Summer Pilot Review: Wander Over Yonder

Photo courtesy of Disney Channel.

Photo courtesy of Disney Channel.

The Disney Channel has become the favorite punching bag of people looking to snark about modern pop culture. Michael Coe put it best when describing his attitude at the start of his excellent two-part series on the media entity:

“I was turning to the Disney Channel in a mindset that I’m sure many of my peers share when flipping to the station, one of irony and intellectual superiority. I had watched the Disney Channel before with friends specifically to ogle witheringly at the quality of these shows. We deemed Disney Channel shows to be absurdly puerile garbage, but the kind of puerile garbage that was so impossibly sincere in its artlessness that it provided the special kind of titillation one gets with watching B-movies and ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ films like The Room.”

But beneath the changing slate of tween-sitcoms starring pop idol sensations, Disney has, slowly but surely, developed a number of great animated shows. First came Phineas and Ferb, a zany comedy featuring whacked-out inventions, musical numbers, and a crime- fighting platypus. Then came Gravity Falls, a mystery series about a secret-filled town stocked with bizarre personalities and enigmatic events – Twin Peaks for tots. And now there is Wander Over Yonder, a new show from Craig McCracken (creator of The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends) coming this fall.

Wander, a free spirited, absent-minded vagabond of ambiguous species, travels the universe armed only with his bright green hat of holding (capable of storing cameras, picnic baskets and various other sundries), his trusty horse-like alien Sylvia, and his endless good cheer. Opposing him – in the loosest sense of the word, as Wander happily considers him a good friend – is Lord Hater, a Skeletor-like villain with monstrous strength, laser-zapping hands and an army of one-eyed minions. Lord Hater is (of course) determined to conquer the universe – and would get away with it too if it weren’t for that meddling Wander getting in the way with his friendly overtures and overall niceness.

Wander’s first episode, “The Picnic”, neatly sets up Wander and Lord Hater’s dynamic, as well as the overall tone of the show. On a distant planet Lord Hater and his rival Emperor Awesome battle over an ancient pyramid, hoping to claim it in time for a celestial alignment. This alignment will release the entity that dwells within the pyramid – an entity so powerful it can grant any wish to the person standing before it, even the wish to rule the universe. Unfortunately for Lord Hater, Wander has arrived to watch the celestial alignment as well, and insists on inviting him over for a picnic.

Names like “Lord Hater” and “Emperor Awesome” sum up the show’s humor – over-the-top goofiness combined with sly, self-aware moments. The show’s physical gags and sight humor build up over the episode, starting with Lord Haters exaggerated expressions of annoyance at Wander, continuing with the increasingly out-of-control battle, and climaxing in a brilliant planet-destroying finale. The episode also contains more subdued moments of humor as well, coming mainly from Hater’s right-hand man Commander Peepers. Peepers’ devotion to Lord Hater is only matched by frustration with his boss’s attempts to destroy Wander, venting his anger through increasingly sarcastic remarks – one in particular, said at the very end, had such perfect timing and deadpan delivery I laughed out loud.

As one would expect from the creator of Powerpuff and Fosters, Wander’s animation is top-notch. Taking advantage of the show’s interplanetary setting, the backgrounds are detailed and rich, featuring planets and a valley done in lush shades of blue, green and purple (and if the show’s universe-trotting intro is anything to go by, there’s plenty more were that came from). The characters likewise demonstrate McCracken and his teams’ talent. While Sylvia and Wander, with their big eyes, simple colors and round shapes, are cute and cuddly enough, Emperor Awesome – a giant man- shark with a taste for bling – and his bro-fist headed warriors are the clear winners for most memorable and fun design. One can practically hear the animators giggling as they come up with increasingly ludicrous yet epic weapons for the would-be dictator to whip out.

The biggest problem, sadly enough, comes from the title character. The episode’s main humor derives from Wander’s inability to realize he’s landed in the middle of a war between two violent galactic overlords, and at first McBrayer’s Southern charm makes Wander appear adorably naïve. But as the story continues, Wander’s obliviousness becomes increasingly contrived, especially when he pulls stunts like walking straight into the battlefield and offering sandwiches to the fighting soldiers. Not helping matters is the fact that the same gag (Lord Hater tries to focus on the battle, Wander distracts him, Lord Hater screws up as a result) is repeated over and over again, stretching out the short run time. By the end, viewers with less patience for such schtick may find themselves rooting for Lord Hater to zap Wander out of existence.

Despite this shaky start, Wander’s pedigree, look, and sense of humor do suggest the show has great potential for improvement and I look forward to seeing how the show develops. With its bright colors, wacky humor and short running time, Wander no doubt shoots for a younger target audience than twenty-somethings like you and I, but if you’re looking for a sweet, fluffy, break between your marathons of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, take some time to Wander Over Yonder.

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