Last year, Netflix produced one of the most highly acclaimed videogame TV series to date, Arcane, based on the popular League of Legends franchise. Now, as the streamer continues to dig into a potent library of videogames for adaptation, they have teamed up with Studio MDHR to bring beloved run-and-gun action game, Cuphead, to life. The new animated series The Cuphead Show! presents an opportunity to expand upon the videogame and bring to life a stable of unique characters. Beyond the ability to build out the world, there is a much simpler reason that Cuphead made an ideal candidate to transition into a cartoon: its 1930s art style already borrows heavily from the animation of a bygone era.
The Cuphead Show has the tall task of innovating rather than being an empty homage, and it doesn’t often hit the mark—at least in terms of its story. Our heroic twosome Cuphead (Tru Valentino) and Mugman (Frank Todaro) are heavily influenced by traditional comedy duos, and their mannerisms and sensibilities have been repeated throughout countless cartoons from Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to Ren & Stimpy: Cuphead is the troublemaker, while Mugman is more reserved and hesitant. Many of the antics the boys get up to involve their behavior and not upsetting their guardian, Elder Kettle (Joe Hanna). Over the course of the 12-episode first season, Cuphead and Mugman get into numerous dilemmas with predictable results. One of the overarching plots comes from the two interacting with the series’ main antagonist, the Devil (Luke Millington-Drake), to whom Cuphead owes his soul—but he’s not going to give it up easily.
Like the game, the biggest draw to The Cuphead Show is the animation. It’s a striking throwback that transports viewers almost 100 years into the past. When developing the characters and art for the videogame, Studio MDHR was heavily inspired by the cartoons by Fleischer Studios and Disney. Fleischer Studios was responsible for some of the more iconic characters of the 1930s, including Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor cartoons; these shorts focused on dark humor, adult elements, and sexuality. The Cuphead Show never engages with the racist history of the art form, but according to Unwinnable’s Yussef Cole, “Cuphead’s imagery of gambling, [and using] heaven and hell for its setting… employs images and tropes that were established originally to make moral statements about the lazy and savage blacks of Harlem and their sinful ‘jungle music.’” Animation in this era commonly used racial stereotypes for easy laughs. Disney wasn’t immune from these racist suggestions in their art, as it also appeared in their groundbreaking animation for their Silly Symphony series of shorts. It’s easy to find where The Cuphead Show took inspiration from that Silly Symphony series, because shorts like 1929’s “The Skeleton Dance” and 1935’s “Music Land” are either recreated outright or can be seen in the character designs.
It’s essential to consider this troubling historical context when engaging with this particular expression of the art style. But there are ways the form has been updated, too. Using techniques created by Fleischer Studios and moving them into a digital workflow, art director Andrea Fernandez and the team at Lighthouse Studios have made a compelling facsimile. The Cuphead Show uses a stereoscopic process where the 2D characters will occasionally move through live-action sets. One of the best examples of this technique comes in the episode “Ghosts Ain’t Real,” where Cuphead and Mugman take a curious shortcut through the graveyard. The graveyard was recreated using live-action miniatures and then transferred into the animation. This gives the illusion that the brothers are walking through that space and then they merge back into the 2D animation. Complete with the addition of era-appropriate artifacts like digitally created dust and noise, these tools help create a stunning look for The Cuphead Show
In keeping with this aesthetic, one of the most compelling elements for Cuphead was how the videogame composer Kristofer Maddigan used original jazz, early big band, and ragtime music for its score. For the show, composer Ego Plum created some new pieces, while also mixing in multiple motifs from the game. The music continues to be vital to The Cuphead Show because its potential really shines during transitions into song and dance numbers that are reminiscent of the era. When trying to recapture what made 1930s animation special, it is in these elaborate music numbers that fill up the screen. The other instance of when The Cuphead Show soars is when Cuphead and Mugman meet iconic villains from the series. It could be argued that audiences never needed the motivations of The Root Pack (villains based on an onion, potato, and carrot), but this is when The Cuphead Show is actually at its best.
And yet, even though the show is visually entertaining, it can still be a chore to watch; by focusing on a story so heavily influenced on the past, The Cuphead Show hasn’t really moved the needle into creating something new. It’s also hindered in trying to wear multiple hats by being family-oriented and also appealing to adults who admired the video game. While most of the potentially upsetting violence is off-screen, The Cuphead Show is in line with antics that show up in animated series like The Animaniacs. It’s more “family-adjacent,” because while there isn’t anything that would be inappropriate, the audience for this is more likely going to be adults who were enamored with the game’s unique art style and are interested to see how that concept was expanded. And there are plenty of reasons those players should be intrigued, thanks to the show successfully capturing the Fleischer era art style, the musical numbers, and easter eggs featuring bosses and stages from the game.
There’s an abundance of talent and passion involved in the creation of The Cuphead Show, but ultimately it doesn’t innovate on its inspirations. Instead, it ends up being a homage where the sole novelty comes from seeing these videogame characters recreated in 1930s-era shorts. For game veterans, the narrative slog might be worth making to see these memorable villains come to life, but families would probably be best suited looking elsewhere. The Cuphead Show is a product of its bygone era, offering few jollies outside of its initial novelty.
The Cuphead Show! arrives on Netflix February 18th.
Max Covill is a freelance writer for Paste Magazine. For more anime, movie, and television news and reviews you can follow him, @mhcovill.
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