Netflix’s “Castlevania” series has the distinction of being the very first video game adaptation to be just okay. In the past, studios have churned out stuff like the stupid and campy “Super Mario Bros.,” the ear-grating mess “The Legend of Zelda” and the mind-bogglingly stupid product placement that was “Captain N: The Game Master.”
Like those productions, all my knowledge of “Castlevania” comes from the web series, “The Angry Video Game Nerd.” By the time the vampire-hunting series reached us, the series’s glory days were long over and “Lords of Shadow” receded back into whatever dark void from whence it came, dismissed as a “God of War” clone.
Into the light emerged Adi Shankar, famous for making some highly-acclaimed web fan films like “The Punisher: Dirty Laundry” and “Power/Rangers.” In cooperation with Warren Ellis, writer of Transmetropolitan, the two developed the animated series “Castlevania,” pulling its plot and characters from the NES game “Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.”
On paper, the collective nerd resume shared between these two men might look like a recipe for success. But, alas, despite the combined talent, including the likes of established fantasy/sci-fi actors Richard Armitage and James Callis, the show only just manages to distinguish itself from prior crappy video game adaptations by not totally sucking.
The plot, for those of you who didn’t grow up blowing on the insides of your game cartridges, involves Dracula (Graham McTavish) vowing vengeance on the people of Wallachia after his wife Lisa (Emily Swallow) is burned at the stake. One year later, his giant bat-thing minions are romping around, eating babies, killing peasants and just generally having a grand ol’ time.
Enter Trevor Belmont (Armitage), the whip-wielding vampire hunter with amusingly triangular beard hair and a laughably neat scar over his left eye that often looks purple in the right lighting. Besides being a disappointingly standard reluctant hero, Belmont also serves as the primary exposition machine, almost constantly spouting information about his family in order to explain his character motivations. Because screw nuance and mystery, let’s just tell everyone outright who the hell this guy is and why he’s doing stuff.
There’s not even an interesting enough story here to utilize Belmont to any interesting degree. In fact, it’s just as standard and cookie-cutter as he is: a hero who doesn’t care about anyone ends up in town. He meets people. He gives a shit. He defends the town. End. Yay! Although perhaps the show can be given credit to adhering more to Western clichés than fantasy ones.
What could have potentially remedied this uninspired tale was if any of the secondary characters were able to compensate for Belmont’s dull characterization. Alas, no. Belmont does not interact with very many people and when he does, it’s often just to provide more exposition. His exchange with a villainous bishop (Matt Frewer, who seems to be taking a lot of influence from Tony Jay’s performance in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) wrangles little tension, the paramount moment of said conversation amounting the bishop to basically just telling Belmont, “Go away.”
Probably the best part of the show is its ending, and no, not because it’s over. Belmont and the mage Sypha (Alejandra Reynoso) come across a fan-favorite character and fight him in the season’s final boss battle (after only four episodes, unfortunately). The fight between Belmont and said character is enjoyably frenetic, demonstrating their superhuman abilities to their full degrees and revealing the nature of their characters. It’s a much more satisfying conclusion than a prior battle that the entire season was building up to, which comes and goes with an “eh.”
Story aside, what may have been the second-biggest draw for some people was the show being animated. Oftentimes, animation can be the superior medium to deliver a fantasy story, as it forgoes having to build extravagant sets and blow a fortune on CGI.
Here though, the animation is about on par with your average modern anime. People and creatures are all drawn, whereas the backgrounds are all obviously computer generated. But with the characters being consistently on-model and some killer lighting (evoking fellow vampire series “Hellsing Ultimate” at points), it gets the job done, even if every so often, there are a couple small mishaps involving mechanical lips and wonky arms.
Considering it’s tantalizingly short length, “Castlevania” is better off being binged as a film, maybe on a boring summer day, because this is not Netflix’s big new hit by any means. It’s fun at times, but it does not exceed in any particular area to be considered anything other than a light snack. The series itself is also, I think, too old for our age group to cull any personal investment in seeing the famous game series be adapted to television.
Alex Wehrung likes the movie “Super Marios Bros.,” so take his opinion with a grain of salt.