I’m starting to realize that Guardians of the Galaxy is trying to be more “cartoon” than “animated action show.” This is a bad idea, for a few reasons. One, the animation, while making incremental improvements, isn’t pliant enough to sell the exaggerations needed to make the looser, more physical bits work. Two, playing around with gaps in narrative logic in regular cartoons work because of comic momentum, which the show isn’t doing all that well. Three, the chaos works best with the characters doing whatever they can as everything goes to shit, provided that “whatever” is grounded and clearly defined. The action and visuals can’t really surpass the nature of the characters themselves. (As an example, the kind of action scenes that you see in, let’s say, Batman: The Animated Series aren’t the same kind of action scenes you can get away with in Kim Possible.)

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Case in point: Rocket sees his family for the first time after so many years, but this time as fully anthropomorphic animals. The joke here is that their casual putdowns and ribbing of the “runt” has always been part of their familial relationship, whether they were regular animals or walking, talking ones. It’s a joke/idea that’s a bit too ridiculous and hard-to-swallow (just as an example, a version of this joke/idea is used in an episode of Netflix’s Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show, to stronger effect), which essentially diminishes the final dramatic moment, where Rocket’s family transforms back into regular raccoons. With no real dramatic set-up when Rocket finally meets his mom and siblings again, there’s no really tragic impact when he loses them again.

Not that they don’t give it a good attempt. The idea of the episode is sound, in which the Guardians, after missing the mysterious Cosmic Seed yet again, are attacked by a bunch of robots–robots that have been tracking Rocket for quite a while, it seems. As always, though, the execution is lacking. Sometimes it works, like when Rocket tells his life story to Peter while they’re being shot at. It’s silly, but it’s rooted in core personalities of the characters (also, it’s not a terribly long piece of exposition). A lot of times, it doesn’t, like the moment after Rocket and Groot are captured and he sees his mom and sister for the first time. There is an understated warmth to the moment, particularly when Rocket actually introduces Groot to his family, but since it’s mostly all insults and dismissals and “mothers/sisters, am I right?” type cliches, it kind of comes off more cold than cool. (Also, the third act is mostly a rushed mess, but I’ll get into that in a bit.)

At a certain level, though, Guardians knows it’s limited. It’s a show forced to cut corners and narrative beats, probably due to budget reasons (and, if I had to hazard a guess, being rushed to air). Instead of working within those constraints, it overplays them, making it hard to follow along. For example, we learn that the robots that chased after Rocket found some stones that helped them accelerate the evolution process, which allowed them to create Rocket’s family, as well as the rest of the animal people. But the episode implied that the Cosmic Seed’s presence created those stones. So the robots somehow found those stones before the Cosmic Seed got to them? Also, why did the robots go after Rocket, guns blazing, if they really needed his help to fight back against the revolting animals? And another thing: when Pyko exposed himself to be a mad scientist who was transforming the animals against their will, why didn’t anyone stop him? In fact, why did so many people have trouble fighting him? He’s just some old guy; a good punch in the face could’ve took him out. A lot of the narrative/animation struggles really come to light in that third act (when Blackjack landed against Rocket’s transformed brother with a weak grunt, I couldn’t help but cringe, and there’s a good section of that final fight where Drax and Gamora just disappear).

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I could go on about the issues in the story and the animation, but there are some moments that worked. Even though Rocket and his mother/sister mostly squabbled, their dumb selfie was cute, and it was nicely followed up at the end with his mother’s genuine hug and admission of love. The plot doesn’t make a lick of sense once you think about it, but at the surface-level, the idea of robo-scientists regretting their previous experiments is a nice surprise, especially since it ignores the whole “do robots even feel?” concept, which has been done to death. I also, god help me, laughed quite a bit when Peter responded, “I’ll tell you later!” to Rocket’s question about how he, Gamora, and Drax found him. It’s not too far-fetched to come up with a plausible explanation on how they tracked him down, but it mainly was a bit of self-aware lampshading over an obvious plot hole.

That’s Guardians in a nutshell though: a show that knows its limitations and flaws, but struggles to work with them. When it’s running on all cylinders, it can be a funny, entertaining, and even affecting ball of chaos. When it’s not, it’s a poorly edited, narrative-deficient mess. There’s a thin line between messy and chaotic, and Guardians can’t tell the difference between the two.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • It would have been nice if the episode connected Drax’s and Rocket’s familial dilemmas more soundly. There was an opportunity to bring them together as teammates over their similar fates (remember when Drax petted Rocket in the movie and it was kind of one of the most emotionally powerful parts of the film?). Rocket’s posturing and kiss-offs of other people’s emotional toils work precisely because his “Ain’t thing like me, ’cept me” is all a front, and he shouldn’t have to open up only to Groot.
  • I guess you could argue there’s a thematic connection between Pyko’s idea of evolution–transforming into uncaring monsters–and the robo-scientists actual situation of “evolving” into more caring, understanding machines. The episode doesn’t underline this point, so there’s no reason to do so here. Besides, most sci-fi–hell, most people–misunderstand evolution anyway, so there’s that.
  • Rocket’s willingness to sacrifice his sentience to save his family/stop transformed critters was a great bit of selflessness, as well as a nice bit of subtlety in expressing Rocket’s self-loathing.
  • Rocket: “The information you want is inside that vial.” Nice, clever thinking from Rocket, completely undermined when he followed up with “and so are a bunch of other things that go ‘boom’.” Come on.
  • I love the bit of exaggeration in Rocket’s expression when he hears the machine’s voice when he goes back to the original lab. It’s part of the “cartoon” nature of the show, but it works there.

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