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The frivolous follies of ‘The Cuphead Show!’

I can say, with absolute certainty, that there is no currently popular IP that more readily lends itself to an animated adaptation than “Cuphead.” For the uninitiated, “Cuphead” is a run and gun video game from 2017, designed and hand animated in the style of 1920s and ’30s rubber hose cartoons (think Steamboat Mickey and Betty Boop). The passion project from studio MDHR was lauded for its creativity, style, soundtrack and incredibly addictive and transcendently enraging boss fights, and as such, it’s no small wonder that the beloved video game based on cartoons would circle back around and become a cartoon itself. So, here we have “The Cuphead Show!,” 12 irreverent 15 minute episodes released on Netflix on Feb. 18 and executive produced by the Molderhauer brothers who started Studio MDHR in the first place. The virtues of “The Cuphead Show!” are predictably much the same as those of the “Cuphead” game. The animation is sugary stylistic eye candy, channeling the vivid designs and water smooth movement of both the game and the golden age of cartoons it was based on with a love and devotion that wafts out of the screen. Of note is the use of painted backgrounds and the occasional painstakingly crafted miniature, as well as the plethora of references to classic animation that will leave sharp eyed viewers patting themselves on the back. The ear-dazzling classic jazz music soundtrack has also been translated over from the source material, incorporating several boss themes that made me grin with easy recognition. However, where “The Cuphead Show!” falters is in how it accommodates for what can’t be directly lifted from its source material: investment. 

While “Cuphead” the game may have hooked players through its brilliant aesthetics and theming, what made people constantly return and throw themselves into punishing boss fights in an unending cycle of inevitable death and hopeless resurrection, was that the game was really addicting to play. The controls were fun, the difficulty motivated you to not give the game the satisfaction of your surrender, and when, by some biblical miracle, you managed to beat a boss, the resultant dam-break of dopamine you experienced was worth all the years of your life you’d shortened with your frustration. The gameplay is what made the video game exceptional, and that is something the showrunners cannot translate over to “The Cuphead Show!” They can only replace it with writing and humor to replicate that sort of viewer investment and entertainment. 

“The Cuphead Show!” has a premise rather than a story, which is to say it relies on a cooky cast of characters, a unique setting and farcical 15 minute setups to draw audience interest. The set up is about as simple as setups go: the rambunctious Cuphead and the cautious Mugman (voiced by Tru Valentino and Frank Todaro respectively) live in the chaotic cartoon world of Inkwell Isle and get into irreverent misadventures with its many inhabitants, including the Devil himself (Luke Millington-Drake) who seeks to claim their souls for his collection. Simple, two kids, messing about, getting’ found out, hilarity ensues. Except it doesn’t. While “The Cuphead Show!” manages to be sporadically funny, more often than not its style of humor is milquetoast, refraining from clever exchanges, visual gags or electrifying slap stick. I suppose it’s fitting since the golden age cartoons from which the show draws its inspiration weren’t exactly known for their knee slappers, but then again if I wanted to be impressed by animation I would watch those ancient relics, and if I wanted to be wowed by the “Cuphead” IP, I would just play the game. The fact that the show is based off of something I like isn’t enough to justify its existence, it still needs to hold my attention and tell jokes that don’t pass between my ears leaving a trace residue of humor. 

The writing of “The Cuphead Show” comes off as placeholder gags that would be thrown out by the showrunners during the first draft reading, editorial canon fodder. Plenty of “saying something and then the opposite happens” jokes, quirky reactions or tangents where the characters go off on an unfunny bit and then return to the plot, like an involuntary humor spasm. This hollow sloppiness extends to the very structure of the show, where, despite relying entirely on set-ups to mine its direction, often only introduces story set ups halfway through any given 15 minute episode, leaving very little time to escalate things or unleash its arsenal of jokes. That or the episode lingers awkwardly on a story set up for half the run time before the characters decide to go on a misadventure to fix their problems. You can say, “Well, it’s a kids show without a real story! The writing doesn’t have to be that good.” And I would answer, “If a piece of media has words and movement and expects the viewer to be preoccupied by either, then it requires effort in it’s writing.” Spongebob is a kids show without a story and it, well at least it’s first three seasons, are some of the most immortally hysterical and memorably distracting pieces of entertainment of the last 20 years, mostly because of its incredible character and set up focused jokes. In comparison, “The Cuphead Show!” has yet to take full advantage of either its characters or set up, with an inordinate number of episodes involving the interactions of Cuphead and Mugman alone in their cottage or the surrounding woods. Given the source material’s cache of colorful bosses, all with different designs, powers, characters and settings, I’m frankly confused as to why this show doesn’t take full and exploitative advantage of them. They could have ripped the plot of the show straight from the game, having the Devil force our heroes to claim souls for him in order to pay off their own debts, giving each episode a villain of the week feel, as Cuphead and Mugman meet a new interesting boss, in a new interesting setting, and they have to come up with a new and interesting way to win everytime. Some bosses from the game do show up to be the center of episodes, but icons from the game like King Dice (Wayne Brady) and Miss Chalice (Gray Griffin) who were hyped up for their expert voice actors, only make single episode appearances. And while those appearances are the highlights of the show, they shine so brightly that the rest of the series comes off as dimmer in their absence.

I suppose it can be considered unfair to judge a show based on what it isn’t and what you wanted it to be. Critiquing “The Cuphead Show!” on its lonesome, the series is fine. The animation is great, the voice acting is fantastic, and there are plenty of episodes I enjoyed. But the show feels hollow for not capitalizing on the source material’s arsenal of characters, locals and set ups. Without the art style, music and the residual adoration of the game being flecked wetly onto the show, this series would be nothing special. Actually it is nothing special, since everything special about it came from the game. It’s up to “The Cuphead Show!’s” content rather than it’s dressings to make it stand out. Until then it’s good adjacent, a pretty scarecrow waiting for some filling. Netflix ordered 36 episodes and this season was only 11 so it could yet surprise us, but ultimately I left this show lamenting all the time I could have spent playing the game instead.

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