Miraculous Ladybug (a.k.a. Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir). Directed by Thomas Astruc. Written by Fred Lenoir, Matthieu Choquet, et al. Zagtoon, Method Animation, and Toei Animation, 2015-2016. 26 episodes of 22 minutes (approx. 9.5 hours). Rated TV-Y7.
Available on Netflix.
For over a decade, probably the most successful magical girl title from outside Japan has been the Italian cartoon Winx Club, a dungeon-punkish hot mess that’s like a cross between Harry Potter, Tinkerbell, and Sailor Moon. But within the last few years, France has gotten into the act with at least two strong contenders, LoliRock and Miraculous Ladybug. We’ll discuss the former some other time, but we’ll discuss the latter right now. A French magical girl cartoon rendered in CGI, Miraculous Ladybug is known in some countries (including the U.S.) under the more cumbersome title of Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir.
Being French, this show asks some intriguing questions. For example: how can a magical girl save the world when she refuses to work more than thirty hours a week and immediately surrenders to all her enemies?
Okay, okay, I’m just kidding. Some of my best friends are French. I mean, they used to be my enemies … until they surrendered.
But seriously, folks, Miraculous is a joint project between Toei Animation of Japan and Zagtoon and Method Animation of France. One season exists so far; in the United States, it originally broadcast on Nickelodeon in 2015, but moved to Netflix just this year. A new season is set to begin airing sometime late in 2017, and the creators have promised that this second season will have a more involved storyline. Legend has it that a live-action film is also in the works.
The show was originally conceived as a darker, grimmer, and more anime-esque series aimed at older teens. When that didn’t play well with test audiences, they made it 3D and kiddiefied it, and met success. Proof that darker and edgier doesn’t always mean better.
As the story goes, there are in the world various powerful magical pieces of jewelry known as Miraculous, attached to which are cute, floating, fairy-like creatures called Kwamis, which can combine with a Miraculous’s owner to turn him into an animal-themed superhero.
The most powerful of these Miraculous are the Ladybug and Cat, which contain the powers of creation and destruction, respectively. Unfortunately, the Moth Miraculous has fallen into the hands of an ambitious evildoer who covets these powers, so as the nefarious Hawk Moth, he uses his magical moths, the akuma, to “evilize” people and transform them into supervillains.
To combat this nefarious criminal, a wizened old Chinese master delivers the Ladybug and Cat Miraculous into the hands of two French high school students—because inexperienced and hormone-fueled teenagers are totally the sort of people you want to entrust the fate of the world to. I know I do.
Our heroine is the clumsy and adorkable half-French and half-Chinese high school girl Marinette Dupain-Cheng. Like any good magical girl, she’s scatterbrained, she sleeps late, and she trips over her own feet. As she’s beginning the tenth grade, she discovers in her possession a pair of red earrings that happen to be the Ladybug Miraculous. Totally unconcerned about hepatitis C or anything like that, she puts unfamiliar and possibly dirty pieces of jewelry through holes in her flesh and, whammo, transforms into Ladybug, the spandex-suited righter of wrongs and defender of the innocent, who strikes fear into the hearts of evildoers everywhere with her magical yo-yo.
Yes, I said yo-yo.
Marinette’s superpowers give her the ability to acrobatically zip around Paris like Spider-Man, and in addition to her high-flying, yo-yo-assisted wire-fu, she has a magic power, the “Lucky Charm,” which generates a seemingly random object that always ends up coming in handy during the final battle with the latest baddie of the week. But whenever she uses the Lucky Charm, she has only five minutes to wrap up the fight before she transforms back into a regular schoolgirl.
Her sidekick is the boisterous and leather-clad Cat Noir, who comes armed with a staff that can expand to any length. Cat Noir has the power of “Cataclysm,” which can instantly destroy any object, but, like Ladybug, he transforms back to his regular self within five minutes of using it.
Unbeknownst to Marinette, Cat Noir is the alter ego of her crush, the meek yet gorgeously handsome teen model Adrien Agreste. Having lived his life under the thumb of his stern and controlling widower father, Adrien is usually reserved and shy, but putting on the mask of a superhero allows him to cut loose, so as Cat Noir he’s a wisecracking smart aleck.
Though Marinette is so madly in love with the quiet Adrien that she can’t form a coherent sentence in his presence, she finds Cat Noir’s braggadocio and amorous advances off-putting. Thus, these two form a love quadrangle all by themselves: Marinette is in love with Adrien, but he hardly notices her, and Cat Noir is in love with Ladybug, but she finds him annoying and thinks he’s just playing around. Neither knows the secret identity of the other.
The show has been broadcast in several countries, and each of them has a slightly different episode order, which the spergs at the Miraculous Wiki have helpfully broken down for us. The creators’ intended episode order is uncertain, and going back to the French is no help, as France alone has two different episode orders, neither of which appears to be chronological. Reconstructing the chronology of the show would be an interesting (and involved) fan exercise, which I won’t attempt here; suffice to say, the two-parter “Origins” (episodes 15 and 16 in the U.S.) are definitely first chronologically, and I would recommend that anyone interested watch those first, as they’re the episodes that actually introduce the characters and explain what the hell is going on. “Volpina” (episode 26 in the U.S.) is chronologically last, as it sets up a cliffhanger for the next season.
Aside from that, the correct order doesn’t matter much, because every episode follows the same formula: someone, usually a member of Marinette and Adrien’s high school class, experiences some anger, frustration, or disappointment. These negative emotions leave him vulnerable to one of Hawk Moth’s akuma, so he transforms into a supervillain to seek revenge for whatever wrong he’s experienced, and he also allies with Hawk Moth to steal Ladybug and Cat Noir’s Miraculous.
Marinette and Adrien transform, fight an epic battle across the city, and ultimately win the day with the use of their magic powers. This sets everything back to normal, the villain is restored to his true self, some lesson about playing well with others is imparted, and Ladybug and Cat Noir run off in separate directions to keep their identities secret. The characters and the formula are simple enough that the show is easy to understand even if you don’t watch the two-part pilot first. I suspect the pilot was placed later in the show’s run because, like many origin stories, it starts a little slow.
Although there is a lot of influence from Western superhero titles (the aforementioned Spider-Man being the most obvious), the basic formula is drawn from Japanese magical girl warrior franchises: the characters meet some crisis typical of adolescents, and that crisis takes on physical manifestation as the monster of the week. Then the heroine (and in this case, also the hero) go through an elaborate transformation sequence, after which they physically pummel the manifested problem until they defeat it. When it’s over, the physical threat is vanquished and the original difficulty is simultaneously resolved. It is the standard catharsis through violence.
Although it’s simplistic and fluffy, not to mention girly, Miraculous has a lot of appeal. For starters, it has kick-awesome action sequences. It’s definitely a kid’s show aimed primarily at a female audience, but it features high-speed aerial stunts and wire-fu fights combined with clever camerawork that are among the best I’ve seen in a cartoon. I can say without exaggerating that this is on a level with the late Monty Oum (may he rest in peace). It’s reminiscent of the fluid cinematography in Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies, from which it probably takes a lot of inspiration.
Second, its characters are likable, if not exactly complex. Marinette’s bumbling and stammering are not unusual for a magical girl heroine, but they are competently handled here, and her all-consuming obsession with Adrien, which is outrageous at times, comes across as funny rather than creepy. The writers have also set up a dynamic between the hero and heroine that is both enjoyable and unique. Ladybug and Cat Noir indulge in none of the squabbling we might expect to build romantic tension between such characters. Instead, they work together like a well-oiled (and well-choreographed) machine, with some playful banter but no serious insults. Even her signs of annoyance at his passes are usually accompanied by a long-suffering grin.
Every once in a while, I think the writers may have made Cat Noir too much of a pussy, but for the most part, they do a good job keeping the two protagonists balanced.
Miraculous has several obvious sources of inspiration: a viewer will notice tributes not only to Spider-Man, but also to Sukeban Dekka, RoboCop, The Mummy, magical girls in general, and probably a host of other things. Although it draws from many sources, it accomplishes something unique. I recently chatted briefly with author John C. Wright and recommended this series to him, and was unsurprised to discover that he’d watched it already (the man seems to watch and read everything). He said he’d never seen a relationship quite like Ladybug and Cat Noir’s before, and I agreed that I hadn’t, either. The interplay between these two characters looks so natural that it seems obvious, yet I don’t think anyone else has done anything quite like it. Miraculous is worth watching for that reason alone.
Although Marinette/Ladybug and Adrien/Cat Noir drive the show, they have a good supporting cast. The other members of their class get highlights as the show proceeds. Most notable is Chloé, the mean rich girl (a character type required by law). She’s Marinette’s worst enemy but is, ironically, Ladybug’s number one superfan. Much of the teen melodrama is driven by Chloé’s selfishness.
Although excellent overall, the show suffers a few imperfections, mostly on account of its ambitions overrunning its resources. Usually, the 3D animation is great for a television show, but there are a few episodes in which the graphics get wonky and the characters look as if they’re floating in front the backgrounds, apparently because the animators didn’t have time to complete all the shading. The final (in the U.S.) episode, “Volpina,” is especially bad and takes several animation shortcuts. I suspect the episode rearrangement might have been partly to keep that episode from appearing last in other releases and causing the season to end on a low note. Fortunately, these flaws are rare, though they’re distracting when they happen. The attentive viewer will also catch several instances of recycled animation and might notice that Ladybug and Cat Noir tend to run around repeatedly on the same set of rooftops, but those issues are generally well hidden.
Another minor issue is that (as far as I know) no subtitled French version is available to the English-speaking audience. The English voice cast, however, is top-notch, made up of veteran voice actors. My only minor quibble is that, because this is CGI, the mouth movements are more complex than in typical cel animation, so the writers are often unable to sync the English dialogue with the lip flaps.
Speaking of which, there’s one additional minor issue: it looks as if, for some reason, the animators forgot to animate the characters’ upper lips.
(That was a joke.)
At least to the foreign audience, the setting is also a source of appeal. Although the only version currently available in the U.S. is an English dub, all the written text that appears on screen is in French, and Paris landmarks repeatedly make appearances. The Eiffel Tower is always in the background, and various scenes take place at the Louvre or the Arc de Triomphe. The setting is a sort of clean, sunny, idyllic, children’s TV version of Paris, which is constantly under attack by monsters or supervillains, but suffers none of the problems of real modern cities: there’s no litter, no panhandlers, no pickpockets, no rude French people.
Also, as depicted in Miraculous, Paris seems to be an awfully small, cozy place. Everyone knows everyone else, and everywhere is only a short walk from the Eiffel Tower. And although Hawk Moth has the entire city in which to discover angry or disappointed people he can turn into supervillains, he repeatedly goes after the kids in Marinette’s class.
We can only draw one conclusion from this—her classmates are the biggest bunch of Debbie Downers in the whole of Paris.
Sheesh. Somebody get those kids a teddy bear or a chocolate bar or a Prozac or something.