Fairy Tail - Part 1 Review

An anime series with a title like Fairy Tail inevitably invites certain assumptions and preconceptions. You are going to expect something in the fantasy genre, which means a medieval setting with wizards, dragons and no doubt demons that have to be defeated by swords and sorcery. Check. You can expect young rookie magician, unsure of their powers, who comes into contact with a more seasoned hero or heroine. Check. There may initially be some antagonism between them that leads to a level of romantic interest. Check …well comic antagonism certainly, perhaps not so much of the romantic interest, because, as the title also might suggest, the series would appear to be aimed principally at a younger audience. Those boundaries of age appropriate material, as well as those of genre conventions, are however often quite fluid in Japanese anime series, so how exactly does Fairy Tail distinguish itself from countless other series of this type?

Well, it doesn’t really, but if there’s a certain lack of anything like originality in the setup and characterisation, the series can make up for it with plenty of colourful characters, an interesting fantasy world and lots of potential for expansion into that inevitably dark turn that even the wackiest of playful comedy series can turn in the blink of an eye. Nothing too dark, mind you, but there’s enough to provide a healthy dynamic that makes the series entertaining and relatively addictive.

The innocent eyes through which we come to discover the magical powers that exist in the land of Fiore and the type of people that wield those powers, are those of Lucy. Lucy has some magical ability, of the holder-type variety, which means she uses keys that open the gates to the celestial plane, where she can summon celestial spirits according to the contracts she has established with them (some are more helpful and useful than others). Another type of wizard in the land of Fiore is the ability-type, one who has developed their own powers that come from within. Such a figure is Natsu, who has been brought-up by a dragon and is able to control and use fire magic. Natsu and Happy, his cute blue winged cat side-kick introduce Lucy to the legendary guild of wizards that make up Fairy Tail.

Introductions to the world of Fiore and the characters who inhabit it are fairly quickly established, with a broad range of characters of varied temperaments and abilities, and a notice board of tasks to undertake to earn their keep, Fairy Tail would seem to be setting itself up for an episodic series of fantasy-action adventures that explore other parts of the land while battling bad-guys and demons. It does start out that way, putting together conflicting characters as teams to change the dynamic, to the expected humorous and destructive consequences. The abilities of the wizards of Fairy Tail are powerful, but they aren’t entirely stable or controllable, which tends to cause problems when they destroy half of the towns they are attempting to defend from evil wizards and demons, much to the dismay of Mr Makarov, the Fairy Tail master who has to account for the actions of his teams with the masters of the other guilds.

There’s nothing particularly new then in the main characters, who are mostly one-note jokes – Gray Fullbuster, the ice mage who often appears only in his underpants; Elfanor, the muscle-brain; Loke, the ladies man, and so on – all of them forming an anarchic little outfit that plays by its own rules, but the series does at least make the most of the potential in its gradual development of the world of Fiore. The four middle episodes (5 - 8 of the opening 12-part series) take on an extended storyline that expands considerably on the initial premise, showing that there are rather less scrupulous and dangerous guilds who are prepared to use dark magic powers for their own interests and out of pure malice, taking commissions of death and assassination, such as the Eisenwald guild who come into possession of a dangerous object known as Lullaby.

As well as going through the familiar Dragonball-Z-style escalation of powers battles – where the hero looks defeated only for them to discover new untapped reserves of powers beyond all imagination, and continually manages to up the ante to extraordinary levels – which keeps up the action sequences quota, the extended Lullaby storyline also subtly introduces intrigue in the form of the various levels of hierarchy that govern Fiore. When combined with a certain degree of imagination and variation in its introduction of continually interesting colourful characters – at present the secondary characters are all more interesting than the main players, it has to be said – there is clearly potential for further development in the series.

It also helps that the series spreads its net wide for a fairly broad target audience. There are Pokémon elements in the range of creatures and celestial spirits that can be called on through magic keys to use appropriate skills to fight in battles for their owners, and there’s a cute Pikachu-type character in Happy, but there’s also the headstrong teen hero in Natsu, which gives the series the impression and the trajectory of Naruto. The demon battles and shadowy hierarchy at time evoke the fantasy elements of Claymore, without ever getting quite so sword-choppingly, blood-spurtingly and limb-flyingly violent, but with more of a humorous edge and CG power-circles along the lines of Sacred Blacksmith. Yet, Fairy Tail is not wholly like any of these series.

In its exaggerated animation style, introducing a wide range of colourful characters and gradually expanding into a fantasy world that holds unlimited potential and constantly raises the stakes, Fairy Tail is perhaps closest to something like One Piece, and would seem to be pitched at the kind of audience and an age-group that would enjoy its style and sense of fun. The animation – another winner from the A1-Pictures studio – is cartoony and not particularly detailed, the character designs are fairly generic, and action sequences often take place in freeze-frames, but it remains highly dynamic in its pacing, with high-powered action and plenty of comic knock about situations and extreme reaction shots.

Fairy Tail: Part 1 is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD only, collecting the first 12 episodes on a 2-DVD set, both discs dual-layered. The set is Region 2 encoded and is in PAL format. The transfer, coming from Funimation, is of the usual excellent quality, properly standards converted. There are no noticeable issues with colour-banding or interlacing, the image is perfectly stable, brightly coloured and pleasing to the eye.

The available audio tracks are the original Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track and the English dub in Dolby Digital 5.1. The audio quality is a little bit duller on the original Japanese track, but it’s certainly more than adequate. The English surround track seems to be a bit more dynamic. The Japanese audio can be a little difficult to follow on this particular series, as the frames are often busy with characters, comic effects, speech bubbles, captions and written sound effects, which are translated at the top of the screen, so it can be difficult to read the English subtitles below. It shouldn’t present too much of a problem though if you prefer the original. The English dub however is done exceptionally well, with appropriate voices for the characters by the ever-reliable Funimation cast of American voice-actors (one even taking on singing duties as Lyra in episode 12). Personally, I was able to switch over to the English track half-way through the series and didn’t feel any less (or more) connected to the characters. The English track is definitely a viable option if you want to just enjoy the flow and character of the series.

Subtitles are yellow, which is never a good thing as it often clashes with on-screen colour schemes, but the subtitles are generally clear and easy to read. They are not dubtitles. Both the English translation and the English dub however strike an appropriate tone that is well-suited to the material.

Extra features are on Disc 2 and consist of a Commentary from the US voice-actors and production crew for Episode 9, and Textless Opening and Closings for each of the two different themes.

There’s nothing particularly new in the fantasy setting of Fairy Tail at this stage in the series, and the storyline plays out along fairly conventional lines, but with a large cast of characters, a good sense of humour and a few suggestions of intriguing areas for future development to prevent it from all getting too predictable, the first 12 episodes of Fairy Tail feel surprisingly fresh, and there’s plenty of action, fun and adventure to keep you entertained and coming back for more.

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