Arcane Spoiler Review: Netflix Spins A Visually Stunning Animated Epic Out Of A League Of Legends Adaptation

The video game origins of "Arcane: League of Legends," the latest lauded CGI-animated Netflix project, is less significant than its painstakingly complex textures. On the heels of the successful "Castlevania" anime-inspired 2D adaptation is "Arcane," a three-act tale adapted from the "League of Legends" multiplayer online battle arena video game by Riot Games. That the series created by Christian Linke and Alex Yee purportedly serves as a prequel to the video game is not the point nor should it be an obstacle to newcomers to the "League of Legends" universe. 

Spanning nine episodes and three acts, "Arcane" weaponized a release of three episodes per week rather than a straight binge-through to keep its viewers on the edge. Each episode yields a rare 40-minute format for an animated series, joining "Invincible" as the few exceptions. But the length of generous breathing space is the least unique quality of "Arcane."

Spoilers follow for season 1 of "Arcane: League of Legends."

The Haves and the Have-Nots

Act 1 of "Arcane" gets the ball rolling by introducing the two opposing worlds of the haves and have-nots: the regal Progress-minded Piltover of richly-dressed and fed Topsiders, and the impoverished Zaun. It's clear from the get-go that Piltover's idea of "progress," fueled with steampunk tech, is reserved for Topsiders and their trade routes while the poor of Zaun are left to fend themselves in diseased and violent-ridden slums of the Underbelly. They're particularly victimized by the dealings of drug lord Silco (Jason Spisak), who is lacing their streets with the purple strength-enhancing drug Shimmer. Act 1 sets the dreary mood by opening on Zaunite plight, of two orphaned sisters Vi (Hailee Steinfeld, swagger and strength) and Powder/later Jinx (Ella Purnell voices her adult form with maniacal prowess) wandering through the haze of an apocalyptic hellscape.

Time passes as they reside in Underbelly of Zaun. The two sisters bungle a heist in Piltover that kicks the plot in motion when they get their hands on unstable magical gemstones. When Powder intervenes in a rescue mission, she and Vi are severed emotionally, then literally. The emotionally damaged Powder finds herself in the paternal arms of Silco, whose miraculous burst of empathy for her plight inspires the ruthless killer toadopt her as a daughter. Years later, Powder now goes by Jinx. She tries to please her new adopted father by she recklessly stealing the refined Hextech Gemstone in Piltover, spurring the conflict between the two cities and painting a target on her back. Jinx's theft threatens the interests of Piltover aristocratic-ran council, who have their own entanglements.

A Tale of Two Separated Sisters

Though it takes a bit of getting there in a drawn-out Act 1, once the cast intermingle or sever bonds they become compelling cogs in the several moving parts of its lore. The tale of two separated sisters, the elder Vi and the younger and less emotionally stable Jinx, are easily the emotional crux of the show.

Although a ruthless boss frustrated by Jinx's antics (his act of empathy to adopt the fractured girl shocks his goons), Silco expressing his soft spot for her is the only thing in this world that nourishes and validate her. The chaotic wild card that is Jinx is easily a fan-favorite, with a knack for blathering her insecurities and her rationalities to herself and her distorted headspace an animated playground for storyboarders to flex their imagination. Jinx's brain wars with itself, as Sméagol and Gollum do in "Lord of the Rings," visages of her friends and devil faces scribbled on her adversaries.

Vastly more privileged than the two sisters who ransacked his lab in the first episode, Jayce (Kevin Alejandro) is a poor Piltover noble whose technological advancements persuade Piltover to fuel innovation with magic, thus lifting the taboo on magic. He is partnered with fellow genius Viktor (Harry Lloyd), a sickly inventor hailing from the Underside of Zaun. Their Hextech grows profitable to Topsiders — leaving out the downtrodden to bask in the fruits of technology. Groomed by the ambitious councilwoman Mel Medarda (Toks Olagundoye), Jayce is ascended to the council table and situated in a position of power he isn't ready to reckon with. Although Jayce has a good heart, there's satisfactory entertainment in watching him navigate unscrupulous politics and reckon with his naiveté. Jayce's key turning point is bringing the centuries-old and well-intended Heimerdinger (Mick Wingert), the fuzzy fellow of what's called the Yordle species and the head Piltover council, out of disagreement.

As Jayce learns to exercise newfound power prematurely handed to him, his noble friend Caitlyn (Katie Leung), an ambitious young Enforcer (the series equivalent of a cop), frees Vi from prison to investigate the theft of the Hextech Gemstone. Her hope is to make a name for herself beyond nepotism but instead she gets a lesson about the negligence and corruption of Piltover's authority. Once she is paired with the swaggering streetsmart Vi, the conflict and chemistry, with romantic overtones of wistful glances and Vi's flirtatious talk, start to boil between them.

The roster of characters aren't just compelling because each and every one of them have perspectives and practicalities shaped by their class and personal experiences but you can place a combination of them together and watch them connect (or not), challenge, and scoff at each other.

Stellar Animation (Especially Those Fights)

Freeze any frame of a sprawling city of blimps, the saucer-eyes of a child, the clink of two wine chalices, a cigarette tray emblazoned with childish art, the squiggles within a character's insane headspace where her deceased loved ones hover over her shoulders as shapely specters, and you might peg them as gorgeous, undiluted concept art. But that's the quality of nearly every frame in "Arcane," with Pascal Charrue and Arnaud Delord credited as directors.

Animated by Riot and the Paris-based Fortiche Production, "Arcane" achieves a feat for CGI animation in a made-for-streaming series. Too often, recent TV CGI productions aim toward uncanny valley but wind up with stoic puppets with limited emotional range. This results in final products where rich background scenery, stellar voice actors, and even good writing might be lost in its inferior character models, under-rendering its players against the brighter details. But "Arcane" characters are the brushstrokes in its grand and generous canvas, that still allows for intense emotional close-ups — look at the snot and tears when Powder throws a tantrum. The animation pulls back at realistic uncanny valley by opting for the painterly aesthetics that appear airbrushed into existence. Teardrops from a little girl's eyes, flowing rivers, the purple bubbles within a drug serum, the smoky hisses of a steampunk gauntlet, flying dust from a punching bags, fires jutting from hearths, weaponry, and bombs are hand-drawn for textural dimensions. The gloss-over visage of "Arcane" characters may remind viewers of the kid-friendlier "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" and "The Mitchells vs Machines," except splotchier and bruisier, with glowing veins and an abundance of scars.

There's a thrilling sequence where Jinx, known as Powder then, attempts to pull the cruelly subverted "child is last-minute savior" trope when her interventions worsen matters. The detonation of her improvised bomb is rewinded at multiple angles to reveal various perspectives. It ensures no information, devastation, and confusion is lost on the audience, like witnessing fate playing pranks on souls from all sides of a war.

"Arcane" explodes in the most sumptuous ways — with smatterings of visionary mischief — in the middle of brutality. Watch the square-off between the corrupted Jinx and her Zaunite childhood friend Ekko (Reed Shannon), leader of the Firelight faction. Just before they launch attacks, Ekko swings down a pocket watch and its pendulum dance stirs the viewer into a trance as the swinging string swishes away the sight of Jinx to reveal the image of a former Powder, then the sequence suddenly dives into dreamy childhood memory of their paintball fight, before it cuts back to the dreariness of grown former friends who have outgrown and forgone their era of innocence and their survival depends on killing their former playmate.

Even when surviving a fight, no one walks away without wounds. Punches leave a blows, blood, and broken bones. Rated TV-14 and slotted in Netflix's Adult Animation category, the bloody "Arcane" is not for kiddies and imbued with a punkish vibe. The juvenile feel of the characters come off as a throwback to kid-friendlier western cartoons where the adolescent angst is ever-present but less edgy. "Arcane" is the realm where children and their adult loved ones die gruesomely onscreen. (The Y7-friendly "Maya and the Three," another ambitious CGI production on Netflix, conveniently got away with copious death because the dead get an afterlife.)

How It Earns That Explosive Finale

"Arcane" has done plenty to earn its explosive finale. The intermingling and prodding at personal interests zip into epic crossfires. Councilwoman Mel's fraught reunion with her warmongering mother Ambessa (Ellen Thomas), who has her designs on the evolving Piltover Hextech created by Jayce and Viktor, forebodes war and suggest drastic take-no-prisoners measures on the horizon.

Having accidentally killed her father figure Silco in a fit of rage, Jinx accepts she's no longer Powder, much to Vi's grief. She loads the stolen Hextech Gemstone into her makeshift rocket and releases it across the night sky. The series ends on the cliffhangers of cliffhangers: Jinx's rocket jettisoning like a comet across the night sky and blood moon on the verge of striking the Piltover council tower. Very rarely do cut-to-black cliffhangers seek to end on a poetic image as blatant as the shock: namely, of a fractured glass barrier just before the penetration.

Dark times are coming. The wounded Caitlyn and Vi can only gaze in horror from the distance as Jayce, Mel, Viktor, Caitlyn's mother, and the other Council members are compromised just as the table was unanimously voting on peace and independence for Zaun. We also glimpse the Firelight hide-out where the exiled Heimerdinger and Ekko are engaged in communion. The serenity contained in one secluded part reminds us that a sanctuary of solace and possibility are fragile.

"Arcane" is now streaming on Netflix.