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Reviews: ‘Costume Quest,’ ‘Victor and Valentino,’ ‘Lazor Wulf,’ smart cartoons for young and/or old

Reviews: ‘Costume Quest,’ ‘Victor and Valentino,’ ‘Lazor Wulf,’ smart cartoons for young and/or old
A plant monster pursues half-brothers Vic and Val through the streets of Monte Macabre in Cartoon Network's "Victor and Valentino." (Cartoon Network)

Animation is where the ages meet; the same good cartoons can make kids smarter and keep grown-ups young, and, with so many platforms and networks out to gather as many pairs of eyes as possible, we are living in a cartoon cornucopia. Animation can be about anything, but it is especially good in portraying the impossible, as demonstrated by three good new series — Amazon Prime’s “Costume Quest,” Cartoon Network’s “Victor and Valentino,” which are already in progress, and Adult Swim’s “Lazor Wulf,” premiering Sunday — that mix that quotidian with the uncanny.

Developed by Will McRobb — co-creator of "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" and a master of the suburban epic — and Bryan Caselli, the delightful "Costume Quest" is based on the 2010 video game of the same name, mythology and milieu: kids who transform into heroes, monsters disguised as humans, Halloween.

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Wren (Gabriella Graves) and Reynold (Sloane Letourneau) are siblings; she is bold, he is timid. Everett (Issac Ryan Brown) and Lucy (Allie Urrutia) are the friends that make them four. They live in a town called Auburn Pines, whose economy is based on the mining of nougat — the candy — a fact not incidental to the hidden presence of a race of monsters, the Repugnians, whom nougat turns from unprepossessing to superpowerful. They are led by a Tony Robbins type named Bob (Christopher McDonald), who plans to take over the universe.

Lucy, Everett, Reynold and Wren enter the strange store that will change their lives in Amazon Prime's "Costume Quest."
Lucy, Everett, Reynold and Wren enter the strange store that will change their lives in Amazon Prime's "Costume Quest." (Prime Video)

One almost-Halloween night, the children wander into Norm’s, a Mysterious Junk Store whose proprietor (Fred Tatasciore) lets them into a secret closet out of which they assemble their own costumes — a robot for Everett, a jellyfish for Lucy and a magician for Reynold, while Wren works up her own version of "interdimensional megahero" Abe Lincoln Jr. It will transpire shortly that there is sci-fi magic involved, and that they have the ability to transform into superheroic incarnations of the costumes they wear.

The series starts well and gets better, growing looser and more poetic; when Reynold transforms into his ghost, for example, his shed tears turn into tiny ghosts and fly away. Nominally aimed at the elementary school crowd, it is also the work of animators pleasing themselves, pulling a phrase from Yeats here, nodding to "Peanuts" music there.

The drawing, with a fine-line pen-and-ink look, is packed with detail, the writing is fresh and offbeat, with a fine sense of pop-cultural bemusement. Lines like "Humans have no appreciation for Swedish creature feature movies, not even Swedish humans" and "Since when does disgracing the Gettysburg Address plus explosions equal a movie?" may make little sense to a child, but it is the sort observation that tends to stick in the mind until, years later, it does (A favorite exchange: "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" "Not usually, no.")

The episodes build serially, in the way of live-action shows, toward a revelation. (It is a little too easy to binge-watch; you will have to wait for October for more.) With its child warriors battling a supernatural foe to which the adult world is insensible, it is a sci-fi of a classic sort — "Stranger Things" is a cousin — which even the characters know.

Wren: "Just like in 'The Return of the Alien Podshifters,' four spunky heroes against an entire monster army.”

Everett: "How did that one end?"

Wren: "Everybody died."

The four young heroes of "Costume Quest," in transformed battle mode.
The four young heroes of "Costume Quest," in transformed battle mode. (Prime Video)

Created by Diego Molano, who has worked on "The Powerpuff Girls" (the revival version) and "OK K.O.! Let's Be Heroes," Cartoon Network's "Victor and Valentino" is a supernatural action comedy set in the painted equivalent of Mexican sunshine. It focuses on half-brothers Valentino (Sean-Ryan Petersen), who is large and mostly responsible, and Vic (Molano), who is small, and not very responsible at all, staying with their grandmother Chata (Laura Patalano) in the town of Monte Macabre. (Chata is blind, but super-sensitive; she goes by her “abuela sense.”) As often happens where monsters are involved, it’s the human kids who bring on the trouble, unleashing the chaos they will spend the back half of the episode trying to contain — freeing the trickster Coyote from the folkloric figure that imprisons him, unleashing a giant plant monster, becoming a vessel for a dead soccer star who has no intention of leaving.

More than in most cartoon shows, many generations are represented; and where in "Costume Quest" the kids know what the adults can't understand, in "Victor and Valentino" it's the older folk who are in touch with the hidden world. And they are not marginal to the action. One episode centers on Chata's "quinta quinceañera" — her fifth 15th birthday — and her grandson's misguided desire to be elsewhere. It's a classic "two parties" premise, with magic added.

Whether featuring humans or animals, most cartoons tend to be set against a neutral, Anywhere USA background. "Victor and Valentino" — like Pixar's "Coco" and Jorge Guitierrez' "The Book of Life" and "El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera" — makes a good argument for cultural specificity. (Guitierrez does some voice work here, incidentally.) The mix of Mexican visual motifs and Japanese anime conventions make for something new, yet familiar, and as to the characters, we are some way past Speedy Gonzalez and Baba Looey.

In “Lazor Wulf” the milieu is African American, retro, futuristic and strange. What might be described as a domestic comedy with supernatural elements not distinct from the overall weirdness, it is not for children, albeit mild by Adult Swim standards. (There is bad language, mostly bleeped, and some drugs, but no sex, and less violence than a Bugs Bunny cartoon.)

Cannon Wulf, Stupid Horse, Lazor Wulf and King Yeti, with a plate of mozzarella sticks in the Adult Swim cartoon "Lazor Wulf."
Cannon Wulf, Stupid Horse, Lazor Wulf and King Yeti, with a plate of mozzarella sticks in the Adult Swim cartoon "Lazor Wulf." (Adult Swim)

Adult Swim is being mysterious with details, so, apart from Long Beach rapper Vince Staples in the title role, I can't tell you who plays whom. But the voice cast also includes the rapper DRAM, the wrestler Big E, comedian Quinta Brunson and "Family Matters" star Reginald VelJohnson. I know nothing about the series' creator Henry Bonsu, but Carl Jones ("The Boondocks") and Daniel Weidenfeld ("China, IL") are, with Staples, its executive producers.

Lazor Wulf, literally a wolf with a laser strapped to its back, may embody a literal pun on Lazar Wolf, a character from "Fiddler on the Roof.” Cannon Wulf has a cannon strapped to his, and Blazor Wulf a flame, or maybe a flame thrower, to hers. They do not use these in order to save the day, though sometimes they do use them. There is also a horse, called Stupid Horse, as earnest as he is uncool, and a human named King Yeti. (The wolves and the horse are the only talking animals in the show.) As have so many characters of comedy, they hang out on a couch and at a place that serves food.

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The cast of characters also includes God, a tetchy giant head emerging from the cloud that also forms his beard. In one episode, having been diagnosed with "No chill" by a machine reluctantly operated by Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane (but black, like the Ralph Macchio we will meet in another episode), He turns "all of creation into Mutombo Beach, South Carolina" and puts everyone on holiday. This prompts Lazor Wulf to get a job out of spite: "I'm all for taking a day off but being forced to not work is even worse than working; which I also don't do." It is that kind of show.

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The art is neat, flat and geometric, as if accomplished with the help of a ruler, a compass and a protractor — something like a cross between "Yellow Submarine" and a subway map, as drawn by Seymour Chwast and extruded through a 1980s color palette into the middle-early 21st century. Some of it plays out over a white background, some over patterning. Perspective is not an issue.

The pace is relaxed, but at the same time packed with tension, and with information — it goes fast and slow at the same time, somehow, and watching takes either intense concentration or possibly a complete lack of it. I am not saying you should be stoned, not that it’s any of my business. (It has something of the flavor of an animated "Atlanta," into which the P-Funk Mothership has landed.) To take it all in requires multiple viewings, which it will reward — or perhaps just a brain younger and more porous than mine. Maybe this is for kids, after all.

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‘Costume Quest’

Where: Amazon Prime

When: Any time

Rating: TV-Y7 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 7 with an advisory for fantasy violence)

‘Victor and Valentino’

Where: Cartoon Network

When: 9:30 a.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-Y-FV (suitable for young children with an advisory for fantasy violence)

‘Lazor Wulf’

Where: Cartoon Network (Adult Swim)

When: Midnight, Sunday

Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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