When it comes to picking a favourite movie of 2019, I have, as usual, a small pool to work with. I could choose the new Terence Malick movie about Franz Jagerstatter, but it has the problem of my not having actually seen it yet (and likely not having a chance to see it until it rolls out on video some time in 2020). Then there’s Alita: Battle Angel, which does everything I could possibly want from a Hollywood adaptation of Battle Angel aside from tell a coherent and complete story. Avengers: Endgame was better than I thought it would be, but had the misfortune of getting released within a decade of Spider-Verse. The Rise of Skywalker was bad, but historically so – the moment where the Star Wars just kinda breaks down prostrate on the floor, crying, asking, “what the hell do you people want from me?! I’ll do anything, anything you ask!”
Then there’s Steven Universe: The Movie, which is a made for TV movie, but dang it, it’s a 2D animated musical in 2019. In terms of the number of times watched, it wins this year, and anyway is what I want to talk about here, eventually.
One of the things I did this year was to finally catch up on the whole Steven Universe TV show. The bite-sized, ten minute episodes turned out to be perfect for a time when I haven’t had too much of an attention span for pop culture stuff. And jumping in this late in the game means that I haven’t had the chance to learn how maniacal its adult fanbase is yet (hi, Star Wars, My Little Pony and Neon Genesis Evangelion).
I think people have kinda done a bit of a disservice in attempting to sell the show to me. Most of what I heard was about the magical girl anime influences, and how queer it is. Which is all true, but if someone told me that it secretly is also Baby’s First Campbellian Space Opera with musical numbers, they may have been able to get me to watch it sooner.
That the show manages to split the difference between being an episodic, slice-of-life sort of Saturday morning cartoon and one which is committed to more longform storytelling is an achievement which feels unique in western cartoons, or at least I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that’s really similar. A big aspect of this is how the overarching narrative backdrop is something gradually discovered by the audience rather than just dropped down upon them – because the perspective is tied to the naivete of its protagonist. It’s almost like (here’s the expected pretentious literary reference du jour) Gene Wolfe for kids in how it takes an elliptical approach to worldbuilding, and in doing so also mimics how a child gradually comes to a mature understanding of the world they inhabit, though this this kinda overselling the point a little, and the pacing can sometimes move in anticlimactic fits and starts.
But this is also what keeps the show from becoming too ponderous and self-serious in its worldbuilding. So you can have, say, a plot about a civilization of infantalized humans being kept in an alien zoo without things tipping over the edge because we’re always grounded in that basic, mundane perspective (and also the show is just absolutely committed to remaining whimsical and not succumbing to Harry Potter syndrome).
Anyway, the actual premise: Steven Universe is a boy who lives with three aliens (the Crystal Gems, as they’re called): Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl. Steven himself is half-gem on his mother’s side. They fight monsters and stuff as Steven grows up. The gradual unfolding of this situation reveals the much larger Star Wars-ish narrative that Steven fits into. There’s an evil empire, a dark family legacy, the usual works. It’s all been done before, but just not in this particular manner (though, indeed, wasn’t Star Wars’ own particular genius in how it found novel ways of reassembling old pop cultural detritus?)
This is where the LGBT stuff comes into play. Gems are technically sans-gender but present as feminine, and Steven is an unusual case of a male one, and the show’s play with gendered imagery acts as a peg on which it hangs a lot, a lot of metaphors for queerness. It’s a more artistically intentional version of the “feeling different and reading that difference onto a fictional character who seems to model it” dynamic. And it’s extremely endearing to me that it wants to do this in an old-fashioned space opera context, and that it mostly works because it’s just part of the show’s aesthetic fabric.
Now, a lot of what I said about the show’s narrative experiments doesn’t really apply to the movie, which has arrived after the show’s main arc has wrapped up (there’s another season currently airing, but so far it plays more like an extended epilogue than anything else) and after the world has been demystified. It isn’t interested in breaking any new ground, and indeed even comes across a bit like a compressed filler arc: here’s a new villain coming out of nowhere to keep the heroes occupied for a bit before leaving with the status quo intact. Valuable lessons about friendship are learned, etc. A major plot point is even how a lot of the characters become afflicted with a sort of amnesia that forces them to recapitulate their own arcs from the show.
It also just suffers from the usual problem that TV Show: The Movie often suffers from, in that it just doesn’t have enough time to give every character their due and has to juggle a bit to make sure everyone gets their participation trophy.
What makes the movie work is in how it gives a wider canvas for the show’s own formal eclecticism. It clearly exists in the register of being a “kid’s movie” but you don’t often find kid’s movies that would open with an unironic (albeit campy) homage to classic Disney while also featuring shounen anime-esque action scenes, among other things (and how the overlap of these things informs Steven’s status as a sort of “magical boy” protagonist). Or how, for instance, the villain, Spinel, is animated in the early “rubber hose” style, reflecting something of her anarchic character. And while the soundtrack for the show was already all over the place, it could typically only manage a song or two every few episodes. Here you’ve got 30s acapella choruses alongside rock power balladry, lounge music and the like, all unfolding at a rather breathless pace.
So while it doesn’t inform the story of Steven Universe much, the movie is a good demonstration of the show’s protean nature and unwillingness to be easily pinned down. Even if it isn’t a particularly groundbreaking example of 2D animation (this is, again, a made for TV movie), it takes such a celebratory joy in the possibilities of animation that it’s hard not to get swept up in its energy. It feels more earnest than Disney fare these days. And I don’t see anyone else putting out a 2D animated musical at the moment, either.