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Review: “Sailor Moon Crystal” – When Efficiency Doesn’t Pay

Sailor Moon Crystal

Sailor Moon CrystalShe is the once and forever guardian of love and justice, Sailor Moon. More than two decades after her inception, the pretty soldier has returned in the animated series Sailor Moon Crystal, the 2010 revival of the Sailor Moon franchise that strives to adapt Naoko Takeuchi’s original comic book world more accurately, while updating it with 21st century special effects and animation. Without a real villain of the week and weekly struggles over the course of a year for a team to learn their inner workings, can these teenage heroines save the day, or do they need more time to grow?

While the original series Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon (translated as Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, and brought to America simply as Sailor Moon) spread out over dozens of episodes, it still made the large leaps and plot conclusions that the original work did. It just took more screentime to do it, and rarely did any particular plot extend into more than one episodes. The status quo would change frequently and carry over to subsequent episodes, but most episodes could be summed up as “this is the one where Sailor Jupiter fought a cat girl demon thing.”

Sailor Moon Crystal holds hands much more closely with the original work. Over the fourteen episodes that are included in this set, the six heroes of the Sailors and Tuxedo Mask are all introduced, with their personalities quirks shorthanded into their introduction episodes. A villain rises and is defeated, and the next arc is set up. It’s all very efficient, but efficiency isn’t fun. The comic was noted for its great art style and unique plot, even for America. Female-focused and female-starring superhero teams were (are) rarities, but the original Sailor Moon animated series had very much of a Power Rangers vibe (which may even have helped it’s appreciation in America). You’d have a thematic monster of the week that would somehow tie in to one of our teenage heroes lives, leading eventually to a stock footage transformation and a fight using special attacks to beat the monster of the week. Occasionally, the series would make slow gains on the enemy or unlock new weapons and attacks. Throughout the series, moments of decompression allowed the cast to find themselves and understand each other. There wasn’t one single episode showing off that Sailor Mercury was a brain, but it was a regular aspect of the character and a trait that went on the backburner at times, allowing her to grow in multifaceted ways. Similarly, the friendship between characters grew slowly, especially where the secondary characters were involved.

Sailor Moon CrystalCrystal lacks this, making a beeline to the finish line in a quarter of the time of the previous adaptation. The first half of the series is all about introducing each Sailor (and many of these plots do mirror the original animated work), with the second half moving the chess pieces in play for a “dramatic” ending, with Sailor Moon and her team sacrificing themselves to save the love of Moon’s life, Tuxedo Mask, and defeat the threat of Queen Beryl.

Unfortunately, it all rings hollow without those “filler” episodes. Characters are introduced at such a rapid pace that you barely know one’s goals and motivations before you’ve met the next. It becomes increasingly false when, by the end of the season, the supporting Sailors comment that Moon is their leader and the glue that holds them together, when they may have actually had only a handful of sentences with one another. There are no real downtime moments in this series unlike the original, where the characters are just hanging out studying for class or going to a local mall. Every scene and segment pushes towards the final goal, but you quickly lose the logic behind them. Why does Usagi love Mamoru? They’ve maybe run into each other a handful of times and, despite the fact that they’re star-crossed lovers reborn in a new world, nothing said or done is truly worth engaging to one another.

One of the great aspects of the original series was that the story allowed itself to be very comedic at times, something that was missing from the original comic strip and, sadly, from Crystal. Any sort of expectations of having a good laugh from the animation alone, or even having a silly tennis ball-themed monster, are largely gone. The series isn’t completely devoid of humor, but it’s so dry that this reviewer abandoned the series halfway through the first season during its Hulu airing (although the bi-weekly schedule didn’t help). A few glimpses at Season 2 reveal that some of this humor has come back, but if this is the standard or the outlier is yet to be seen (and irrelevant to this set).

This leaves the newer animation, but it’s hard to say it’s groundbreaking or even great for the current age. Upgrading to digital art was expected, moving from the original’s hand-drawn cels to today’s stylus-drawn-on-computers, but characters are very robotic and unique in their dimensions. A few shots completely show characters that may have pencil-thin ankles and be awkwardly tall. One of the biggest concerns when it comes to the story is that Usagi herself is noted to be a bit of a lazy glutton, and yet her build is very similar to every single person in the cast, whether it be her other-dimensional mother, earthbound mother, school teacher, or three more of the girls in her team. Only Sailor Jupiter, believed to be a brute and an amazon, has any sort of notoriety in her design, and she’s only slightly taller than the others. In an age where Overwatch has shown varying women’s builds in media to be cherished and appreciated, Naoko’s designs might be a limitation of the franchise at this moment. When it comes to actual movement, the series doesn’t truly stand out, with many frozen shots of characters being used for inner monologue thoughts. The original airing had the unfortunate task of being the “rough draft” of the show, with finished or improved shots being made available on the home release. As that may be tradition at this point, this is the biggest and gravest error the new series makes.

The transformations fare even worse, since Sailor Moon Crystal tried computer graphics for the transformations. They’ve gone back to a traditional look for the second season, but the out-of-place animation style falls flat on its face. The concept of the transformation sequence is that it needs to be impressive (as you’ll be seeing it every week as a benefit of stock footage), and this came off as the cheap version. The original series was so iconic that series like Scooby-Doo Meets KISS and Teen Titans Go! riffed on them (and for a truly impressive sidestep, see how the transformation can be done in the real world).

Sailor Moon CrystalRegarding the on-disc extras, there’s an interview with the voice actresses for four of the Sailors and Tuxedo Mask, asking various questions regarding how they feel about Crystal versus the original series. This featurette doesn’t offer amazing insight, but is worth the few minutes. There’s an art gallery, and the series trailer, clean opening, and clean ending. Some of the Japanese trailers or commercials would be appreciated, or even a comparison of the original animation for the series versus the “final” art on the disc. The physical extras are more impressive, with a weighty art book with interviews and character designs throughout, alongside seven art cards for collectibility; this book makes the on-disc gallery entirely redundant. and they’re all housed in an impressive chipboard box that is almost a standard mark of VIZ. Our copy came with a window sun-catcher featuring a design from the show, which is an odd and interesting physical extra that you may find useful in your house.

Sailor Moon Crystal offers a revamp of the franchise for the 2010’s, but it’s not something that stands out the way the original series did. It is a dry run adaptation of the original comic book work, and if you want that, just go read the original books. It’ll cost less and probably take less time. If you grew up with the original series, you’ll find that all the charm and pleasure has been stripped out. On the surface, this may be prettier remake, but the true heart is gone. Give it a look if you don’t want to read the original or you do have a major curiosity, but true verve is missing.