- Studio: Marathon
- Network: TF1 (FRA), Teletoon (CAN), Cartoon Network (USA)
- Air Dates: 3 November 2001 - 2014*
- Episodes: 156*
- Creators: Vincent Chalvon-Demersay, David Michel
Ladies and gentlemen, I've teased this review a number of times when I started this blog, but I've never been able to work up the material to finish it. But with the Strawberry Dragon Project's 5-year anniversary looming this month, I figure it would be a suitably symbolic time to get it out of the way. So let's do this: it's time to review Totally Spies!.
Back in the early 2000s, Western culture went through some sort of spy-fiction boom in movies, TV, and video games. I'm not completely sure why; maybe it had something to do with the James Bond franchise returning from hiatus in 1995, and it took a little more time to set in. These stories sought to copy the "exciting" surface elements of latter-day Bond, but threw the important stuff like characterisation to the wayside. This movement gave us options for both grown-up (xXx with Vin Diesel) and younger (Agent Cody Banks with Frankie Muniz) audiences, and few if any were rembered fondly in the long run. Heck, even the Bond Franchise itself ended up feeling like one of those wannabes at some point. If you wanted anything with any depth of characters or plot, you'd have to turn to sleeper hits like the Bourne trilogy (i.e. The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon). Thankfully, it was those very sleeper hits which shaped the direction of Bond itself when it came back from yet another hiatus, in 2006's Casino Royale with Daniel Craig. But for the most part, we had to console ourselves with junk like Totally Spies!.
The titular spies are three high-school girls from Beverly Hills. Their numbers are Sam (EN: Jennifer Hale, FR: Claire Guyot), Clover (EN: Andrea Baker, FR: Fily Keita), and Alex (EN: Katie Leigh / Katie Griffin, FR: Céline Mauge). Sam is the smart straight-man and unofficial leader of the team, Clover is the most boy- and fashion-crazy out of the three, and Alex is the sporty tomboy who occasionally bridges the gaps during Sam and Clover's arguments. The girls' personalities do overlap from time to time, as is common among friends (I assume), but for the most part they never evolve past their archetypes, if not stereotypes. And annoying archetypes, if not stereotypes, at that. Maybe it's just my educated masculine upbringing talking, but the way these girls blow their civilian-life issues so out of proportion makes it harder for me to sympathise with them. Clover especially is the worst in this regard -- I'm pretty sure she even complains about breaking a fingernail at some point. That's what we're dealing with here, peoples.
|The many Clover-vs-Mandy arguments|
are showdowns of annoying versus annoying.
But the "Save the world" part of this "Get up, go to school, save the world" setup is the meat and potatoes of this show. The girls' civilian troubles must, inevitably take a backseat to actual international crises, delivered by their handler Jerry (EN: Jess Harnell / Adrian Truss, FR: Jean-Claude Dunda) and his organisation. Said organisation is saddled with the name of World Organization Of Human Protection, commonly pronounced as WOOHP. *sigh* ...Yeah, apparently this show's writers have a propensity for painful acronyms. If you're hoping for anything of the calibre of "Every Villain Is Lemons (EVIL)" from that one SpongeBob episode, don't. It's even more painfully unfunny then how, EVERY -- SINGLE -- EPISODE, they get summonned into WOOHP headquarters by way of getting sucked into a trap door or some such hidden hole. If you didn't have the right context on hand, you could imagine that WOOHP is in fact a police state that somehow took over the Los Angeles metropolitan area. (By the way, do you think Jerry might be a fan of Excel Saga? This show would be more interesting if our girls took orders from Il Palazzo, I tell you what.)
Furthering the episode-to-episode routine, Jerry follows up just about every mission briefing with a pre-selected array of gadgets; purpose-built devices incorporated into objects which would would look normal on a normal person of their type. And yes, this also gives them opportunities for more painful acronyms, most egregiously with the dive-helmet called the "UPWATI". I warned you there'd be more. First of all, what's the matter, never heard of on-site procurement? Like they made such a big deal out of in Metal Gear Solid? I swear, these gals wouldn't last a minute on Shadow Moses Island. Seriously, I do have some constructive criticism to this setup. My biggest problem is that it's all so contrived. Jerry always picks out the gadgets for them, without any input from the spies themselves, and they all serve a coincidentally specific use in furthering their investigation or escaping from a deathtrap. And yeah, I know James Bond did the same thing too, but he never gave the impression of being helpless without them. Said impression cannot be made of the titular Totally Spies. If I had control over this show, I'd let the girls pick their own gadgets, making them think about the situations that would present themselves ahead. Or is that too dangerously close to character development for this show? Also, can we address the vivid green, red, and yellow catsuits the spies or their superiors thought would be a suitable uniform? I guess I know why they get captured so often, then.
|They may come through in the end, but our girls are generally|
terrible spies, in case those bright catsuits didn't tip you off already.
For the record, I'm still keeping the "Anime Review" tag in the title of this article despite this show not having been conceived in Japan, but rather the French and/or Canadian studio Marathon. Coincidentally, French also uses the word "animé" to refer to animated productions as does Japanese (minus the accent on the 'e'). It's furtherly funny I should mention this, because Totally Spies does rely heavily on the Japanese anime aesthetic for its design and art style. It's "Animesque", if you will. It's a shame they did it so sloppily though, as not only does the animation lack the fluidity of motion and dynamic scene composition I've come to associate with Japanese anime at its best, but animation and continuity errors are fairly common if you look. I'm not normally the type to look out for this sort of thing, but the one scene where Clover and Mandy are arguing with their voices accidentally switched (no seriously, this is a thing that happens) is yet another of those goofs which are beyond even my tolerance. Besides, Marathon forgot the most important lesson they should've taken from Japanese anime, and that is... not to sexualise teenagers. I mean, to have actual character development.
Between the villains, heroes, and side characters, I'm only steps away from giving this show the "Eight Deadly Words": "I don't care what happens to these people". So why do I keep watching it? Because Totally Spies! is a prime example of a guilty pleasure. If nothing else, the spy girls themselves are pretty, and say what you want about them being materialistic fashionistas, at least the animators gave them more than a handful of outfits! Plus, there are occasional shake-ups to the formula, and it is those moments which make for the series' more memorable episodes. But most of the time, it sticks to its formula, to its detriment. There's nothing that shows the girls are evolving in their spycraft over the course of the show. Such may be the curse of the monster-of-the-week format, but that's no excuse for not trying. You could also brush off its shortcomings as the curse of childrens' entertainment, but that's not a good excuse either. I'd consider Kaleido Star to be kid-friendly, and it has some of the best characterisation I've ever seen in a TV show. And whilst on the business of comparing Totally Spies! to other cartoons, let me close by reminding you that when this show came out, it competed with the Disney Channel's girl-power spy-fi show, Kim Possible, which was considerably more genre-savvy, gender-inclusive, and didn't use [verb]ing acronyms for everything. I think that says all you need to know about Totally Spies!: apparently, some of the most telling critiques come not from the work itself, but from the negative space created by other works.
+ The few episodes which shake up the formula shine even brighter for it.
- Little in the way of character development.
- Annoying main and side characters.
- The stories adhere strictly to a formula.
- The animation is barely up to par when it isn't goofing up.
The Call: 50% (D)