, or braving danger and trying to recover a lost recipe. You get to meet other characters at the restaurant, such as the old and wise Nana, the big storeowner, Mr. Wu, and the cool, laid back Barney. The characters look, feeel, and sound natural, which is partly aided by the mostly Asian voice cast. Stephanie Sheh (Sue) and Eyeshine's Johnny Yong Bosch (Sid) have extensive work in animation, both featured in the English dubs for Eureka Seven and Bleach. Robby Duncan Sharpe plays Tobey, and all three have clearly defined personalities. Sue and the jokester Tobey often get into playful fights while Sid is more like the straight-laced leader. The characters have a lot of personality, which is one of the stronger points of Three Delivery and why it seems to work.

The plot itself introduces the evil villain, Kong Li as he makes his re-debut unleashing an evil recipe to try and break through the magic barrier. The various nods to Chinese stereotypes felt a little hokey, but never demeaning in any way. However, you can't help but wonder why they have to be working at a Chinese restaurant making deliveries or that they know kung-fu and are training to go up against this unknown evil. You could see how formulaic and episodic the series could become, but it's fun and light-hearted so far. The flash animation is very clean with defined colors, creating a very smooth and anime-style look. The action sequences don't feel as natural, but that may be the fault of it being the first episode, the animation itself, or the martial arts background of the animators. They chose dark colors for the look and feel of Chinatown, which somewhat works. It felt like there should have been more explanation in the first episode, as they only sufficiently introduce the characters and assume knowledge on the story itself. They reveal important information as the plot develops, but I would have rather seen a true origin story.

Overall, it looks like the combo team of Animation Collective/Fatkat is targeting Nicktoon's younger audience rather than a more general appeal. There are still things to like, but there's not as much depth as I had hoped. The action and comedy are decent, combined with some fun characters and clean animation. It still remains to be seen how authentic the Asian culture and elements will be preserved, but it's not a bad interpretation. With what seems like a genuine desire to portray a fun and action-packed look into Asian-American Chinatown with a slightly silly story, Three Delivery warrants another view. New episodes premiere on Fridays at 7:30pm ET on the Nicktoons Network, but you can view the entire first episode and some teaser clips on their website.

*UPDATE: While many of the writers and executive producers, including creator Larry Schwarz are not of Asian descent, a good portion of the artists, animators, lead designers, consultants, and whatnot do have Asian and Chinese roots. Animation Collective is a New York-based studio and Three Delivery remains a US production, but hopefully the diverse crew will help contribute to a well-rounded and culturally accurate show. Very few Western animated shows out today try to tackle Asian-American culture and lifestyle, and hopefully Three Delivery will remain a fun series and continue to improve.

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