When it comes to television in 2016, retro vibes and nostalgia are powerful thing – a trend that’s been gathering steam in recent years, often resulting in that perfect emotional mix that can find an updated property becoming cross-generational. As a member of the Netflix #StreamTeam, I’ve written about the subject at length, with the crew at Netflix leading the charge toward co-viewing and bringing families back together to enjoy the shared experience of something new… but rooted in something old. For the second time this year, I found myself face-to-face with familiar characters from my own youth, first with FULLER HOUSE, and now with something a little closer to my heart… VOLTRON. I’d been invited to DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, California for an early look at VOLTRON: LEGENDARY DEFENDER, and a meeting with the talent and creatives behind the show. It was also a chance to get involved… if only for a moment.
When VOLTRON: LEGENDARY DEFENDER was first announced, I noted that is was one of the sacred properties of my youth, right up there with the likes of STAR WARS, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, G.I. JOE and TRANSFORMERS. I had the action figures and vehicles by Panosh Place (including the sought-after Castle of Lions), and in 1985 I was Voltron for Halloween, setting out in a costume that was largely homemade. In the 30+ years since, like many who grew up in the 1980s, I’ve seen different companies try their hands at doing various Voltron reboots and reimaginings, and frankly, I haven’t liked any of them… until now.
As I took a seat in the screening room at DreamWorks Animation, there was a momentary sense of both excitement and dread about what was about to happen. It was there that our group would get to see the first three episodes of the series (played together as one unedited feature-length premiere), and being there as both a longtime fan and on the Netflix dime, what if I didn’t like it? Not liking something is always awkward when you’re sitting in the same room as the people responsible, but the only other time I’ve really had such a worry was last year with STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS… which I love, but viewed after meeting with everyone involved. Fortunately, those good vibes continued with VOLTRON, and if the entire first season is as good as the first three episodes, fans who grew up on the original will be treated to something that exceeds expectations and finally gives the property the care that it deserves. A big part of that is making something that’s not exactly what came before.
“I had the toys and the super-nostalgic feelings – I played Voltron on the schoolyard,” said Joaquim Dos Santos, who shares showrunning duties with Lauren Montgomery, who notes that she and Joaquim had thrown out hypothetical “What would we do with VOLTRON?” ideas years before landing the gig. “There was very much a thing, though, looking at Voltron through adult eyes, that it was truly a product of its time. It was a localized show [for the U.S.] that was two very different shows [from Japan] that had been edited together, and there was a lot of room to do it justice – to do what we remembered.” Doing what was “remembered” is the key here, as like many of the first generation, remembering VOLTRON: DEFENDER OF THE UNIVERSE as something greater than what it was is an easy thing to do… and there’s a lot of old shows that are like that. LEGENDARY DEFENDER keeps the spirit, but gives audiences a true origin story that, without getting into spoiler territory, does change some things – and it’s totally okay. It’s a new jumping-off point, and it has to be since VOLTRON is back firing on all cylinders, with comics from Lion Forge and new action figures and vehicles from Playmates Toys on the way. Not unlike what Nickelodeon did with the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES back in 2012, VOLTRON: LEGENDARY DEFENDER is a full relaunch of the property, and it has to reach as wide an audience – old-school and new-school – as possible, because the show is what everything else will revolve around.
Click Here to Download Printable VOLTRON Coloring Sheets
Meeting later with Tyler Labine (Hunk – Yellow Lion), Josh Keaton (Shiro – Black Lion), Kimberly Brooks (Princess Allura) and Rhys Darby (Coran), it’s clear that everyone is on the same page with where this iteration falls, with Labine pointing out that while the “mostly visual” things are the same, this is a “whole new universe.”
“They say ‘you can’t go back,’ and that especially rings true with things from your childhood,” adds Darby. “When you go back and look at things, you’re a different person, and I think that’s why this VOLTRON is so good — they haven’t gone back, they’re in the future, but the memory remains intact that it’s what you remembered, without going back and realizing that the original isn’t quite as good.”
I asked the cast if they planned on collecting the new VOLTRON merchandise when it starts hitting the streets, there’s a resounding excitement all around, a level of which is surprising given the fact that most of them have already voiced several characters who’ve been readily available as toys for years. Labine says with a laugh that he will be “expecting new shipments weekly of all VOLTRON toys,” while Keaton (who voices the Black Lion) explains that his desire to collect is completely rooted in childhood. “I only had the Black Lion, so this is time for me to finally have a complete set,” he says.
“I think the new toys they’re making are going to be really cool – I’m definitely collecting,” says Brooks, whose voice is a daily fixture in our home as Dr. Myiesha McStuffins — aka Doc McStuffins’ Mom. She also posits an interesting possibility, adding “I think a VOLTRON video game would be interesting,” after which someone else in the room mentions “Halloween costumes,” and that brings it all back full circle as I mention that “I was VOLTRON for Halloween in 1985,” prompting a request for a picture, which I pulled up on Instagram.
“You were like a cross between KUNG FU PANDA and VOLTRON!” declared Labine as he and Keaton took pictures of my picture.
While VOLTRON: LEGENDARY DEFENDER will be streaming the entire 13-episode first season in its entirety beginning June 10th on Netflix, there is that element of “getting involved” that I mentioned a few moments ago. For a bit of fun, each member of our group got to do a little ADR (automated dialogue replacement) to temporarily lend their voice to Shiro, taking the place of Josh Keaton for just 22-seconds. It was a chance for me to finally deliver the command to “Form VOLTRON!” on-screen, if only for a video to be seen exclusively on the internet. Makes me want to get back into acting...
“Five unsuspecting teenagers, transported from Earth into the middle of a sprawling intergalactic war, become pilots for five robotic lions in the battle to protect the universe from evil. Only through the true power of teamwork can they unite to form the mighty warrior known as Voltron.”