If the new animation style, character designs, theme-song remix, and primary focus on manic slapstick aren’t dead giveaways, then the most obvious indication that Teen Titans Go! isn’t canonical to the original Teen Titans series, which ran for five seasons from 2003 to 2006, is that Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) talks while in animal form. While its anime style and focus on adolescent humor gave the original series an anarchic patina, the seasons often built toward coherent narrative arcs that culminated with emotional upheaval and angst. Such personal turmoil was set against the backdrop of saving the world, thus translating the psychological grandiosity of adolescence into an actual matter of life and death.
None of which Teen Titans Go! seems interested in. Rather than episode-length stories, much less fashioning season-spanning arcs, the series is comprised of two unrelated 10-minute segments per episode: In the case of the premiere, it’s “Legendary Sandwich” and “Pie Bros.” Villain-fighting is largely relegated to the background, sometimes literally, as in “Pie Bros.,” or, as in “Legendary Sandwich,” adds up to little more than rote smashing. Similarly, the show’s emotional balance tips decidedly away from heartfelt and toward pratfalls and silliness.
The clearest missed (though ignored is probably more accurate) opportunity for pathos occurs at the end of “Pie Bros.,” where the Titans are preparing for Cyborg’s (Khary Payton) birthday. The cash-strapped Beast Boy, hoping to buy his best friend an expensive new video game, has to get a job, which makes him miss the party, causing a temporary but messy falling out. In the original series, their eventual reconciliation might’ve had more emotional resonance, but the mood here remains spastic and blithe before, during, and after their climactic pie fight.
In general, gonzo comedy needn’t be dismissed as thin gruel, since it was fabulously deployed in the series of minute-long DC Nation shorts (called New Teen Titans) that debuted last year, setting the stage for the revival of the current series. But where New Teen Titans was a concentrate of demented humor, Teen Titans Go! largely lacks the same lunatic wit—though not necessarily because it has more time to fill than the shorts, as the original Teen Titans had entire episodes devoted to surreal and absurdist humor. However, most of the humor in “Legendary Sandwich” involves a handful of unsurprising running gags; Teen Titans Go! typically settles for the most obvious punchline in a given situation. Freed from the demands of solemnity, the series could’ve unleashed its screwball id, but sadly, it forgoes digging through the comedic surface and thus never finds the transcendent non sequiturs that were a hallmark of the original series.
“Legendary Sandwich” isn’t totally bereft of wit though, as self-referential winkiness has survived the transition to the new series. The segment provides a sly in-joke involving Raven (Tara Strong), the sullen goth, who here is a closet fan of Pretty, Pretty Pegasus. The sight of the resident misanthrope delighting in the sunny pastel earnestness of prancing pegasi is mildly amusing, but the second-degree twist comes from knowing that Strong also voices Twilight Sparkle on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. However, the fourth-wall-breaking reference to Strong’s moonlighting is the exception rather than the rule.
Where the humor is generic, so, alas, is the animation. Gone are Teen Titans’s lovingly hand-drawn cels in favor of the bold-lined Flash animation that has become the de facto Cartoon Network style. Again, the current style isn’t a priori inferior, but in comparison to the animation on Teen Titans, it comes off as flat. Likewise with the theme song: The original was a classic of ’60s surf-rock and spy-theme kitsch performed by Japanese duo Puffy AmiYumi, but Teen Titans Go! lets Mixmaster Mike shear the song of every distinguishing feature and calls the anonymized result a remix.
The saving grace is that the voice cast returns intact. Amid the mundanity, they’re by far the brightest aspect of the revived series and are as sharp as ever, from the vocal panache of Hynden Walch (as Starfire) and Strong, to the obvious chemistry between Cipes and Payton, to the versatility of Scott Menville (Robin), who’s supposed to embody young, boyish cool while avoiding immediately dated cliché (Justin Bieber being a counterexample). If not for the actors, whose talents can’t save this lackluster material, Teen Titans Go would offer little to even the most ardent Titans nostalgists and completists.