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Netflix's 'The Cuphead Show!' review: A perfectly cute waste of a video game

"The Cuphead Show!" isn't for "Cuphead" fans.
By Alison Foreman  on 
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Cuphead and Mugman sitting atop a rocket in Netflix's 'The Cuphead Show!'
Voice actors Tru Valentino and Frank Todaro bring the formerly silent Cuphead and Mugman to life. Credit: Netflix

It's hard to tell if the glass is half-full or half-empty when it comes to The Cuphead Show!.

On the one hand, Netflix's new animated series shamelessly wastes its video game inspiration — shoehorning iconic characters Cuphead and Mugman into a bland universe that could've been occupied by anyone or anything.

On the other hand, the predictable program is so unimpeachably "fine" that seriously objecting to it feels like an equally silly misuse of energy. So what if some kid doesn't get why this cartoon is sort of a bummer? Let them live.

Created by brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, The Cuphead Show! kicks off its multi-season Netflix order with 12 episodes, less than 16 minutes each. Voice actors Tru Valentino and Frank Todaro bring the formerly silent Cuphead and Mugman to life as cheeky brats with New Jersey accents. They're joined by Joe Hanna as a whacky Elder Kettle; Grey Griffin as the bubbly Ms. Chalice; Clancy Brown as a grumpy Porkrind; Wayne Brady as the smooth-talking King Dice; and Luke Millington-Drake as a pitch-perfect Devil.

The Devil, voiced by Luke Millington-Drake, as seen in 'The Cuphead Show!' surrounded by the cartoon cast.
Luke Millington-Drake plays a pitch-perfect Devil. Credit: Netflix

This confusing cast of characters, comprised of as many talking animals as sentient objects, feels especially unjustified in a televised storyline. Sure, the video game doesn't explain their connections especially well either. But Cuphead, also known as Cuphead: Don't Deal with the Devil, has a lot more going for it.

The 2017 run-and-gun game features a meticulously crafted visual style — comprised of hand-drawn animation cells harkening back to the original Looney Tunes. In the game, players are tasked with collecting soul contracts for the Devil. This comes after a prologue explaining that Cuphead bet his soul at the casino and now has to earn it back. Think a "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" comeuppance kind of thing.

Level by level, Cuphead competitors descend into a rigorous rough-and-tumble requiring countless repeat attempts and the well of endless patience needed to beat bosses. You don't get the soul contracts until you've bested your foes, meaning players can't progress the game's stunning animation without meeting the Devil's many challenges. That keeps the world compelling, and Cuphead's steep learning curve makes it ever-menacing. You're always all-in on the story, even when Cuphead and Mugman are too busy battling to commiserate.

Cuphead, voiced by True Valentino, and King Dice, voiced by Wayne Brady, in 'The Cuphead Show!'
Wayne Brady voices King Dice in "The Cuphead Show!" Credit: Netflix

On Netflix, no such tension-preserving presence exists. Here, Cuphead characters are mainly connected by a not-quite-catchy-enough theme song telling us they live in a location called The Inkwell Isles, which boasts the vague description of a place "where there's good and there's bad and then there's in-between." (So...most places?) What's worse, despite the tune's promise of big conflicts between good and evil, the series ultimately aches for adventure-inspiring material and chooses strangely mundane subjects to satisfy that need.

In episode 1, Cuphead gets tricked into losing his soul at the carnival, which steers Season 1's only overarching storyline. To fill the rest of the runtime, Cuphead and Mugman participate in a collection of ill-fitting miscellaneous adventures, such as raising a baby, stealing some ice cream, and pissing off a gaggle of ghosts. These side quests offer enough enjoyable moments. (Episode 4 "Handle with Care," in which Mugman loses his handle, is a notable standout.) But for the most part, they feel remarkably juvenile in a show ostensibly starring Satan.

Ultimately, The Cuphead Show! makes the same mistake as other misguided Netflix adaptations: it fails to grasp what made the thing that prompted its very existence good (see Cowboy Bebop.) For this particular series, that doesn't mean game over. It'll have a decent shot at finding a home with kids who enjoy The Cuphead Show! for what it is — a limitedly entertaining children's cartoon. But among adult Cuphead fans, any hopes that this adaptation would live up to its namesake have been shot to hell.

The Cuphead Show! premieres Feb. 18 on Netflix.

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