Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Digimon Frontier

Initially, Digimon Frontier was seen as the last gasp of the Digimon fandom in the United States. It had a completely different premise than any of the previous series that was more akin to Power Rangers crossed with Narnia. It was on a completely different channel with little advertising since Fox Kids was essentially dead, and Disney was in the process of purchasing Saban's kid's entertainment properties while it was airing. After it ended, we would not receive another Digimon series and the dub of it for four more years.

Honestly, it hardly seems fair. Frontier is not a perfect series by any stretch; it gets a little earnestly cheesy at points (although that can honestly be part of its charm), the beginning arc is a little slow, it abuses transformation stock footage FAR more than the other series, and there's an infamous arc near the end where our heroes get their butts stomped by characters known as the "Royal Knights" over and over again. That gets a little tedious, though it makes it all the sweeter when the heroes finally defeat these characters. All the same, it's actually held up quite well for me in terms of a kid's adventure show. I enjoyed the series when it was on, giving it a chance when many other Digimon fans didn't, but I never got to finish it. Upon a recent rewatch, I discovered that it's still very entertaining and well-done for the most part, especially the dub.

The Digimon dubs have something of a sordid history. Done in Los Angeles with that particular talent pool, they never got quite as bad as the dreaded 4Kids, but each series had varying degrees of the bad habits associated with dubbing children's anime: changing character names, completely re-scoring the show, adding music or joke lines to previously silent scenes, editing down violence or other objectionable content, or attempts to hide the Japanese culture.

Again, it never got as bad as 4Kids; the real world setting was explicitly Japan, even if they changed some cultural stuff now and then. The human names were *usually* Japanese to one degree or another, and I actually prefer many of the re-named Digimon in English. The voice acting was usually leagues better than the likes of 4Kids, Nelvana's butchering of Cardcaptor Sakura, or the enjoyably dumb Sailor Moon dubs by DiC and Cloverway, although the first two series' dubs certainly had their growing pains in that department. By the time of Tamers, the third series, I would venture that the dubs were growing towards "excellent" territory. There were still dumb jokes, violence edits, etc. but the acting was much more consistent from the get go, and a surprising amount of violence and horror imagery was left in. Indeed, some fans like to joke that Tamers was the season where the Fox censors were asleep at the wheel.

I would therefore argue that Frontier has the best all-around dub of the initial U.S. run. Tamers is still my favorite Digimon series overall, and I will probably review it here at some point, but the dub still has a few lingering issues here and there. Nothing deal-breaking, but occasionally there's a more important screw-up in terms of character or something similar. Both dubs share a number of positive qualities: the actors all hit their stride early, the writing is MUCH more consistent, the voice direction and story editing by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (who also acts in both series) seems more focused, silence is used far more frequently, violence isn't edited down  *quite* as much, and the re-scoring generally "fits" the series better.

There will be MAJOR SPOILERS; if you have not seen the series, I suggest you stop reading now.


TAKUYA KANBARA (Michael Reisz)-Reisz was already something of a Digimon veteran by this point. He portrayed major character Matt in both Adventure and Zero Two, and had a memorably creepy guest turn as IceDevimon early on in Tamers. Takuya is incredibly different from either of those characters, a hyperactive, impulsive yet fiercely loyal and courageous young man who gradually discovers his potential for leadership. Vocally, Reisz goes into his higher registers as Takuya, and is much more energetic in his acting. He can shift this voice to quieter, more reflective volumes and acting moments, especially in the episode where Takuya briefly returns to the human world and reflects on his experiences in the series so far. As Takuya's various Digimon forms (with the exception of EmperorGreymon, who is voiced by Dave Wittenberg), Reisz goes a bit deeper and more "growly" to signify the physical and attitude changes, and he does an  excellent job with those sequences as well, with lots of loud, energized yelling and screaming during battles. Allegedly, he point-blank refused to voice EmperorGreymon because he feared permanent damage to his vocal chords due to said screaming. It's not my favorite performance in the dub by a long shot, but it's still an excellent, funny and dramatic acting job from Reisz.

KOJI MINAMOTO (Steve Staley)-Staley is one of those actors who has a distinct, unmistakable voice that can nevertheless be used to play a wide variety of characters, including the energetic and commanding Shiro Amada in Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team, creepy villains like Kadaj in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children or cold, harsh characters like Neji in Naruto. I tend to like him in roles like Koji the most, where he gets to really develop a character over the course of the series (see also: Christopher in Scrapped Princess, another excellent LA dub). And Koji goes through a number of significant changes. Initially a cold, standoffish "lone wolf", Koji doesn't actually join the main group of kids for several episodes, and Staley's hardened, enigmatic performance reflects this. As he assimilates into the group, Staley gives Koji warmer, more friendly and determined tones, as well as the angst and self-reflection Koji goes through when he discovers his long-lost brother Koichi in the Digital World, and the complications that arise from it. Much like Reisz, he goes deeper and gruffer for Koji's Digimon forms, and doesn't hold back on the fierce yelling and battle screams. It's terrific work overall.

IZUMI "ZOEY" ORIMOTO (Michelle Ruff)-Zoey, the sole girl in the main group, is a character I honestly wasn't very fond of at first, mostly because she seemed like such a stereotypical "girly girl". She's even beaten in her first Digimon battle, which is kind of sad when you think about it. There's nothing wrong with Ruff's performance at this juncture; it's bright, high-pitched and energetic, exactly what the character requires in the early going. Thankfully, Zoey grows into a much better, more capable character over time, and even into a better fighter. Ruff does a great job with this growth, especially once Zoey realizes that she herself needs to change for the better in order to make and keep friends. Unlike most of the boys, Ruff doesn't change her voice much for her Digimon forms; as Kazemon, she keeps roughly the same voice as Zoey, and as Zephyrmon, she only goes a little deeper. Still, it's good work, and indicative of Ruff's passion in the role overall.

TOMOKI "TOMMY" HIMI (Brianne Siddall)-Ah, now we're getting into some of my favorites. Siddall is one of those actresses who seems to specialize in young boys or those types of characters, and she does an excellent job of it in roles like Kenichi in Metropolis (which I have praised before), Calumon in the previous series Digimon Tamers, the robotic owl Circuit in Power Rangers: Time Force or Jim Hawkins in Outlaw Star. More than her skill at getting her voice that high-pitched, I believe Brianne's success in these roles comes from her excellent acting. She is utterly committed to believable acting in any role, male or female, young or old, and this comes through spectacularly in her work as Tommy. The youngest of the group, Tommy goes from being something of a crybaby to a fiercely courageous warrior over the course of the series, and this shift absolutely comes through in Brianne's performance. She even does a great job with Tommy's crybaby phase, making it sympathetic rather than annoying, especially in a brief, heartbreaking little scene where he sees an image of his mother in the human world and cries out to her. As Tommy's Digimon forms, Brianne keeps the same voice as Kumaon, but goes much deeper and growlier for Korikakumon; it's admittedly kind of amusing, but it still works quite well since that form is such a vast physical change for Tommy. It's among my favorite performances in the dub.

JUNPEI "J.P." SHIBAYAMA (Steve Blum)-One of my favorite male voice actors of all time, Blum is one of those actors who can seemingly do anything. He has a distinct, memorable voice by itself, but he can twist that voice to insane levels in terms of both vocal range and acting range. I have heard this man play vastly different characters in the same show, in the same episode, and even in the same scene talking to each other on occasion. He doesn't get quite as much room to move as J.P., the oldest and heaviest kid in this group who seems rather cowardly and food-obsessed when we first meet him. Blum's voice is kind of a mix between his higher and lower ranges here; he sounds believably teenaged, but can still sound quite high-pitched at times. More than that, he is excellent on every acting front for the character, whether it's as comic relief, the pragmatic voice of reason, or the brave, caring young man J.P. eventually becomes. It's not my favorite work from him, but it's definitely worthy to be on his resume.

KOICHI KIMURA (Crispin Freeman)-Jon and I have both praised this guy to the heavens when he's come up in the past on this blog. He's absolutely one of my favorite voice actors ever, and although he doesn't quite have as vast a vocal range as the likes of Steve Blum (in fact, Crispin himself will tell you this), he makes up for that by being one of the most committed, passionate actors I've ever heard. More than a lot of voice actors, Crispin is just as big a geek as the rest of us, to the point where he actually teaches classes on mythology in anime. and has an entire podcast about becoming a better voice actor. He loves it as much as we do, and all of this comes through in his work, especially here. He probably could have slightly coasted for a role like Koichi; it's a kid's show, after all, and Koichi is well within Crispin's wheelhouse. Thankfully, Crispin does not do this, and offers up as much energy and passion for this role as he would for any other. Additionally, Koichi does offer an acting challenge in that he's the hardest role to play since he starts as a villain and ends as a hero. It's a very conflicted character, and Crispin masterfully portrays every shade of the role: his initial cruel, harsh villainy as Duskmon, the fear, anger and doubt as Koichi discovers his true nature, and the repentant, gentle but determined soul he grows into by the end of the series. It is unquestionably my favorite performance in the entire dub.

BOKOMON AND NEEMON (Brian Beacock, Michael Sorich)-Aaaand now we come to both my least favorite characters in both the series and the dub. These two knuckleheads are small Digimon who accompany our heroes on their journey, providing exposition about the Digital World and "comic" relief. Unfortunately, they tend to be more annoying than funny or useful most of the time, although Bokomon does have a few crucial moments aside from being Mr. Exposition. I'll say this for Brian Beacock as Bokomon: it's absolutely the weirdest thing I've ever heard from him. Usually, Beacock plays very young, high-pitched character like Takato in Digimon Tamers or Rivalz in Code Geass. Bokomon, by contrast, sounds stuffy and faux-British, which does fit his personality, and Beacock is rather good on the acting end.

Unfortunately, while I love Michael Sorich, his Neemon is one of the most singularly IRRITATING creations I've ever heard in a dub. It's high-pitched, squeal-filled and sounds like Michael took a few too many lumps to the head that affected his brain. It's not a deal-breaker, but it's definitely the worst thing about the dub. Sorry, Michael, I still love ya.

MERCURYMON/SAKKAKUMON (Daran Norris)-The other "dark" Legendary Warriors the kids face in the series are memorably voiced and acted: Derek Stephen Prince gives Grumblemon/Gigasmon a growly Hulk-esque tone and speech pattern, Peggy O'Neal vamps it up Southern belle-style as Ranamon/Calmaramon, and Richard Cansino does his best Sylvester Stallone impression as Arbormon/Petaldramon. But the best, most memorable performance of that bunch easily belongs to Daran, another one of my favorite voice actors. Much like Crispin or Steve Blum, Daran can function equally well in different types of projects, be they anime, video games or Western animation; he's even married to Mary Elizabeth McGlynn! He brings loads of energy, crack comic timing and passion to every role, and Mercurymon is no exception. Aided by a Shakespearean speech pattern filled with "thee" and "thou" (I assume he spoke in a more formal manner in the Japanese, and this is the English equivalent they chose), Daran gets to be as ridiculously, awesomely hammy as he pleases in the role, complete with faux-British accent. It's especially fun to listen to when he's mocking our heroes; the villain lines are kind of stock phrases, but Daran makes them sound juicy. Behind Crispin and Blum, it's my favorite work in the dub.

CHERUBIMON (Paul St. Peter)-The main villain for the first 2/3rds of the series, Cherubimon is more interesting in hindsight after we learn about his past than in the present. That's not to say he isn't an EFFECTIVE villain, more that he's kind of a "generic doomsday" one who we learn was being played and manipulated by the REAL big bad of the series, who we'll get to shortly. As such, Paul's performance is...well, it's not BAD. It's deep, growling and more than a little reminiscent of roles like Frank Welker's Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget. So it "works", but I've seen and heard Paul do more interesting work elsewhere, particularly in previous Digimon seasons as the likes of the noble badass warrior Leomon or the nebbishy-but-loyal Wormmon (he even has another interesting bit role this season as Koji and Koichi's father). It's good work, but he's done better.

OPHANIMON (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn)-Mary has a really cool, deep voice and she uses that well to different effects here. First as the calm, benevolent leader who guides the kids and then as the more conflicted soul in flashbacks and in the present time when she confronts Cherubimon. It's solid work, though she does even better as the director of the dub.

LUCEMON (Mona Marshall)-Here's a fun performance. Mona doesn't get to do out-and-out villains all too often, so it's a real treat to hear her sink her teeth into this one. Lucemon starts out as a very young-looking character, so Mona basically uses her stock little boy voice to a more sinister effect than usual, and it works well. Then he absorbs his Royal Knights and Digivolves into an older, more powerful form. Mona actually ages up the voice, and the acting job is great too, sneering and ranting. She gets to further stretch the voice into a scratchier, more feral range when the true, worm-like form of Lucemon is revealed. Lucemon's only around for a few episodes, but Mona makes him a force to be reckoned with.

DYNASMON AND CRUSADERMON (Derek Stephen Prince, Melodee Spevack)-The infamous nearly 10-episode Royal Knights arc is easily the worst part of the series, as our heroes get their asses kicked again and again until finally turning the tables. But the Knights themselves are fun villainous personalities brought to life well by the actors. It's not my favorite Derek performance in a Digimon dub (that would be either Ken in Zero Two or Impmon/Beelzemon in Tamers), but he gives Dynasmon a nice boastful, assured arrogance. Spevack brings a more aristocratic, haughty flair, and she gets some nice moments of self-doubt once Lucemon reappears and looks to be in no mood for rewarding them for their service (interesting note: in Japanese, Crusadermon was a flamboyant man, which they could have easily replicated in English, but decided not to for whatever reason).

As with any Digimon series, there are some memorable one-shot and recurring roles. Digimon stalwart Joshua Seth (sadly retired from VA work since around 2006, though he did narrate a "Did You Know?" video about Digimon recently) pops up as a different, nastier version of Wizardmon and Tommy's stern older brother in a flashback. Dave Wittenberg plays ALL the Trailmon quite well, the noble Sorcermon and does a hilarious Christopher Walken impression for his version of IceDevimon. The late Bob Papenbrook makes for a nicely intimidating, manipulative Asuramon. Michael Sorich does double duty several times, most memorably doing an Adam West-esque Pandamon. And several actors like R. Martin Klein, Peter Spellos and Dave Mallow reprise many of their previous roles like Gomamon, Whamon and Angemon respectively. Additionally, for a good chunk of the series, Melissa Fahn (Rika in Tamers, Nene in Fusion) narrates the "Previously On" and "find out next time on Digimon!" segments, though near the end she is replaced due to Fahn's real-life commitment to the Broadway musical Wicked.

All in all, Frontier is a very enjoyable series on its own, and the dub is excellent. I'd recommend the series solely for that. Next time, I'll review my favorite Digimon series, Tamers.