The Teen Editorial Staff teamed up once more to bring to light some different perspectives about the recently released Arcane: League of Legends (2021). Read on to see how anyone can gather enjoyment from this new Netflix series, whether or not you're an avid video game enthusiast.
Having no interest or experience in video games except for the pesky midnight screaming of my brother in the neighboring room, I was pleasantly surprised by Arcane: League of Legends. The unique animation style with its fresh coloring gives life to the characters; the 2D textures utilized to create the backgrounds of certain scenes contrast brightly with the fleshed-out 3D characters, fabricating a somber mood. The brunt of the storytelling is conveyed through an ethereal narration that harkens to a gruesome yet hopeful past (courtesy of Hailee Steinfeld) and lends to the meaningful themes in Arcane’s narrative. The plot hoists itself on the legs of stories and tropes already told—innocence inevitably corrupted by society’s ruthlessness, lost sisters, warring siblings, a battle for the ages—it’s a tale as old as time, pioneered by predecessors such as Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Dragon Prince. However, the show’s worldbuilding and portrayal of war and society is so bracingly revolting, that it highlights a welcome, adult perspective in animation—mostly afforded by its unapologetic swearing and sexual plotlines.
With intricate visual styling and active characters that build to an evolving meld of fairytale and dystopian wonder, Arcane takes a new, innovative stand in the animation domain.
In his 1834 poem, “The Rhodora,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes “Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,/ Then beauty is its own excuse for Being.” It is not often that a television show based on a video game would compel anyone to quote a 19th century transcendentalist philosopher, but that is the power of Arcane: the origin story of two League of Legends characters, Violet ,“Vi,” and her sister, Jinx.
Even for those of us whose video game experience is limited to LEGO Harry Potter, Arcane holds up without League of Legends as context for the viewer because the show is just that beautiful. The animation evokes video game graphics but also brings such rich detail and artistry to the show’s unique visual style. The characters’ movement looks lifelike, lending visual stakes to the action scenes.
But beyond the superficial, the world-building and emotional depth of Arcane exceeds the standard for animated series in the United States, where “animated” is synonymous with “for children.” Watch it for its world building, or because you love League of Legends, or simply because it is beautiful. Arcane both appeals to the masses and brings freshness to the notion of animated series in the United States.
Although video gameplay strikes me as complicated and fruitless, the 3-D art styles of games such as Tomb Raider and Uncharted have always charmed me. The detailed, painterly styles paired with the marvel of 3-D game design are impactful supplements to video game storylines. Arcane’s rise in the Netflix playing field can immediately be attributed to its unique premises: the beautiful style of video games, without the work needed for gameplay. The show became an instant favorite in the hearts of both long-time League of Legends fans and those simply looking for a good watch.
In addition to its striking art, Arcane approaches script writing masterfully. Sometimes the show rips viewers’ hearts out. Sometimes it is enough to induce obnoxious guffawing. Its ability to do so lies in its characters: their relationships drive the plot. The witty, concise dialogue is never too forced or didactic. The characters’ motives push and pull at each other, like a web of entangled red string tacked onto an evidence board. The show chooses to follow various characters’ storylines, using time jumps and flashbacks to showcase the deep-rooted effects of their decisions. Arcane is an excellent study of a vibrant, and sometimes darkly twisted, band of seemingly unrelated characters.
Animation has long been limited in U.S. entertainment—made either a mishmash of colors for kids or a purposefully gritty twist on that same innocence. A two-trick pony, if you will. Arcane, a TV show based on League of Legends, breaks that record. Its fantasy setting and bright, bold design never detract from the mature themes it tackles, making it a show to be considered both for its artistic and analytical aspects.
I, for one, found myself entranced by the vastly different and yet connected scenes the show brings its viewers to. In this aspect, Arcane seemed to draw from another groundbreaking animation: Into the Spiderverse, which shared a semi-realistic style with cartoon words or drawings overtop. Others may have been more impressed by its plot. Arcane stepped outside what its base had established in League of Legends, creating a universe fit for its format with detail, engagement, and cascading events that make it as binge-worthy as any other Netflix show.
In ninth grade, I played League of Legends after school with my friends. It didn’t last long–my computer’s not exactly suited for high-performance gaming, and I barely got past the first few character unlocks before leaving it to collect dust. But Arcane, a promising sign for the future of animation, may make me pick it up once more.
Animation is perhaps one of the most versatile art forms there is. The range of potential styles and stories that can be told is vast. Unfortunately, in America nearly all animated stories fall into one of two categories: vulgar, lewd, and over the top; or capital-W Written For Children.
Arcane immediately and brutally subverts this construct, opening with a graphic scene of death and destruction. It is not needlessly violent or visceral, yet neither is it sanitized or played up for laughs. We are shown bodies. We are shown blood. Ash drifts through the red sky as a city burns. There is a war going on, and Arcane recognizes that war is devastating.
Juxtaposed with the mindless violence of war is the voice of a child, singing a haunting lullaby that drifts over the wreckage. A young girl walks past dead bodies with one hand over her eyes, the other gripping tightly to the guiding hand of her older sister. From this first scene, the tone is set for the whole show.
Arcane is a story about loss, a story about connection, and, above all, a story about humanity. It deals with poverty and war, and more importantly with the ways those things have real impacts on individuals. There is a depth to the story that goes beyond anything else seen in popular American animation today, and that is only the first of many things that make it remarkable.
I’ve never played League of Legends. I have zero interest in ever playing League of Legends. That being said, Netflix series Arcane manages to do what few adaptations get away with—making a series that stands on its own. Arcane is the story of two sisters, Violet “Vi” and Jinx, who find themselves on opposite sides in opposing cities on the brink of war.
The beautifully done 3D animation is reminiscent of video game art, but directors Pascal Charrue and Arnaud Delord make the wise choice not to go down the full CGI route. With many animated movies these days relying on squishy, airbrushed, CGI cartoons, the animation style is refreshingly stylized and visually interesting while still capturing the aesthetic of its source material. Detailed scenic design and atmospheric lighting combined with impressive voice acting and interesting character designs create an immersive universe that doesn’t require any knowledge of the video game it’s based on. At times, the animation is stiff (clothes and hair don’t always move like they’re supposed to), but it’s never jarringly out of place.
League of Legends enthusiast or not, Arcane’s animation is an artistic triumph in the under-utilized medium.