Directed by: Young Heller, Alicia Chan, Stanley von Medvey
Distributed by: Amazon Studios
Written by Anna Harrison
The mere existence of “The Legend of Vox Machina” reads like something out of a fairytale: once upon a time, a group of self-professed “nerdy-ass voice actors” gathered around to celebrate Liam O’Brien’s birthday by playing Dungeons and Dragons, and the game, led by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, was such a success that the group kept going. On an off chance, professional nerd Felicia Day heard about the campaign and invited the group to livestream their sessions via Geek and Sundry, and so Critical Role was born. Now its own company and on Dungeons and Dragons campaign number three, Critical Role has become a bonafide sensation, but not even their most rabid fans could have predicted the results of a Kickstarter launched in 2019.
Wishing to crowdfund one 22-minute episode titled “Critical Role: The Legend of Vox Machina Animated Special,” the team set a goal of raising $750,000 over 45 days. Within an hour, the campaign had amassed over a million dollars, and a bigger goal began to take form: an entire animated series. In the end, a month-and-a-half later, over $11 million dollars had been raised, Critical Role had smashed Kickstarter records, and Amazon swooped in to grant two seasons of 12 episodes, birthing “The Legend of Vox Machina” as we see it today.
I, like many others, found new hobbies over the pandemic, one of them being Dungeons and Dragons, though admittedly I have not found time to watch all 115 three- to four-hour long episodes of Critical Role’s first campaign, on which “The Legend of Vox Machina” is based, and have only passing knowledge of its events (I have, however, begun to watch campaign three as it airs, since I am a very cool person who does very cool things); luckily, no prior knowledge of the campaign or even of Dungeons and Dragons is required, though inside jokes are littered aplenty within the show—shots of rocks that look like 20-sided dice, Mercer’s likeness appearing in every episode, and running gags about the constant bad luck associated with opening doors.
A strong stomach most definitely is required, however, since “The Legend of Vox Machina” doesn’t shy away from the violence or profanity that so often appears at Dungeons and Dragons tables: we meet our erstwhile heroes drinking themselves into a stupor and getting into bar fights that end with loss of limbs for their unlucky victims, and while the characters’ manners may improve over the course of the series, the violence and foul language remains (as it should). The titular Vox Machina consists of half-elf druid Keyleth (Marisha Ray), socially awkward and unsure of herself; gnome cleric Pike (Ashley Johnson), struggling with her faith; gnome bard Scanlan (Sam Riegel), constantly looking to get laid; goliath barbarian Grog (Travis Willingham), who has far more brawn than brains; human gunslinger Percy (Taliesin Jaffe), silent and murderous; and the half-elf twins, ranger and erstwhile Vex’ahlia (Laura Bailey) and rogue with a heart of gold Vax’ildan (Liam O’Brien). Do the words “druid” or “ranger” mean next to nothing to you? Not a problem! There’s no technical discussion of what class each character is, hit points, armor class, or any of that stuff—you can just sit back and watch Keyleth talk to plants and Vax’ildan throw some psychic daggers, or you can analyze their each and every move and try to line it up with your Player’s Handbook. Whatever floats your boat.
Yet even if no prior knowledge of source material is required, it’s clear that the sheer unwieldiness of the original Critical Role stream—373 hours of gameplay—has hindered the adaptation. Even the mini arc adapted for season one, wherein Vox Machina goes off to reclaim Percy’s ancestral home from the evil machinations of Sylas and Delilah Briarwood (Mercer and Grey Griffin), takes place over the span of 14 episodes and lasts around 35 hours. While good chunks of that time are spent doing menial tasks such as shopping, and though the battles play out much faster in animation than they do when players have to roll multiple dice per turn, that is still a hell of a lot of content. Not to mention that the “Briarwood arc,” as it’s called, only starts in episode 24 of the stream, leaving “The Legend of Vox Machina” to squash its team’s backstory into the first two 22-minute episodes before filling the other ten with the real meat and potatoes.
So it’s even more remarkable that “The Legend of Vox Machina” manages to be coherent at all, and only runs into major pacing issues the first two episodes and the last several moments of the finale. Once we get to the major plotline of the season, it’s mostly smooth sailing: Percy, born Percival de Rollo III (his much longer full name, conceived mostly as a joke, goes unspoken this season), was born to the ruling family of the city of Whitestone, which was brutally massacred in a coup from the Briarwoods, leaving Percy as the sole survivor and dumping him with a boatload of trauma. When Vox Machina spy the Briarwoods at a state function, Percy goes into a tailspin, and the group decides to help him reclaim Whitestone.
What follows, by and large, doesn’t exactly shake up the narrative landscape. There are fantasy tropes aplenty (greedy dragon, horny bard, long-lost heir), but “The Legend of Vox Machina” proves that if you execute the tropes well enough, it doesn’t matter if similar stories have come before—there’s a reason these tropes have stuck around. Animation studio Titmouse creates some impressive visuals, and the voice acting from everyone involved (including guest stars Dominic Monaghan, David Tennant, Stephen Root, and Rory McCann, among others) is top-notch. Jaffe and Ray in particular shine as their characters get the biggest arcs throughout season one—Percy as he struggles with his inner ghosts, and Keyleth as she grapples with her own self-doubt—but the entire cast breathe fresh new life into old characters, and their excitement at the show’s existence is almost palpable. (Ray’s strong performance in particular is a big slap in the face to the very dark underbelly of the Critical Role fandom, which has hurled abuse—often misogynistic—at her for years.)
Sometimes the humor doesn’t quite land in the way it did when the players were all gathered around a table in person and able to detect the traces of irony in each other’s actions, and several beats should have taken longer to breathe before a Marvel-esque quip breaks the tension, yet the highs (mostly) outweigh the lows. The jokes and gore are all well and good, and usually not too gratuitous, but when “The Legend of Vox Machina” gets down to business, it can pack quite the punch. One scene in particular, involving a demonic tussle taking place largely within a character’s own head, is an stunning piece of animation that does no small amount of tugging at the heartstrings; had the show been live action, this scene almost certainly could not have existed—in moments like that, when the storyline, performances, and medium all coalesce with such beauty, it’s hard not to be impressed, Dungeons and Dragons fan or not. “The Legend of Vox Machina” proves a worthy, if imperfect, addition to the slew of recent adult animated fantasy shows like “Castlevania,” “Arcane,” and “Invincible,” and besides, who wouldn’t want to root for a show with so much passion and so many dreams behind it?
(…Is it Thursday yet?)
“The Legend of Vox Machina” Trailer
“The Legend of Vox Machina” is available to stream on Amazon Prime.