Netflix UK TV review: Skylanders Academy
Ivan Radford | On 31, Oct 2016
Eruptor. Stealth Elf. Jet-Vac. If those names mean anything to you, you’re either a 9-year-old boy or a parent who’s been losing to their child at Skylanders every weekend for several years. Yes, the video game that your kids are playing when they’re not playing Minecraft has come to Netflix, in the form of an animated TV series.
The idea of bringing these fighting characters to life is what underpins the whole Skylanders franchise; the games are designed around the inspiredly evil premise of using collectible plastic figurines to provide the people playable within the game. Buy another and you get someone new to punch things with. Simple. So simple, in fact, that Activision has made over $3 billion to date, with Disney Infinity and Nintendo hopping on the toy-to-life train. Disney dropped out earlier this year, but not due to lack of success – it was reportedly outselling Skylanders – and, sure enough, Activision continues to release new iterations and features for its flagship product, from character part-swapping to a cameo from Crash Bandicoot (remember him?) in its latest outing, Imaginators.
If you’re wearily nodding along with all this, you already have your telly taken over by Skylanders for several hours every weekend. The good news is that you don’t have to be too afraid of this new Netflix series doing the same – as a video game TV show, it’s solid, diverting stuff.
The series follows Spyro the Dragon – credit to Activision: there’s a name we didn’t expect to be saying on a regular basis in 2016 – as he tries to find his place within the titular Academy, learning to be a Skylander. (For the uninitiated, a group of creatures defending the kingdom of Skyland from bad guys.) But, of course, it’s not that easy, because Spyro isn’t a team player. He’s too caught up in his own fame and talent to care about the rest of the gang.
Justin Long is perfectly cast as the dragon, jabbering away about himself with a cocky, fast-paced arrogance. He’s supported by a decent ensemble of vocal talent, including Ashley Tisdale as the knife-wielding, teleporting Stealth Elf and Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks (yes, you read that correctly) as grouchy walking volcano Eruptor.
The focus is on Spyro so much, though, that the others struggle to get much of a look-in – the initial episodes place a heavy emphasis on his ego, the importance of the group working as a team, and their inability to do so. That means lots of laborious lectures from Jet-Vac’s mentor on co-operation and compromise , plus a chance for the show to feature a peacemaking sidekick made up of the various powers of the four leads (hello to Skylanders’ mix-and-match SWAP Force range).
Episode 4 begins to break down the show into adventures placing a particular person in the spotlight, with Stealth Elf asked to deliver a Skylanders version of TED Talk. It’s a promising direction for the programme, although’s it’s perhaps revealing that, apart from the sturbbon Jet-Vac and selfish Spyro, the personalities of each lead generally stems from their physical features rather than any emotional or internal depth. It might sound daft to complain about substance in a computer game tie-in, but that’s the kind of thing that can separate a hollow cash-grab from a bona fide classic – just look at The LEGO Movie and why that was such a success.
There’s a certain whiff of commercialism in the air, with Episode 11 introducing Crash Bandicoot (complete with Australian accent) – a nod to Skylanders’ latest game, Imaginators. But if it lacks The LEGO Movie’s self-aware approach to corporate sponsorship, Skylanders Academy does share its constant barrage of witty one-liners. Those come courtesy of Eric Rogers, whose experience writing for Futurama makes him a neat fit for this colourful animated universe, where he can throw in post-modern gags about theme tunes playing in the background and quips about laughable villain Kaos (Richard Steven Horvitz) having anxiety issues. The smart jokes slot in nicely alongside the well-paced action sequences – a standout battle revolves almost entirely around the cast trying to outdo itself at terrible puns.
The result is a semi-successful attempt to evolve the Skylanders franchise, even if it never quite manages to grow its plastic figures into three-dimensional characters – the difference between watching a computer game cut-scene, which the show’s set pieces sometimes feel like, and watching a TV series. Skylanders Academy may be a shallow spectacle, but it’s a funny one – and for parents faced with a franchise that is likely to continue for years to come, that will come as a welcome relief.
Skylanders Academy Season 1 to 3 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.