Inspired by the rubber hose limbs and the spooky qualities of early Disney and Fleischer Studios animation, the video game Cuphead made a splash 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 ones (the full 24 frames of drawings per second, rather than the more common 12), filtered through ’80s style side-scrolling game design of uncompromising difficulty. The boss fights proved particularly memorable, conjuring up surrealist but vintage feeling monsters to humble the player. And now, perhaps somewhat inevitably, it has an animated show. The new Netflix series is spearheaded by Time Squad creator Dave Wasson.
As in the game, the story of The Cuphead Show! takes place on the “Inkwell Isles” (the opening song sings in rhyme that it’s “just off the coast,” around 29 miles). Cuphead (Tru Valentino) and Mugman (Frank T. Todaro) are a precocious pair of brothers living under the guardianship of the elderly Kettle, and it doesn’t take them long to fall into debt to The Devil (Luke Millington Drake), who means to collect on what he’s owed: Cuphead’s soul.
After the introduction of this mostly one-sided feud the series remains a mostly disconnected series of vignettes, centralized around problems of the brothers’ own making and whatever new oddball (usually, one of the game’s bosses) that they run into as a result. Each episode takes about 20 seconds to set up that something is set to go destructively wrong.
It should, hypothetically, be a lot of chaotic fun: the two mugs head to a malevolent carnival — a “Carn-EVIL?!”, as Mugman realizes in horror — or an equally malevolent gameshow hosted by the slick-talking Dice King (Wayne Brady, having some fun with it). This is something of a more easygoing, wholesome take on Cuphead, without the punishing, uncompromising bullet hell mechanics and boss fights and more about two idiots with New Jersey accents (I may be wrong here but please forgive me, I’m English) hanging out and trying not to piss off their elderly guardian. It makes sense for an adaptation: with the video game’s potentially prohibitive difficulty, it’s a way to access its appeal, without friction.
But instead, the show is punishing in a different way: It’s simply not funny. The Cuphead Show! makes more sense as an animated show directed at children because its jokes require little in the way of thought. There are some fun visual tricks like Kettle having a Kettle-shaped skeleton, or musical moments with King Dice’s “Minnie the Moocher”-style introductory number, or one real standout set-piece where Devil tries and fail to paint a fence in a sequence riffing on Fantasia. But these moments are isolated, and the rest of its hyperactive episodes feel a little forgettable otherwise.
There are some pleasures to be found at the surface level, even if you just have a passing familiarity with the era of cartoons to which the show and the original game pay homage. The upbeat jazz numbers and that specific spring in every character’s step, the elasticity with which their rubber-limbed Mickey Mouse bodies contort and deform in their wild movements is quite fun for a while. The Inkwell Isles are realized with some lovely art direction, its chaos unfolding amongst charmingly old-fashioned backgrounds mixing autumnal woodlands and bizarro spins on speakeasies and art deco architecture.
Perhaps the main element where the series expands on the game is in its influences playing off of more contemporary animation as well as those 1930s aesthetics, right down to the sound design and some faux film grain. It evokes the likes of Spongebob Squarepants, both in the arrangement of its cast (Cuphead and Mugman could be substituted with SpongeBob and Patrick; The Devil is, functionally, Plankton, with his obsessions and continual failures at the hands of idiots) as well as its flirtations with surrealism and even its use of sound. Composer Ego Plum worked on that series too, traces of which can be felt in The Cuphead Show!’s fast-paced big band and jazz numbers. But the more attention is drawn to these connections, the less remarkable The Cuphead Show! seems, a feeling that quickly begins to compound with every new episode.
During its protagonists’ numerous harebrained schemes, The Cuphead Show! sometimes riffs on Looney Tunes-style slapstick — specific body-shaped holes in the walls; at one point the brothers’ open-mouthed screams revealing tonsils which are themselves also screaming. In such moments the animators do good work in bringing the game’s visual charms onto television but the writing allows for very few opportunities for anything more creative than a handful of those simple visual gags. While amusing, it’s not enough to sustain the whole series, especially one that seems to position itself as slapstick. Most of The Cuphead Show’s bigger set pieces come down to a quick song-and-dance from the game’s bosses, which range from cute to honestly quite forgettable.
As a result the animation feels more like simple translation between mediums, a retread rather than something moving with purpose into new territory. The impression builds that, understandably, this is less for adults who played Cuphead than it is for younger children — beyond capturing a younger audience there’s no particularly strong case it makes for itself as a TV show rather than the video game that already exists.
The Cuphead Show! is incapable of making up the difference for the inherent fact that the interactivity of gaming requires your attention, its various non-sequiturs merely passing by with little to hang onto beyond those fun little visual details. The series is seemingly content to just be the kind of show where something qualifies as a joke if it’s said loudly enough. It feels a little unfair to bemoan a lack of complexity in the humor of a show for children, but at the same time, it feels frustratingly unimaginative.
Being aimed at a younger audience doesn’t have to mean simplification. Shows like Cartoon Network’s vastly influential Adventure Time both reveling in changing itself, and using its silliness to soften the blow of its more emotionally distressing moments. The Amazing World of Gumball continually mashed together various animation mediums through the telling of its jokes. Kids can handle jokes with a little more thought in them. Spongebob perfectly balanced childish silliness with universal humor, with jokes that start off funny and only get funnier with age. The spooky, occasionally dark humor of Over The Garden Wall – which manages its own delightfully unhinged homage to Fleischer through the Cloud City Reception Committee — is sorely missed here. For a show that feels indebted to a creepy and subversive age of animation, this first season of The Cuphead Show! is surprisingly safe. Coasting on the novelty of its appearance, the clear similarities with other shows begins to become a burden quickly.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with what The Cuphead Show! is doing with its time, though by the end of the series its constant treadmill of harebrained schemes become increasingly predictable in how they’ll unfold. It’s a shame to find so little rewarding in a series that clearly loves this classic era of animation.
It’s hard not to wish it went more elaborate with its visual gags, or in the absence of that, a little deeper into the world of the Inkwell Isles, but The Cuphead Show! ends up in a strange middle ground, caught between its low-effort comedy and its reverence for 90-year-old animation. There’s little else to find beneath that veneer, beyond its lukewarm blend of various homages. A weak-tea retread of the original game’s aesthetic The Cuphead Show! adds little else, and becomes just a little bit more like everything else, seemingly more suitable as a distraction for kids while their parents (maybe) go back to playing Cuphead.