Note: The following is a review for the fourth (and final) season of the Ben 10 series, based substantially on the previous volumes reviewed previously. Reviewing a handful of episodes or season at a time is akin to reviewing individual chapters in a book so doing so without spoilers is virtually impossible in any satisfying manner. Still, I will give a general overview of the season's merits a bit deeper into the review for those that have been keeping up with it, noting that watching this one without the prior volumes would make marginal sense to most people.
Background: As a long term fan of protagonist driven adventures, I tend to appreciate stories that show clear cut good guys as much as the next guy even when I know I might not be able to live up to that kind of purity myself. These days, even in comics and cartoons, such heroes are portrayed as flawed. Well, thanks to the Cartoon Network, there's a new hero to check out, his name is Ben Tennyson, he's ten years old (going on eleven), and he has been gifted with a device that allows him to possess strange powers for a period of time in the show for today's review called Ben 10: The Complete Season 4 with some history on the subject by way of my earlier reviews:
Series: Ben 10 plays on the Cartoon Network in the afternoon and I never saw an episode before catching this season set. Essentially, there are alien races fighting one another for control of the galaxy. One of them created a device that straps itself to your wrist and proceeds to alter your personal DNA for a short period of time to transform you into a powerful alien lifeform; each of which has specific abilities and weaknesses. Ben is on summer vacation with his grandfather Max and Cousin Gwen when he's walking through the woods of a large forest. Unaware of the alien vessels in the area of space above his head, he sees a meteor in the night sky; a meteor that seems to have a mind of its own as it nearly kills him. Ben investigates the crash site and a device we later learn to be the Omnitrix attaches itself to his wrist but it won't come off. After fiddling with it, he gets it to light up with a weird green glow, and as he dials the device, different shapes appear on the screen. Ben hits the face of the device and then transforms into a fiery being capable of shooting fireballs from his hands (not the best idea in a forest by the way). The rampaging fire around his doesn't hurt him but it does get Max and Gwen rushing off towards him since that was the way he headed for his walk. Needless to say, they all figure a way to stop the fire with his two relatives only slightly startled at his newfound abilities. Thus begins the adventures of Ben 10.
Initially, there are ten alien life forms that Ben can change into and Max sees fit to have him test his powers to learn more about them. His stint in the army is only part of his background, the viewer left to figure he was involved in something far greater with the government in his pre-retirement days. The aliens include, Heatblast (the first form mentioned above), Fourarms (a 12 foot tall wrestler shaped alien with four arms), XLRB (a short alien capable of running extremely fast), Stinkfly (a huge flying bug), Wildmutt (a beast in dog shape with enhanced senses), Diamondhead (another powerful type but made of a crystalline substance), Ripjaws (a shark like character), Ghostfreak (a being that can act like a ghost), Grey Matter (a tiny alien that is super smart), and Upgrade (a creature that can meld with any device and enhance its capabilities). During the series, it becomes evident that anything that effects Ben's physiology can affect the beings (when he gets a cold, they all seem to react differently) and hints that he will be able to become other creatures are dropped a few times as well.
Now, having cool superpowers usually means there are bad guys that want to take them away from you for themselves, want to stop you from getting in their way, or simply want to do as they please. The moral lessons come in early and frequent that Ben has to do the "right thing" regardless of payment or hero worship; this is a kiddy show after all, and when he acts his age, things get screwed up (especially when he tries to use his powers to get a golden samurai card). Leading the pursuit to get the Omnitrix (to duplicate and arm his armies with) is Vilgax; a galactic warlord that is almost killed in the initial episode but manages to heal over the course of the season. He employs technology and mercenaries to hunt Ben down, often nearly reclaiming the device until the heroes save the day. Each episode where Vilgax doesn't have an active role in the story still manages to have another super villain or alien lifeform up to no good, often countering Ben's abilities by accident and then finding his perseverance to win the day. The trio drives around in Max's souped up camper, finding out by the end of the season that it can do a whole lot more (as well as Max being a whole lot more than meets the eye) than your off the showroom floor model.
The second season followed the same basic formula as the first but with some interesting twists. Vilgax, thought defeated, came back as a "Doomsday" style villain repeatedly as well as Dr. Animo, Kevin 11, The Circus Freaks, and others. New alien races were introduced in a number of episodes, even more heroes when the Galactic Enforcers come to town with an encyclopedia of rules that tie their hands foolishly, but usually as the bad guys wanting Ben's hero making device. They added a few new heroes with Wildvine (a plant based hero) and Cannonball (who can roll fast and strike objects with his body at great speeds using momentum more as a defense mechanism than an offensive capability). There were a couple "What If" episodes too, like Gwen 11 showing a re-envisioned story opener with Gwen getting the Omnitrix and following in her own image. That Ben still has issues selecting the right character or the time issues of how long the characters last (the "rules" seemed extremely flexible to say the least), were problematic for those who pay attention too. In general, there was some character growth though and seeing Grandfather's old "plumber" buddies in action via flashbacks and how they were currently was kind of interesting too as the team had to fend off the latest threats as a team instead of merely relying on Ben. New possibilities abounded and I found the show still too childish but entertaining as well.
Season three seemed to take a bit of a step back to reevaluate the franchise from time to time. Ben is shown as egotistical (he's a kid, what do they expect?!?) to the point where Gwen and Max are played up more using their bigger supporting roles to show their contributions as being equally important. Such was the dynamic in Ben 10,000, Game Over, Be Afraid of the Dark, and The Visitor where Ben might have saved the day a time or two but only in proportion to his teammates in their newly revived Plumber Squad or Team Tennyson. The usual moral lessons are also learned here as some of the established villains make appearances to find themselves defeated yet again; their plans thwarted by the trio's newfound manner where they turned the tables in new ways. That was one of the other problems with the season set though; the writers seemed too intent on mixing things up to make Ben the dope and in great need of assistance against even the weakest of enemies. Leaps in logic aside, it was cleaner fare than I'm used to on cable television and the potential was still present but working on the lowest common denominator plan has never been an ingredient for longevity in a children's series so it is no wonder the show was the victim of its own lack of growth (disappointing many fans from what I've read online).
Okay, the fourth season opened up with Ben living out a perfect day, too perfect as he soon discovers, and that sets in motion his need to use his years of experience playing videogames to solve the riddle of the day. The latest hero of the Omnitrix, Ditto, makes an appearance as well, the ability to make numerous copies of himself proving almost as much a curse as a blessing (especially if you ask Grandpa, Gwen, or Dr, Animo). Hex then makes a comeback to secure his immortality using the Fountain of Youth, the marriage of a hostile alien race to a plumber shows that peace isn't as easy as it sounds, and the hijacking of the Rust Bucket puts everyone on high alert. Mob bosses and wrestling seem the easier path than a future episode starring Ben's son Ken with the return of the school year putting the entirely too bland community at risk now that Ben has gained so many ruthless enemies (letting out his secret once and for all). The shortened season closed out with a two part episode where the family fought a wide selection of their old enemies led by The Forever King, each member pitching in along with a new member big on brains if not experience. In some ways, this season helped revive the franchise for me a bit more than expected, my appreciation of the future episode in Ken 10 harkening at least in part to how the creators took the show forward a little (if not enough for my tastes). The addition of the animated movie, Secret of the Omnitrix with all three alternate versions was also a plus since I had liked it when I saw it on Comcast's Demand Channel not long ago and wanted to pick it up. Yeah, the changes were minor to each version but it was still pretty interesting to see how well loved humans are to most alien races (tasty!).
The majority of episodes were similar ground here but the creators did manage to break out some new approaches and that paid off as much as adding in the movie. Yeah, the "kid who saves the world every episode" dynamic is common as is the time limitation (the watch like device reminded me of an old TV series from the 1970's involving an invisible man too); animation made for kids typically revolves around such elements (heck, the whole Dial H For Hero theme from the DC Comics of the 60's and 70's gets a workout too) but this one seemed pretty well done as a way to close out the original series (a follow up spin off of an older Ben should be released on DVD later this year too). In all, it wasn't perfect and I found some of the writing (there was a relatively limited creative staff that directed, wrote, and otherwise assisted on the show) to be in need of tweaking but I still found it worth rating as Recommended. The addition of a few new heroes was interesting, as were the situations they were placed in (the old enemies getting slightly smarter didn't hurt, nor did the future episode and multiple versions of the movie). Here are the episodes in order of their placement on the double DVD set for those that care:
Ben 10: Complete Season 4 Episode Guide
1) Perfect Day:
2) Divided We Stand:
3) Don't Drink The Water:
4) Big Fat Alien Wedding:
5) Ben Four Good Buddy:
6) Ready To Rumble:
7) Ken 10:
8) Goodbye and Good Riddance:
9) Ben 10 Vs. Negative 10 Part 1:
10) Ben 10 Vs. Negative 10 Part 2:
Picture: Ben 10: The Complete Season 4 was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in for airing on the Cartoon Network back in 2007 using the MPEG-2 codec of a standard definition release. The ten episodes and movie on two discs looked clear and fairly crisp, with occasional compression artifacts or minor video noise (while dual layered, there was a lot of material on the discs and animation doesn't always fare too well when many episodes are jammed onto a disc, though looked better than most). The animation style itself looked much like that from the Teen Titans, Kim Possible, and other shows out at this time so while it wasn't quite like anime from Japan, it was close enough that anime lovers should find it appealing too (except maybe the snobs). The discs never froze up or showed other problems for me and I took a look at part of a single episode airing on cable (I didn't want to ruin future viewing by seeing the whole thing) to compare how it looked. I'm happy to say that the DVD looked markedly better than the cable version even if booth looked pretty solid.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital with English as the primary track and a dubbed version in Spanish and French offered up as well. There was a bit of separation on the tracks, especially during the fighting sequences, and the dynamic range was akin to most recent shows on the Cartoon Network; not great but reasonably modern compared to older, far crappier fare available. The voice acting was reasonably well done (hotty Tara Strong playing Ben Tennyson) with only a handful of the cameo roles performed like wooden script reading from the days of old, the Galactic Enforcers cameos the best of the batch in terms of revisiting shows from the early to mid 1970's. The music seemed generic as could be but that's to be expected from such a show, even if the sound effects people did a fine job overall.
Extras: The best extra was the addition of the movie Secret of the Omnitrix with all three slightly different versions included (different heroes used to combat the enemy, a pop up trivia version for fans to appreciate, etc.). Thanks to Dr. Animo, Ben's Omnitrix gets set to self destruct, possibly taking out the universe with it, so he goes on yet another space mission, this time with Tetrax as they look for the creator of the device. It played off mostly as a couple or three distinctly separate episodes crammed into a single movie but it was on a larger scale and fun just the same. The discs only had a couple of deleted scenes and some promotional bits lacking any consequence other than that. There was another paper episode guide to the show and some trailers for shows including the live action version of the show (that looked a lot like a TV movie or made for cable show in term of the special effects but cool enough for this big kid) too.
Final Thoughts: Ben 10: The Complete Season 4 fit nicely into the pantheon of super heroes in how the creators paid homage to a number of heroes and villains from days gone by with the double disc season set providing modest value from what I've seen online. The show picked up some steam from the last season and I just wish that The Cartoon Network would have made the changes sooner to help the series find a bigger audience, perhaps resulting in a set of made for TV movies resulting instead (the live action movie was not included here, though that would have been really cool, but it would have benefitted from a larger budget just as the series itself might have; allowing for a bigger departure from the trio saving the world each time). The show was fun and a friend's kid liked it tremendously more than last season, the comments ranging from asking me for help with a screensaver program to wanting me to help write a "save Ben 10" letter to the network. Yes, it was another moral of the day type of show but the movie alone was probably enough to justify checking this one out, the appropriate ten episodes generally done well too so go get a copy whether you have kids, like cartoons, or just want some admittedly lightweight science fiction to hold you over.
If you enjoy animation of all sorts, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.