Before I get in the thrust of this review, I just want to say that Wander Over Yonder animates some of the best wacky facial expressions I have ever seen. I wish Tumblr would pay more attention to this show as much as other cartoons, because the distorted faces of its characters are hilarious, and arguably beat out Spongebob Squarepants for expressions worthy of meme/gif status. If you didn’t laugh at one of Hater’s ridiculously drugged-out faces or Wander’s barely-contained-excitement expressions during “The Fremergency Fronfract,” then maybe this show isn’t for you. I mean:

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And that’s not even the best one.

Wander has always been a wacky show at its core, but it’s a very tightly structured, controlled wackiness. Every frame is meticulously chosen, and the way the animation flows prevents that wackiness from spilling into annoyance territory. That’s particularly important, because “The Fremergency Fronfract” is probably the show’s wackiest episode yet. From the moment Hater wakes from his “electric-squid” induced-slumber, the episode takes on a hyper-kinetic energy that’s somewhat different than what happens in “The Gift 2: The Giftening.” That episode reached for Tex Avery levels of comedic, zippy action and snappy cutting, while this episode leaned on a type of “Spumco/Fleischer” energy. If the Dadist giant-lips-and-teeth dentists didn’t clue you in, then the old-timey music played briefly during Wander’s and Hater’s escapades at the Chuck E. Cheese-parody planet confirmed it.

It never really occurred to me to think of Wander Over Yonder in a large-scale thematic sense, because it’s heavily driven by its visuals and its antics (and the occasion broad lesson), but it’s starting to feel as if this second season is taking a relatively hard look at the idea of friendship being a cure-all answer for every problem and situation (something that My Little Pony is struggling with, but that’s a topic of another day). Wander has an inherent belief in the goodness of everyone, even someone like Hater, so seeing his frenemy–which, by the way, is the perfect word to describe their relationship–loopy and vulnerable excites the little orange dude beyond normal levels. And Wander isn’t stupid. He knows that Hater is drugged out and not himself, but being granted this opportunity to change him for the better is just too good to pass up. So they just go around and have silly fun, and it’s adorable and hilarious. In another world, Wander and Hater could be great friends (and of course Sylvia is just having a ball posting pictures of it all). They even reenact the opening credits!

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Then suddenly, the seriousness drops in. Hater’s drooling, heart-felt confession shows how uncomfortable the situation really is. Steven Universe has the “consent is king” lesson on lock, but there’s a lot to be said about Wander’s exploitation of someone who’s not one hundred percent in his right mind. He and Sylvia both note how far gone Hater is, and they rightly return him to his ship, in a funny, “send a pet back into the wild” kind of way. Even still, it is somewhat effecting, both in seeing Hater shoot at his own henchmen (in preventing the plantary takeover, but still, yikes!) and in watching Wander reluctantly letting Hater go. The episode doesn’t explore if Hater is actually good deep down inside or not, but that’s besides the point. Wander can only embrace friendship that’s genuine and not forced–although that lesson, however important, kind of struggles up against Wander’s relentlessness over the entire first season.

But as mentioned, this season is about re-evaluating that idea, which “The Boy Wander” explicitly delves into. In the middle of this episode, when Wander explains Doctor Screwball Jones’ (voiced by a lisping Weird Al) plan to force the universe to be happy, Sylvia asks, “Isn’t that, like, your whole deal?” Wander’s reply, that he “only presents the positive path” and he “doesn’t force you to follow it” feels a little disingenuous, especially in the context of the entire show, but in this second season, it’s attempting to make a clearer distinction. Jones is a stupidly absurd character (kind of a like an eight year-old’s drawing of Drawn Together’s Wooldoor Sockbat), but also a mirror to whom Wander is reflected; of course, the wacky, unstoppably-friendly cartoon character would be Wander’s true arch-nemesis. He’s basically Wander, unchecked.

“The Boy Wander” is really entertaining, playing to the 60’s-era Batman and having fun with all the visuals they can muster up. It’s an episode that kind of starts off slow–the early investigative parts, while funny, feel superfluous–and maybe this is just me, but the staging and framing of the whole confrontation on the Chicken planet among Wander/Sylvia, Hater/Peepers, the Chicken people, and Jones’ Dr. Seuss-inspired ship seems rather static. Wander’s and Jones’ accordion-and-banjo fight, on the other hand, was incredible. Weird Al basically got to do a take on his well-patented polkas songs, while the animation elevates the song-fight into epic levels, shifting colors and mood as the ostensibly silly fight becomes hellish and practically terrifying. It’s also telling that, technically, Wander lost the fight, but eventually won with assistance from Sylvia. When facing a reflection of himself, Wander is no match; it’s in his good friend Sylvia that he can overcome the most extreme parts of himself.

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STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • People talk about all the adult gags shows like Gravity Falls gets away with, but holy crap there were some gems in “The Boy Wander.” Besides the “I can see their nuggets” comment–which may be the most direct “balls” joke I have ever heard or seen in a cartoon, ever–Emperor Awesome had a few obvious sexual gags as well. Apart from standing up in the hot tub with what probably was a noticeable bulge, he proceeds to seemingly hit on his boa. The snake wasn’t haven’t any of it, but still, goddamn.
  • A nice in-joke at the end of “The Boy Wander,” with Peepers, and the episode itself, mimicking the end of a typical Powerpuff Girls episode. Considering all the connections between the two shows, that was just lovely. (I won’t think about the fact that kids watching this show probably never heard of The Powerpuff Girls).
  • Just look at the color palette on this show. There is so much slickness in the use of blues, pinks, and purples in the header image alone, and the slightly brighter look given to Wander, Sylvia, and Hater to make them pop is divine.
  • Craig McCracken posted this little guide to how the second season is planned out, which is really neat! I’m intrigued by “lots of villains vying for power.” I guess that means we’ll see more Emperor Awesome, but also: Brad Starlight? The evil queen from “The Fancy Party?” More Jones? Hmm.

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