It took me several days to write this review, seeing as how I'd have to admit to zillions of online strangers how much I love a kid's cartoon. I swear I don't usually watch this stuff! It's not my fault! I just can't stand any more reality shows!
All right, down to business. Other reviews have covered the basics so I'll gloss over them quickly. Four kids--Clay, Kimiko, Raimundo and Omi--are brought to a temple in China, to train as warriors and locate magical artifacts. These artifacts were de-powered and hidden all over the world thousands of years ago, but are regaining their magical potency one by one. The young warriors must find them before they fall into the wrong hands. Those hands belong to an evil boy genius, his nagging ghost mentor, and a host of other interesting villains.
The artifacts give powers to whoever is holding them at the time, and I have to applaud the creators coming up with such an assortment of pleasing things. They can let you talk to animals, stretch yourself like chewing gum, summon a whirlwind, blast fire, or fool with the workings of space and time. Most artifacts require skill and discipline to use correctly. Some give you a new ability, but take away one that you already had. Others backfire. A few are too dangerous to be used at all. The characters have to think about using them; they can't just flail them around.
But the show isn't just about finding and mastering weapons--it's also about finding and mastering yourself. And while cartoons that moralize really rub me the wrong way, I approve this time. The characters learn to find the rational way to approach a problem, and even better, consider how their own strengths and weaknesses factor into a situation. A presence of forethought, more than skill or luck, is responsible for the good guys' victories. That's what sets Xiaolin Showdown head-and-shoulders above most other kid's shows.
Speaking of forethought, it has a glorious absence in the monks' adversary Jack Spicer, who is now my new favorite 'villain'. If this show was done live-action, I'd accuse Jack Spicer's actor of stealing the show. A cape-swirling, self-styled "Evil Boy Genius", Spicer builds armies of robots, grins and rants, chickens out, gloats and whines about the pitfalls he encounters on his lonely path to greatness. Brilliant yet foolish, egotistical, star-struck, greedy and impulsive, he is Daffy Duck trying his best to be Ming The Merciless. He's not much of a villain, but a perfect troublemaker and hilarious to watch. He's too haphazard--and a bit too nice--to be the evil genius he wants to be, but when he gets his act together, watch out. He has a little knowledge, and it's dangerous.
But Jack Spicer never stops to think about anything, and this begins and ends with him being chewed out by his ghostly sidekick, Wuya. Wuya is the squidlike, floating spirit of an ancient witch, who has teamed up with Jack Spicer for lack of a better partner. She's the brains of the outfit, but very much hampered by the fact that she's not solid and can't do things for herself. She can't force Spicer to do anything, just yell and egg him on, and she would clearly love to smack some sense into him.
None of the villains can get along with each other when they team up, and they double-cross, back-bite and dump each other constantly. The importance of compassion and teamwork is drawn clearly here--if you can't find a way to work with others, you're not going to get anywhere. And the good guys also do less-than-admirable things to each other, out of jealousy or anger, with similar results. Just *saying* they're 'good' is not good enough; the heroes have to learn to walk their talk.
The series explores the idea that humans are neither totally good nor totally bad, and yes, I know, it's just a simplistic cartoon...but the results are pretty interesting. Certain characters cross the good/evil line in either direction, and query each other or themselves on their true natures, especially after Volume One. This is the main reason WB needs to come out with Volume 2 on DVD. Ahem.
You can probably tell that I think this show goes beyond battles, but the fights are great too. When two people want to claim the same artifact, a Xiaolin Showdown is declared and the combatants fight using whatever artifacts they already have. But that, to me, isn't the interesting part; the battlegrounds are. Declaring a Showdown suspends the laws of reality while it's fought, and everything changes to a surrealistic landscape that never fails to amaze me with it's sense and creativity. These showdowns take place in space, in giant pinball machines, in a forest of impossibly tall trees--even a common haystack gets a fever-dream makeover. I love these sequences and, frankly, always wish that the animation was higher-quality so I could enjoy it even more.
Well, that's enough. It's a really good show with heart, brains, humor, a believable theme, magic shiny things and robots and stuff. Hang on for a good wild ride.