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Steven Universe: The Complete First Season
Created by Rebecca Sugar, former writer and storyboard artist for Cartoon Network's megahit "Adventure Time," "Steven Universe" is perhaps even more delightful than that series. Shifting (somewhat) away from Pendleton Ward's more insistently odd and occasionally spooky post-apocalyptic universe, "Universe" sets itself on a more familiar Earth -- one surrounded by magic and bizarre happenings stretching out into the stars, but still essentially recognizable. A fantastic blend of comedy, music, sci-fi, and fantasy, "Steven Universe" is defined both by Sugar and her team's boundless creativity, but also by a consistent and comforting sense of childlike wonder and sweet-heartedness, qualities which are also perfectly encapsulated in the show's perpetually optimistic protagonist.
Over the course of a whopping 52 15-minute episodes (or 26 half-hour two-parters), this first season of "Steven Universe" starts out strong, struggles a bit going into the second half, and then recovers quickly by pushing the story forward in a way rarely seen in animated children's television (or at least, rarely seen before this generation of the medium). Although each bite-size episode tells an individual story that generally has a positive message, the creative team also makes significant progress in the overarching story about Steven and his mother, Rose Quartz, who gave her own life up to create Steven. At first glance, the show's wild premise might seem like just a backdrop for the characters and gags, but Steven grows as a character and attempts increasingly ambitious things befitting the lessons he's learned in previous episodes. Not only that, but Sugar and her staff are savvy in the way they teach these messages. Not only does Steven learn things proactively, by taking responsibility for his actions and identifying his own problems rather than having them spelled out by the "adult" characters of the Crystal Gems, but Steven frequently teaches them lessons through his own guileless attitude.
The show is gorgeously animated, with a modern yet organic look that blends sketchy, static backgrounds with crisp character animation. There is an obvious anime influence to some of the character designs (especially when it comes to Steven's facial expressions), even if the overall aesthetic also reflects current American cartoons like "The Adventures of Gumball" and, of course "Adventure Time." The heavy emphasis on character adds to the show's excellent comic timing, which frequently scores big laughs through a quick cut to one of Steven's more exaggerated and absurd facial expressions, as well as supporting the drama when necessary (especially when it comes to Amethyst, who wears all of her emotions on her face). Action and musical sequences -- the characters frequently break into lovely, catchy songs created by Sugar and composers Aivi & Surasshu -- have plenty of energy as well, and the show's vivid color palette is frequently eye-catching.
As a progressive, 21st-century television program, the show also slips in a fair share of subversive content that may go over the heads of younger audience members. "Steven Universe" holds plenty of appeal for kids, but the show contains more than enough clever writing and smart observations to make it just as appealing for adults as well. Occasionally, this comes in the form of jokes that might slip past a kid's head (especially when it comes to the relationship between Lars and Sadie), but it mostly comes from the way the writers treat Steven with the same respect as an adult character, refusing to talk down or pander to him when it comes to big responsibilities. A couple of the episodes ("Frybo" -- definitely "Frybo") might be too scary for younger viewers, but overall this is family-friendly, even when it gets dark. The show also contains some curveballs when it comes to gender and sexuality (for instance, when Steven finds out his gem allows him to fuse with his friend Connie into a different being in "Alone Together) that never exactly broach any topics but provide a nice platform for a conversation or an organic presentation of ideas for younger viewers to chew on.
Similar to Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time" DVDs, "Steven Universe": The Complete First Season has art that actually makes use of the glossy slipcover surrounding the white 3-disc Amaray case (with a flap tray that holds two discs). The slipcover features a picture of Steven and offers a little synopsis and a rundown of the bonus features on the back, while the sleeve features Steven's tummy, with his shirt pulled up to reveal his belly button gem, with an essentially blank back cover that mimics Steven's back with the shirt over it. Inside the case, the three discs feature gem art, and there is a chapter insert listing the episode breakdown on one side, and a picture of Steven's gem on the other. A very attractive bit of packaging.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, "Steven Universe" looks fine on DVD. As this is line animation, the most persistent reminder that this is standard definition and not HD is the presence of what essentially look like edge halos from time to time, not due to sharpening but just due to the nature of compression. The colors are vivid and there are certainly plenty of times when the difference is negligible (the only minor complaint: couldn't Warner have saved some disc space by only including the opening credit sequence once for every two episodes instead of in front of each one?). Sound is a Dolby 2.0 stereo track which authentically recreates the vivid action and musical soundscape of Steven's universe, crisply recreating the dialogue and score with a pleasing precision. Although there was plenty of criticism when Cartoon Network released "Adventure Time" in 2.0 on their season DVD sets, all the evidence I can find suggests that "Steven Universe" is produced with 2.0 sound mixes. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Fans may be mildly disappointed with the selection of bonus features here, especially if they're picking the show up for the first time with this season set. First of all, the extras almost exclusively concern the show's music. Obviously, the show's music is fantastic, so that's not a problem in and of itself, but it's disappointing that there are no behind-the-scenes pieces on the making of the show as a whole, or any interviews with any of the cast. The second flaw, for newcomers like myself, is that the extras are not Season 1-specific -- many of these pieces contain footage or songs from episodes not contained in the set. That said, here's what's on tap:
"Behind the Music" (10:16) is the basic overview of the show's entire musical philosophy, featuring an interview with Rebecca Sugar and composing duo Aivi & Surasshu, who not only explain how the songs are written and developed for the show, but also get into the themes for each central character. During this featurette, viewers can see bits of a listening party with Rebecca Sugar, which "Listening Party" (18:14) presents in full. A Q&A with Sugar in front of a live audience is interspersed with presentations of a handful of songs produced for the "Steven Universe" soundtrack album, as well as Sugar performing some songs live, with little snippets of interview in-between.
The rest of the extras are broken down into gallery formats. In the "Behind the Music" featurette, Sugar and Aivi & Surasshu are seen performing for the cameras, and those performances are presented in full under the heading "Music Video Performances." Songs included: "Something Entirely New" (1:26), "It's Over, Isn't It" (2:09), "Love Like You" (2:25), "Here Comes a Thought" (3:16), and "What's the Use of Feeling (Blue)?" (2:30). Under "Animatics", you'll find complete rough format presentations of the episodes "Gem Glow" (11:17), "Full Disclosure" (11:01), "Steven the Sword Fighter" (11:09), "Steven and the Stevens" (11:13), and "Island Adventure" (11:08). Finally, two rough "Song Demos" are also on tap, "Be Wherever You Are" (1:26) and "Full Disclosure" (1:34). These appear to be the Skype sessions Sugar mentions as a way to get the song on digital paper, as it were. The audio quality is low, but those interested in the process will probably like them.
If there's a real complaint about this release, it's that Cartoon Network has a bizarrely persistent resistance to releasing their shows in traditional season sets, and Blu-ray seems to be a struggle ("Adventure Time" got several season Blu-rays, but have recently pulled back to DVD only). The show is already onto Season 4 and the first season is only just arriving now on DVD, with no high-def release in sight. Although the extras are a bit underwhelming, this DVD certainly offers plenty of bang for the viewer's buck by including almost 600 minutes of the show for around $20. On the strength of the show itself, fans and newcomers alike should consider this season set highly recommended.
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