Even though I’ve never watched an episode of Critical Role, I fell deeply in love with The Legend of Vox Machina, the animated series based on the actual play web series. Animation is, after all, my favorite medium, and the fact that hours and hours of gameplay and lore were now presented in an easier-to-jump-into way definitely appealed to me. But with the second season finished, I realized that The Legend of Vox Machina was filling a specific niche that I didn’t even realize I was looking for: It’s an animated and serialized fantasy show about adults, for adults.
The vast majority of animated genre shows in America are still mostly tailored for a younger audience. That is not to say they’re not good; I love The Owl House, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and other shows that fit this bill. They’re amazing shows that tell compelling stories with interesting characters. But they are still primarily focused on young protagonists and coming-of-age arcs, which, while fulfilling, represent an age demographic I’ve grown out of.
Even when factoring in anime that gets popular in America, most fantasy animated shows star teenage protagonists, with the occasional older characters in the background. The content tends to be more mature — there’s more blood and action and darker themes than in Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and other all-ages animated fare. Still, the main characters are teenagers more often than not. It definitely fills the niche of young adult animated content that is severely lacking stateside. I enjoy a bildungsroman as much as the next person who grew up with YA fantasy novels, but at the same time I would also like to watch a show where someone my own age gets to fight dragons and explore dungeons, instead of being some sort of mentor or authority figure.
Unfortunately, animated shows about people my age — at least the ones historically popular in the United States — are typically raunchy half-hour comedies. Yes, they can be enjoyable and entertaining in their own right, but it’s made the medium very limited in terms of genre and audience. The words “adult animation” evoke a very specific image of episodic comedies like Family Guy and South Park. Though we’ve yet to see a full tide of more serialized genre animation tailored toward adults, over the years more and more shows have stepped outside of the bubble.
The Legend of Vox Machina is not the first of these shows, but it is the one that made me realize just how wide the gap between Steven Universe and Rick and Morty is. On its surface, it seems like it could just be another raunchy episodic comedy. The opening scene of the first episode plays up that up, introducing a more traditionally heroic group of adventurers and then immediately killing them off to introduce the titular messy group of mercenaries as they have a drinking contest at a pub, puke their guts out, and then get into an all-out bar brawl. I set my expectations low when watching it, expecting more or less similar episodic comedy but in a fantasy setting. Never have I been happier to be wrong.
The characters in The Legend of Vox Machina swear and drink and make raunchy sex jokes. But they also grapple with insecurities, question their big decisions and life purposes, and come to terms with heavy moments from their past. They’re not coming of age and discovering the hardships of the world. They’re intimately acquainted with them, and yet they find a way forward despite it all. They find family and friendship with one another, in a way that resonates differently because they’ve found each other at a later stage in life.
Also, there’s dragons and demons, dazzling displays of magic and fantastical locations, epic fights and mystical powers. The Legend of Vox Machina follows a group of adult friends in a fantasy setting, and that just resonates a lot with me. I never outgrew my love of fantasy or my love of cartoons. I’ve enjoyed each of those things well into adulthood, but it’s been hard to find something that hits both those marks without having to sanitize itself for younger audiences. But even with more adult content — and the show can get very gory and also very raunchy — The Legend of Vox Machina is notably free of the edgy cynicism so often found in adult animation. At its heart is earnestness and hope that is all too rare.
Fantasy is often about escapism. And as a tired adult, escapism sometimes comes in the form of having a tight-knit group of friends always down to drink ale at the local tavern or tell stories by a campfire. And sometimes it comes in the form of banding together to fight an evil conclave of dragons or accompany you to your ancestral birthplace in order to seek vengeance against the people who murdered your entire family. I’m glad that The Legend of Vox Machina gives me all of that and more.
The Legend of Vox Machina is available to stream on Prime Video.