'Mech Cadets' Review: The Accidental Giant-Robot Pilot
Emotionally-engaging action fare aims at young audiences in a new Netflix anime series, but the characters and themes are universally appealing and entertaining for all ages.
Now Streaming: Full disclosure: I've been a giant robot fan ever since I saw Gigantor in 1960s.
Greg Pak, though, is the name that jumped out at me in the opening credits for Mech Cadets, which doubled my interest in the Netflix series, which debuted August 10, and compelled me to sample it. Born in Dallas, Texas, Pak made the lovely anthology film Robot Stories (2003), which I saw at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, then began writing for Marvel Comics in 2004. In the wake of Iron Man (2008), I decided to resume my dormant interest in comic books, and Greg Pak's name jumped out at me on Incredible Hercules comics, which he wrote with Fred Van Lente. I loved the clever writing and smart humor.
I lost track of him entirely when my limited finances put an end to my comic-book reading, so it was only his name that sparked a memory in connection with the series. First published by Boom! Studios in 2017, Mech Cadet Yu was a 12-issue limited series, written by Pak and illustrated by Takeshji Miyazawa.
Netflix announced an animated series in May 2021, to be made with Japanese studio Polygon Pictures (Star Wars: Clone Wars, Love Death and Robots). Greg Pak serves as a consulting producer on the series and wrote one of the episodes.
Set 50 years in the future, the first episode establishes that our teenage hero, Stanford Yu (voiced by Brandon Soo Hoo), works as a janitor at the Sky Corps Military Academy; his mother, Dolly (Ming Na Wen), also works there as a janitor. His father died some years before.
Stanford wears a cap emblazoned with the logo of his late father's automotive garage, and yearns to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot of a Robo Mech -- giant robot alert! -- who occasionally fall to Earth and then bond with a teenage trainee from the Academy. The lifetime bond must be made with someone who is under 16 years of age, so time is running out.
In graduation day testing, trainee Olivia Park (Victoria Grace) scores highest, but two new Robo Mechs instead bond with the second- and third-highest scorers, Maya Sanchez (Anairis Quinones) and Frank Olivetti (Josh Sundquist), who rejoice at their opportunity to help save the planet from an invasion of ferocious, bloodthirsty, bug-like creatures from outer space. Olivia is crushed, but her father, General Park (Daniel Dae Kim), is profoundly disappointed with her.
Stanford tries to disguise himself as a trainer during the graduation day testing, but is found out by Olivia, and summarily dismissed from his job. His co-worker and close friend Ava Patel (Aparna Brielle) seeks to comfort him, but Stanford is despondent.
On his way home in disgrace, Stanford investigates a fiery crash, only to discover that it's a new Robo Mech, who almost immediately bonds with the teenager. Soon, Captain Tanaka (James Yaegashi) shows up to investigate, and, recognizing that the bond between a Robo Mech and a human is forever, invites him to the Academy to train as a pilot.
General Park is not happy about that, but the planet is at war, and needs every bit of help it can get. He accepts Stanford as a trainee pilot, while also unveiling a new Robo Mech that's been built from spare parts, and assigns it to his daughter, Olivia.
What I love about the series, first of all, is that it's marvelously structured, allowing for the wonderfully-diverse characters to develop and grow as their past histories and experiences are revealed, bit by bit. The interaction between the characters also changes as the individuals change and/or are revealed, which makes every episode fresh and exciting to watch.
Though it's primarily an action anime series, the characters breathe and exist outside the battle scenes. Their relationships change, even as each action sequence differs from the next. The dialogue is snappy and clever, leavened at times with humor that feels authentic rather than forced.
The performances, too, are excellent. Ming Na Wen and Daniel Dae Kim are the most recognizable names off the top, and their experience bolsters their weary yet ever determined characters, parents who are intent on protecting their children.
The younger characters likewise are captured with excellent voice performances, by Brandon Soo Hoo, Ashley Grace, Aparna Brielle, Anairis Quinones, and Josh Sundquist ably handling the emotional changes, which sometimes take surprising turns. James Yaegashi is the cherry on top, sounding very much like the ultimate in a loyal and supportive friend.
As well structured as the series is, it makes it very easy to binge. Even better: it builds to a satisfying conclusion at the end of the 10th episode, but leaves room open in a logical season for a second season, which reportedly is on its way next year.
Note: the series is self-rated YA-7 for 'fantasy violence and fear.' [Netflix]