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Ben 10 - The Complete Season 1
Series: Ben 10: The Complete Season 1 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 Omnimatrix 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 Omnimatrix (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 dynamic is familiar with Ben learning about himself and how to use his powers, even getting some limited guidance by one of the mercenaries who turns out to be something far more important to him, while still finding time to rescue people in need and play pranks on Gwen. Yeah, the "kid who saves the world every episode" approach 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 so I look forward to seeing later seasons on DVD as well. I admit that when I took a look at the poster included in the DVD case, I thought this would be one big commercial to sell stuff (it was replete with action figures and clothing for kids to wear) but that was balanced off with some fun episodes that didn't take things too seriously and a youthful approach that I'd advise parents as being reasonable for their young to watch. 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. Here are the episodes in order of their placement on the double DVD set as well as original airdate as best I could figure them out from the various online resources available to me (some information conflicted on them):
1) And Then There Were Ten: (December 27, 2005)
2) Washington B.C.: (January 13, 2006)
3) The Krakken: (January 14, 2006)
4) Permanent Retirement: (January 21, 2006)
5) Hunted: (January 28, 2006)
6) Tourist Trap: (February 4, 2006)
7) Kevin 11: (February 11, 2006)
8) The Alliance: (February 18, 2006)
9) Last Laugh: (February 25, 2006)
10) Lucky Girl: (March 4, 2006)
11) A Small Problem: (March 11, 2006)
12) Side Effects: (March 18, 2006)
13) Secrets: (March 25, 2006)
Picture: Ben 10: The Complete Season 1 was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in for airing on the Cartoon Network back in 2005 and 2006. The thirteen episodes 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 with only a handful of the cameo roles performed like wooden script reading from the days of old. 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 for me was the audio commentary by the production staff and co-creator of the series during the final episode, Secrets. They explained some of the history behind the show, where it was leading to, and provided food for fodder in the sense that fans can gleam some information from it (that has been in various interviews and articles over the last year from a quick look online). There was a three minute drawing lesson on how to draw Ben that was cute, a sneak peek of the future with a montage of footage from later seasons (they are on season three at this writing), and a large poster that has Ben and his alien creatures on one side, with some episode breakdowns on the other as well as a catalog of merchandise for the kids to beg you for.
Final Thoughts: Ben 10: The Complete Season 1 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 a nice value from what I've seen online. The show is fun for all ages, worthy of special attention, and even when it falls into stereotypes it manages to convey a lot more thought on what takes place than a number of other shows currently airing on network and cable channels. The technical aspects and extras helped make it a decent buy too and I only wish it came out with the first two seasons rather than making us all wait around for who knows how long to pick up season two. Still, the creative and acting staff helped make this a winner that I want to see more of in the future.
If you enjoy anime, 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.