Variety asked bonafide Dungeons & Dragons expert Spencer Crittenden — of “Harmontown” and “HarmonQuest” fame — to watch Amazon Prime Video’s new series “The Legends of Vox Machina” and give his take on the show. Crittenden knows a thing or two about turning his experience as a Dungeon Master into a bit of a career, and that’s exactly what the Critical Role team has done on their popular D&D stream — which has now led to “Vox Machina.” Here’s Crittenden’s review.
It’s hard to explain to the outside observer what Amazon Prime Video’s new animated series “The Legend of Vox Machina” means for the D&D fans of the world. Dungeons and Dragons, the once-reviled and still deeply misunderstood fantasy game, is enjoying unprecedented popularity in our current age of never-ending content and streaming. Thousands of creators have all garnered millions of views on Dungeons and Dragons content, as viewers across the world tuned in to watch. Players would gather to pretend to be fantastical fantasy heroes, battling monsters and evil in made-up worlds under the watchful eye of the Dungeon Master. And at the forefront of this massive upswell of attention and energy is Critical Role, the global phenomenon D&D stream led by DM Matt Mercer and his group of voice actors — who gather regularly to record their games as they play Dungeons and Dragons better than anyone thought possible.
Critical Role is so ever-present in the fandom that it’s even spawned a social anxiety known as “Mercer Syndrome,” wherein sufferers can’t help but compare their efforts to those seen on Critical Role. This level of fervor can carry similarly intense expectations, and as such, the anticipation of Amazon’s new series “The Legend of Vox Machina” has been immense. This adaptation of Critical Role’s previous adventures can practically be considered the standard bearer for Dungeons and Dragons as an intellectual property. Luckily, the series is a blast, it calls its shots and knocks them out of the park as fantasy tropes, touching moments, hilarious bits and action setpieces stack up like treasure in a dungeon.
The first episode starts with “Itchy and Scratchy”-level violence that undercuts its own dramatic set up, pitting archetypical fantasy heroes against an unseen foe, only to see them immediately slaughtered for laughs. The juxtaposition of the self-serious fantasy trappings and comically sudden violence manages to poetically set a tone for what’s to come, a plucky adventure charging fearlessly ahead, occasionally striking the odd notes but invariably sucking you in with its confidence, charm and gorgeous visuals.
We learn of a mysterious threat to a fantasy kingdom, and quickly meet Vox Machina, a team of rough-but-lovable mercenaries starting a fight in a tavern. The art direction is quick and flashy and the “camera” is jittery and jumpy, mimicking a handheld camcorder recording of a quickly escalating bar brawl. This technique is incredible, and the visuals are at their best when we can live in the action and motion and forget the illusion that these are all flat figures animated to simulate depth and dimensionality. We’re given a fun fight that sets up our heroes, their personality, fighting styles, and magical powers. There’s Grog Strongjaw (Travis Willingham), the dumb giant; Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson) the Cleric with her holy magic, Vex (Laura Bailey) and Vax (Liam O’Brien), the half-elf siblings, and the rest of the Vox Machina crew as they come out guns blazing, drunkenly fighting the entire bar. This series is for adults, and some early HBO-esque female nudity reinforces what the comedic violence does not.
The characters are quirky and likable, and the fantasy action of it all is joyous. There’s a hard to translate beauty and spontaneity that arises in D&D — and how can it not, when it comes from intense imagination, commitment to fundamentally ridiculous conceits, and humor. People associate Dungeons and Dragons with weird, dreary nerds wearing robes, but in fact it more closely resembles a weekend poker evening, with all the jokes and nonsense that follows. And while this humor is baked into the visuals and the character dialogue, this unique and hilarious strain of unmistakable D&D is front and center, a perfect translation of the hobby into a serious but very funny show.
The direction is marvelous, kinetic, with a great sense of space and an eye for visual flair. The visual humor is always top notch. And thankfully, “Vox Machina” treats its audience intelligently: there’s no time wasted explaining magic, elves, or barbarian rages. The plot is typical, the kind that you might see in any Dungeons and Dragons game. But unlike a typical D&D home game, the highly anticipated Amazon series strides forward with the narrative momentum of a film. The characters are strong and their banter is charming, but between the big scenes, the action and set pieces, the dramatic tension and comedic levity, between all these epic moments, the narrative connective tissue linking the scenes and pushing the plot can at times feel convenient, like checking boxes on a list.
On some level this may be inevitable. The series is at its core an animated series based on a Dungeons and Dragons game, and although it doesn’t simply feel like a retelling but a unique driving series with deep characters and interesting dynamics, at times these transitions can feel a bit light and rote by comparison to the epic action, wild fun, and cinematic setpieces. But if that’s the cost of adaptation, it’s a cost well paid. “Vox Machina” is unapologetic. It’s at its best when it’s doing its thing and feeling itself, whether that means serious drama, sentimental character work, silly comedy and campy banter, or especially stunning, lovingly rendered fantasy action.
Occasionally, the humor can fall flat, and when it falls flat, it thuds. In particular, the character Grog — a big dumb oaf of a giant — gets a lot of the stinkers, and you really sit in the silence that follows. The first episode feels a bit drawn out, and a few cuts would have still left a tight rollicking fun time. But it’s easy to forget your gripes once the fun picks back up, and the rest of the series lacks the meandering asides of the first episode, and introduces character backstory and threads of intrigue to sink your teeth into.
The beauty of this series is in its brilliant renderings of these astonishing scenarios and dreamlike imagery, the wonderful fantastical improvisation that is Dungeons and Dragons. “Vox Machina” packages the essence of this beautiful hobby into a gripping and engaging cartoon, and does so expertly. It’s not ironic, precious, overly self-aware, or self serious. It’s like so many DnD fans. It seeps heart and earnest love for the hobby, like any nerd. And it’s beautiful.
“The Legend of Vox Machina” launches on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, Jan. 28. The first season will consist of 12 episodes, with three episodes premiering every week.