Legend Of Vox Machina Review: High Fantasy Goes Low Brow In An Entertaining Dungeons & Dragons Epic

There's no prerequisite for enjoying "The Legend of Vox Machina" — though the likelihood of you selecting it on Prime Video streaming would be high if you had dived into its fantasy role-playing source material or crowdfunded its making. But if you have any interest at all in the steady proliferation of western adult animation fantasy that's less on crude shoestring aesthetic and more on baroque — without forgoing the crass and humor signatures of what constitutes the "adult" in adult animation — then "The Legend of Vox Machina" is a must-see.

It Started With D&D

If you're uninitiated and not submerged into the lore since its launch in 2015, "Critical Role" is a weekly Twitch- and Youtube-livestreamed tabletop Dungeons & Dragon roleplaying game featuring a group of prominent voiceover actors. Voice actor Matthew Mercer, who showruns the animated series, runs the campaigns (i.e. storylines) as the Dungeon Master. An eventual crowdfunding quest to adapt the first campaign of Critical Role, with the mainstays reprising their roles, into an animated adaptation culminated in a record-breaking Kickstarter of $11 million. Then, what was intended as an animated special expanded into a series.

The result is "The Legend of Vox Machina," a series set in the fantasy world of Exandria animated by Titmouse ("Venture Bros," "Big Mouth"). It bears an "Avatar: The Last Airbender"-inspired appearance; unsurprising, since it shares services rendered by the South Korea-based Production Reve which also worked on "Avatar: The Legend of Korra" and other productions like "Voltron" bearing the "Avatar"-ish style. Unlike both of those, "Vox Machina" is not for kiddie viewing, although it can bank on adults who grew up with the "Avatar"-verse.

Our Not-So-Merry Mercenaries and More

More quippy Guardians of the Galaxy than dignified Fellowship of the Ring, the eponymous "Vox Machina" are sleeved with a charismatic cast who are comfortable in the animated skins of the players they embodied over the tabletop and the 20-sided dice. They are a septet of mercenaries: the cleric gnome Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson), the barbarian Grog Strongjaw (Travis Willingham), the half-elf Keyleth (Marisha Ray), the bard gnome Scanlan Shorthalt (Sam Riegel), human gunslinger Percival "Percy" Fredrickstein von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III (Taliesin Jaffe), and half-elf twins Vex (Laura Bailey) and Vax (Liam O' Brien). Make it an octet if you count their steed, a fuzzy bear that royal guards would throw their spears down to pet.

Uncouth, debt-ridden, with kegs of beers in bellies, and one drunken brawl away from a bartender berating them, the not-so-merry pals pursue a creature-hunting gig with the kingdom. The job vacancy was conveniently caused by an anonymous band of heroes unceremoniously and comically killed off in the opening. The septet's competency is in doubt, but one song pitch strummed by Scanlan is nearly enough to be handed the gig where their morals are put to the test. Later, they must outwit the sinister Briarwoods, the aristocratic vampire pair (Mercer and Grey Griffin have fun chemistry) lording over a stolen kingdom where rebels await in the alleyways and basements waiting for the right time to strike.

The players who display the most vulnerability invite the easiest connections. Johnson has put solid work into the youthful side-eying and vulnerability of Tulip Olsen in "Infinity Train." Now as the cleric Pike, whose healing hands function in conjunction with her confidence, she displays a demure compunction. Likewise, Ray as the nature-powered Keyleth gives us a charmingly vocal worry-wart, with the demeanor of an insecure college dropout frightened of disappointing herself and others again. Riegel and Willingham are respectively funny as Scanlan, whose dance moves and tunes seem inspired by the sex appeal of Prince, and the blunt and not-so-bright Grog. Bailey and O'Brien have sibling rapport as the elven twins. It's especially fun to watch Vex flirt with men, adversaries included. As for Jaffe, he nails down indignant eye-rolling for Percy. The less said about the dark place Percy is veering into, the better. 

Well-known names like David Tennant, Tony Hale, Stephanie Beatriz, Gina Torres, Stephen Root, and Mason Park Alexander have roles, from fleeting to supporting. But their roles are not as distinctive or prominent as the one bestowed to Sunil Malhotra, a hoot as Gilmore, the shopkeeper of curios, magical ammo, erotic literature, who has a mutual flirtation with Vax with a suggested — suggestive — history worthy of legions of fanfic.

The Tale

Ask me, "What makes 'Vox Machina' a special adult animated fantasy?" The romp earns credit for dancing further on the spectrum of silly panache compared to more humor-dabbled dark adventure fantasies like "Dota" or "Castlevania." One hijink involves them failing to unlock a door with magic before resorting to the practical solution of picking it with a sandwich toothpick.

Mostly, the cast are firing on all cylinders when it comes to entertainment value, and I suspect this would please fans of the Critical Role enough. At times, it "Vox Machina" is too eager to flaunt its for-adults cred, spewing cuss words that were more natural in "Castlevania," and racy titillating comedy. Although Titmouse is serviceable, its fluidity and flashiness are still in the developing stages.

While it sticks to the recognizable fantasy templates of warlocks, gnomes, elves, and dragons, "Vox Machina" does not quite achieve immediate emotional immersion for its world-building. Even recent animated releases from their launches — "Arcane," "Masters of the Universe: Revelations," "Invincible" — were rife with arresting imagery, memorable sequences, and mythic idiosyncrasies. "The Legend of Vox Machina" isn't exceptional but it is crafted out of comprehensible combat, a quippy script, and delicately disquieting scenes where the septet contemplates mortal carnage. There is room to grow more attached as the arc rolls on toward its announced season 2. Right now, sticking around is just fine. Incidents where the misfits drink to themselves to death, subject upper-crust gala-attendees to their crass shenanigans, or trade campfire stories of ugly exploits is where we attach to them the most. Heck, you probably wouldn't mind watching them drunkenly play "Dungeons & Dragons."

The six first episodes were screened for this review. Prime Video will release "Vox Machina" three episodes per week starting on January 28, 2022.