Do you know that kind of people who make you feel like you’d wasted your life when you hear about them, because they are younger than you, yet have already achieved so much in their short time on Earth? Rebecca Sugar is one of those people. Still only 25, Rebecca has already carved a nice path for herself in the animation industry; she has worked as a storyboard artist, story writer and songwriter on the hugely successful Cartoon Network show “Adventure Time”, she was nominated for Emmy and Annie Awards, and Forbes Magazine named her amongst the most interesting young people in show business in 2012. Now, Rebecca got the green light from Cartoon Network for her own show “Steven Universe”, which will go on air at some point during 2013. The network has recently released online the pilot initially pitched by Rebecca, although only in the US, but, just like Disney’s short “Croissant de Triomphe”, it was quickly reposted by Internet users all over the place.
Now, even though I was not, initially, that much on board with the hype about Rebecca (her graduation short “Singles”, which was praised to the stars by animation sites, didn’t really impress me), I have to say that the leaked pilot makes me optimistic about “Steven Universe” and her work in general.
Then again, I’m not crazy about John R. Dilworth’s work outside of “Courage the Cowardly Dog” either, and yet Courage is one of my favourite TV shows of all times. Cartoon Network have always done well at hiring creative animators and distilling their experimental tendencies into more palatable, mainstream fare, releasing original cartoons that can be enjoyed at any age (except for a short moment of temporary insanity in 2009 when they briefly thought they could become a network of live-action shows like the Disney Channel. The less said about that, the better).
The main characters of “Steven Universe” are the titular Steven, a chubby little boy, and a group of magical, universe-saving warriors who seem to be his older sisters: Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl, named so after the magical Crystal Gem that gives them their powers. Steven is a Crystal Gem himself, but he is too young to have yet discovered his power, so for now he just has to hang around, not get in the way of his sisters and endure being teased a lot. The Crystal Gems remind me very much of the Sailor warriors from Sailor Moon, what with the gems giving providing them with weapons through a “transformation” moment, so I’m interested to know more about them, and Steven is just a regular little kid anybody can identify with.
In the pilot episode, the girls bring home a magical “thing” that Steven really wants to check out, and when he is given the opportunity, he discovers that he can use it to jump back in time to deliver witty comebacks to people who make fun of him. How many of us in real life haven’t thought of a killer line to get back at somebody only after the conversation was long over? It’s a cute plot device to explore and the characters are likable and have defined character traits from the start: Garnet is the tall, quiet one, Pearl is bossy and responsible (think Blossom from “The Powerpuff Girls”), Amethyst is cheerful and upbeat, and Steven is an energetic little boy without being bratty or obnoxious- at least not in this episode.
The comparisons with “Adventure Time” are going to be inevitable in the beginning, given Rebecca’s background, I suppose, but it’s pretty obvious that this will be a very different show from “Adventure Time”, with a completely different approach (the magical infiltrates a mundane setting, rather than the other way around). The character designs are also quite different (although I must say that I didn’t find them very appealing; the big, visible nostrils don’t look too good to me). The only “Adventure Time”-y thing is the catchy song that Steven sings in the pilot. Some of the cartoony facial expressions reminded me of John Kricfalusi’s “Stimpy and Ren”, which I personally don’t favour, but it’s definitely a better choice than stiffness a la “Family Guy”. Overall, it is an enjoyable pilot that makes me look forward to the series itself to see in what direction they are going to take all of this. It is also notable that Sugar is Cartoon Network’s first solo female showrunner, and if her series is successful, it will probably make animation producers more likely to give a chance to women animators.