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Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 October 2008
ImageOriginally broadcast in 1985, “Robotech” was the unique and popular brainchild of Carl Macek and the company Harmony Gold.  Macek took three recent, unrelated futuristic Japanese animated television serials (“Super Dimension Fortress Macross,” “Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross,” and “Genesis Climber Mospeada”) and by cleverly rewriting the English dubbing, turned them all into a single multi-generational story, all united by the usage of the robotic technology that allows fighters to reconfigure into humanoid-appearing battle robots and creates motorcycles that convert into armored battle suits, etc.  Macek and company took references in “Macross” to “protoculture” (in the original series it referred to the first society of primitive humanoid life, from which all the rest sprung) and redefined it as a futuristic energy source that is sought by various alien cultures, with references weaved into the rest of the series.  While this kind of re-working seems like the recipe for an incoherent mess, somehow it all worked, and the resulting series of 85 episodes made a huge impact, especially because of the ground-breaking nature of its serial storyline, (most U.S. cartoons in those days-- ie: “G.I. Joe,” “Transformers,” “He-Man,” etc.-- all featured one-episode storylines for the most part, with episodes that were fairly interchangeable as far as viewing sequence was concerned.) and for the frequently tragic events that occur.  The combination of colorful animation, well-rounded characters, epic storytelling, an energetic, exciting score (by a bevy of composers, though primarily Ulpio Minucci and Arlon Ober), and cheesy torch songs were extremely influential on a whole generation of youngsters, and laid the groundwork for the US anime explosion that soon followed. 

In the intervening years, multiple attempts have been made to continue the “Robotech” storyline and build a continuing franchise, but all have failed.  Finally, after more than two decades comes “Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles,” a one-off direct-to-video release, meant to be the first in a continuing series of specials.

While Admiral Rick Hunter is busy elsewhere, the majority of his fleet has returned to Earth, where they launch a decisive attack to drive the occupying alien (the Invid) forces away, while at the same time, soldier Scott Bernard (voiced by the original actor Greg Snegoff) and girlfriend Ariel attempt to convince the Invid Regent to depart from her headquarters at Reflex Point, willingly. The Invid depart the Earth, but humanity’s fleet is nearly undone when it is discovered that their new mysterious allies are working against them.  Rick Hunter had created a fresh alliance with the Haydonites, who provided advanced weaponry to help fight the Invid, but it’s discovered, in the nick of time, that the weapons are essentially Trojan horses, designed to destroy the enemy target as well as those who deploy them.  It’s all part of an attempt by the Haydonites to cleanse the universe by destroying all protoculture as well as the civilizations that use it.  While the plans against Hunter’s ships is halted in time, the Haydonites attempt to stop the Earth forces from saving an unsuspected human colony that is in great danger from the corrupted armaments.

Events in “Robotech: The Shadows Chronicles” overlap those in the last couple of episodes of the series, which begins the film by burying the audience under a mountain of ill-remembered continuity, character arcs to recall, and terminology to understand.  The film begins from an ill-chosen start point that will leave most viewers utterly lost in the story events and baffled by references that only die-hard “Robotech” fans would know.  Why the film chooses Scott Bernard as the lead character and central holdover from the series is a bit of a mystery, as he was always the stiffest, and least interesting of the series’ heroes.  Rick Hunter (the series’ most memorable and important character) makes a few brief appearances, but maddeningly, always on a view-screen.  Why the film doesn’t concentrate on him is equally baffling.  Clearly, he’s what a fan audience would want to see, and perhaps a movie that started with his story, featuring the creation of the alliance and the liberation of Earth, this time lead by him, would have been a more involving way to handle the material, and wouldn’t require so much cross-over with the series’ last episodes. 

“The Shadow Chronicles” introduces a few new characters, some that are relatives of original series characters, but they’re a fairly generic bunch.  The producers seem to have forgotten one of the effective things about the original series was that it contrasted civilians and military; here everyone is a soldier of some kind, and it robs the film of some well-needed contrast and humor.  Most of the cast (barring Chase Masterson and Mark Hamill) is made up of the original “Robotech” voice talent, and it’s quite welcome to hear them return to this world again after so many years.

The animation is an awkward combination of cell animation for characters and computer animation for spacecraft and battle sequences.  The two elements do not mesh well, and as a result the battle scenes are alienating (no pun intended) and uninvolving.  The music by Scott Glasgow makes a nod to the original series in its opening theme and by referencing a few of the old torch songs, but it’s a fairly unmemorable score, lacking the type of short, catchy motifs that were the original’s primary strength.  While the original series’ animation was wildly uneven, even lousy at times, the cell animation in “The Shadow Chronicles” is stiff and limited by contemporary standards, with not nearly enough movement or fluidity.

The Blu-ray release is sharp, clean and vividly colored, but the computer animation doesn’t seem as if it was produced in HD, as there’s frequent aliasing and shimmer around the computer-generated spaceships.  Late in the film, a red alarm warning light isn’t handled well, and it’s flashing causes unusual video noise in the imagery.  Whether this is in the original animation or is an encoding artifact is unknown.  The cell animation looks notably better. The audio is presented in an uncompressed Dolby TrueHD track.  It’s an accurate rendition of a somewhat limited mix.  Surround effects are minimal, though there is an exciting moment as the opening credits end where ships arc around from the rear speakers off and around to the front, but the majority of the mix is front-focused with no notable LFE usage, surprisingly, and the effects cry out for a richer, denser sound design.

The disc includes a commentary track with co-director Tommy Yune, writer Ford Riley, and composer Scott Glasgow, which is lively, informative, and should be of particular interest to those curious about the production side of animation.  The commentary is only icing on the cake, as the disc is packed with informative and excellent bonus materials.  The “Birth of a Sequel” featurette runs 45 minutes and is detailed, insightful, and features interviews with all of the primary personnel, including the voice talent.  The inclusion of the promo footage from the aborted “Robotech 3000” will be a welcome inclusion for fans, as it was shown primarily at conventions.  It’s only a few minutes long, and is voiced by actors who should be familiar to “Robotech” fans.  Deleted scenes and outtakes are included with optional commentary and offer an insider’s view at the process of animation editing that’s worthwhile.  While the film itself is a bit of a letdown, the bonus materials are exemplary and make it a solid and satisfying package.

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