Do not mess with a Cuphead, ‘nuff said!
What’s the Story?
In the Inkwell Isles, trouble is never far behind where that loveable rascal Cuphead and his long-suffering brother Mugman happen to be. When they come across a carnival in the middle of the forest the two cups decide to ditch their chores and have some fun, not realising that the carnival is a front by the Devil to collect souls! All it takes is one distracted throw and now Cuphead is in debt to Old Scratch, but the Devil isn’t his only problem. Whether its sneaking onto Ribby and Croaks’ party boat, outsmarting dastardly vegetables like the Root Pack or surviving a night in a ghost-filled cemetery it’s just one misadventure after another with these two. Can Cuphead keep hold of his soul? After all, there’s only so many times you can roll the dice before they come up snake eyes.
One of these days I’m going to learn not to put my expectations on a show before I even watch a single episode. Admittedly I’m coming at the Cuphead franchise from a weird direction so let’s get some context in place first. Obviously this series is based on the popular game, which I’ve never played and know very little about. I gave up on gaming a while ago, even though Cuphead sounds like a game I might actually like. I enjoy the aesthetic of the character designs and the clear callbacks to the early days of US animation, but its the songs that I enjoy the most. Or to be more specific it’s the songs about the game that I enjoy. Caleb Hyles has done some terrific covers of Cuphead songs and the Cuphead Rap by JT Music is a favourite of mine, I’d recommend listening to all of them in a heartbeat. However, because those are the sole source of my knowledge about Cuphead I’ve built up this weird image of the franchise in my mind. Now I have no idea how accurate this new Netflix series is to the game, but it certainly doesn’t match the picture I have in my head. It made it hard to get into this series at the start, but even after I did finally get over that discrepancy there’s still some issues that I want to talk about.
Now I don’t want to make it sound like this is a bad show. It’s well animated, there’s a good voice cast and a real sense of nostalgia in the way it calls back to classic cartoons. The animation nerd in me went a little giddy seeing some of the classic reaction shots, music cues and even the way the credits show up in the title cards. For a few seconds each episode I was a kid again, watching endless repeats of cartoons from decades past and loving it. The individual episodes of this series are fun, following Cuphead and Mugman as they go on one misadventure after another with a relatively simple over-arching plot in the background, namely the Devil trying to collect Cuphead’s soul through various schemes. As I said, it’s fun, but therein lies the problem. This series is just fun and nothing more. There’s something missing, some spark, some pizazz that I kept waiting for and yet it never came.
The more I think about it, the more I’m coming to conclusion that this show emulates those classic cartoons a little too well. There’s no real consequences to actions or development of the characters. After each episode, no matter how the previous one ended, Cuphead will still be the same impetuous troublemaker that he was in the last episode and the whole Devil plotline is mainly played for laughs. There’s no threat, no danger, no real reason to care about what’s going to happen. This season ends on a pretty big cliffhanger and, outside of wondering what one character’s deal is, I’d be fine never seeing the conclusion to the story. I still get a kick out of watching classic Bugs Bunny cartoons, but that’s partly nostalgia and partly because I’ve built a connection with Bugs over the decades. I don’t have that same connection with Cuphead and the show never gives me an adequate reason to form one. I think it just expects me to care without putting in the actual effort to make me care.
One last thing I want to talk about is the music, or rather the songs. There are songs throughout this season, but as I sit here writing this I’m struggling to remember even a single one. This is a problem that is hammered home by the fact that I’ve also just recently finished watching ‘The Ghost and Molly McGee’ where each and every song was a toe-tapping hit as far as I’m concerned. I’m still humming the majority of them and, as I pointed out in my earlier paragraph there are already some really good songs about Cuphead out there, so why aren’t the show’s songs up to that same standard at least? It’s another missed opportunity and another way the show fails to make me care.
In the end, I’m sad to say that The Cuphead Show! Is a disappointment. It’s well animated, there’s a good voice cast and some fun stories with a lot of nostalgic flair, but I feel like it’s trading a little too hard on it’s nostalgia. It expects you to care just because this show is tied to a popular game and it’s emulating classic cartoons, but it’s not doing anything truly memorable or ground-breaking. It’s missing that emotional connection to really get me invested in the plight of the titular character, most of the time it doesn’t feel like he has any plight at all. When the Devil hunting you for your soul is treated with the same glib one-liners as a gang of vegetables taking over your garden you know something is amiss. If you’re a fan of classic cartoons or the Cuphead character then this is a fine way to spend a few hours, just don’t expect to remember any of it in a week’s time. That’s all folks.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday or you can follow me on Twitter @ChrisGJoynson.