Inspired by the rubber hose limbs and spooky qualities of early Disney and Fleischer Studios animations, the video game Cuphead caused a stir with its striking art style and punishing run-and-gun gameplay. There aren’t many like it – painstakingly hand-drawn with pencil and paper and animated on some (the full 24 frames per second of drawings, rather than the more common 12), filtered through a design of 80s-style side-scrolling game of uncompromising difficulty. The boss battles proved particularly memorable, conjuring up surreal yet vintage monsters to humble the player. And now, perhaps somewhat inevitably, it has a lively show. The new Netflix series is directed by time team creator Dave Wasson.
As in the game, the story of The Cuphead Show! takes place on the “Inkwell Isles” (the opening song rhymes that it’s “just off the coast”, about 29 miles away). Cuphead (Tru Valentino) and Mugman (Frank T. Todaro) are a pair of precocious brothers living under the tutelage of old Kettle, and it doesn’t take long for them to fall into debt to The Devil (Luke Millington Drake), which means reclaim what is rightfully his: Cuphead’s soul.
After the introduction of this mostly one-sided feud, the series remains a series of mostly disconnected vignettes, centered around issues of the brothers’ own making and any new oddballs (usually, one of the game’s bosses) that they encounter accordingly. Each episode takes about 20 seconds to set up that something is about to go destructively wrong.
It should, hypothetically, be a lot of fun: the two mugs head to a malevolent carnival – a “Carn-EVIL?!”, as Mugman horrifically realizes – or an equally malevolent game show hosted by the Dice King (Wayne Brady , having fun with it). It’s something of a more laid back, wholesome take on Cuphead, without the punishing, uncompromising mechanics of bullet hell and boss fights and more about two New Jersey-sounding idiots (I could be wrong -being here, but please forgive me, I’m English) suspended and trying not to piss off their elderly tutor. It makes sense for an adaptation: with the potentially prohibitive difficulty of video games, it’s a way to access its appeal, without friction.
But instead, the show punishes in a different way: it’s just not funny. the Cuphead Show! makes more sense as an animated show aimed at kids because its jokes require little thought. There are some fun visual tricks like Kettle having a kettle-like skeleton, or musical moments with King Dice’s “Minnie the Moocher” style intro number, or a real standout setting where Devil tries and fails. to paint a fence in a riffer sequence on Fancy. But those moments are isolated, and the rest of his hyperactive episodes seem a bit forgettable otherwise.
There are some surface-level pleasures to be found, even if you have only a passing familiarity with the cartoon era that the series and the original game pay homage to. The upbeat jazz numbers and that specific spring in each character’s step, the elasticity with which their rubber-limbed Mickey Mouse bodies contort and twist in their wild movements is quite amusing for a while. The Inkwell Isles is done with beautiful art direction, its chaos unfolding among charming old-fashioned backdrops of autumnal forests and bizarre spins on speakeasies and art deco architecture.
Perhaps the main element where the series expands on gaming is its influences on more contemporary animation as well as 1930s aesthetics, right down to sound design and some faux film grain. It evokes the tastes of Sponge Bob SquarePants, both in the arrangement of its cast (Cuphead and Mugman could be replaced by SpongeBob and Patrick; The Devil is, functionally, Plankton, with its obsessions and continued failures at the hands of idiots) as well as its flirtations with surrealism and even his use of sound. Composer Ego Plum also worked on this series, the traces of which can be felt in The Cuphead Show!big band and fast-paced jazz. But the more attention is drawn to these connections, the less remarkable The Cuphead Show! seems, a feeling that quickly begins to worsen with each new episode.
During the many wacky shenanigans of its protagonists, The Cuphead Show! sometimes riffs on Looney Tunes-style slapstick – specific body-shaped holes in the walls; at one point, the gaping screams of the brothers reveal tonsils screaming as well. At times like these, the animators do a good job of bringing the game’s visual charms to television, but the writing offers very little opportunity for anything more creative than a handful of these simple sight gags. While fun, it’s not enough to sustain the entire series, especially the one that seems to position itself as a slapstick. The most of The Cuphead ShowThe biggest set pieces come down to a quick song and dance of the game’s bosses, which range from cute to honestly quite forgettable.
As a result, animation feels more like a simple translation between mediums, a retread rather than something that moves with purpose into new territory. The impression builds that, understandably, it’s less for adults who’ve played Cuphead and more for younger kids – beyond capturing younger audiences, there’s no particularly strong case that it presents itself as a TV show rather than the video game that already exists.
The Cuphead Show! is unable to make up for the inherent fact that the game’s interactivity demands your attention, its various non-sequences just passing by with little to remember beyond those fun little visual details. The series apparently settles for being the kind of show where something is considered a joke if it’s said loudly enough. It’s a bit unfair to lament a lack of complexity in the humor of a children’s show, but at the same time, it’s frustrating and unimaginative.
Addressing a younger audience does not necessarily mean simplification. Shows like Cartoon Network very influential adventure time both reveling in changing himself and using his silliness to soften the blow of his most emotionally taxing moments. The Amazing World of Gumball continuously mixed various animation mediums while telling his jokes. Kids can handle jokes with a little more thought. Spongebob childish silliness perfectly balanced with universal humor, with jokes that start out funny and only get funnier with age. The spooky, sometimes dark humor of Over the garden wall – who manages his own delightfully lopsided homage to Fleischer through the Cloud City Welcome Committee – sorely lacking here. For a show that feels indebted to a chilling and subversive era of animation, this first season of The Cuphead Show! is surprisingly safe. Along with the novelty of its appearance, the obvious similarities to other shows quickly start to become a burden.
There’s nothing wrong with The Cuphead Show! done with the times, though by the end of the series its constant treadmill of wacky plans becomes increasingly predictable in how they unfold. It’s a shame to find so little reward in a series that clearly loves this classic era of animation.
It’s hard not to wish it was more elaborate with its sight gags, or in the absence of that, a little deeper into the world of the Inkwell Isles, but The Cuphead Show! finds itself in a strange middle ground, caught between its low-effort comedy and its reverence for 90-year-old animation. There’s nothing else to be found under that veneer, beyond its lukewarm mix of diverse homages. A weak retread of the original game’s aesthetic The Cuphead Show! adds little else and becomes a bit more like everything else, apparently more suitable as a distraction for children while their parents (perhaps) start playing again Cuphead.