A Digimon-Power Rangers Lovechild? The Digimon Frontier Review

From left to right: Zoe, Tommy, Takuya, JP and Koji.
From left to right: Zoe, Tommy, Takuya, JP and Koji.

Meet Takuya, Koji, Zoe, Tommy and JP. They are five teenagers with attitude who will become the unwitting saviors of our world against the forces of evil!

If I blank out the names above, you might have guessed that I was talking Power Rangers or Super Sentai. But in fact, I could also be referring to characters from Digimon Frontier, a 2002-03 anime that has flipped the script as Digimon shows go. While Digimons did the bulk of the fighting in past incarnations of the franchise, Frontier puts the kids themselves in the warzone; the humans themselves transform into Digimon to save the Digital World from the many villains they encounter.

It’s a drastically different take, all right. But just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s good. Digimon Frontier has some major missteps when it came to its character cast and plot pacing, though it also has some pluses that make the show at least watchable.

The most important plus for this show has to be its music. You are guaranteed to have at least one good tune to listen to per episode that can generate excitement and punctuate awesome moments. The theme songs are a start. Both the original theme song and the dub’s alternate are impressive and fit right into the show. The former is 'Fire', written by longtime Digimon songwriter Koji Wada, has a rocking guitar and the message to follow your heart and break your personal limits/boundaries. The dub’s theme song (A World For Us All), written by Chris Horvath, is no dud either. With its tribal-esque elements it stresses camaraderie and togetherness, a key theme of the show given that the main characters are strangers to start out and need to work together.

Another feature that makes the show cooler is its Spirit Evolution [aka morphing] sequence. You got bar codes everywhere and a great color balance of black, light blue and some other color with catchy evolution music blaring in the background. The Japanese version uses Wada’s “With the Will”, which really amps up the excitement of the sequence. “The Last Element” for the Japanese version is also an energetic piece for the special evolutions. The dub music isn’t as enjoyable as Wada’s piece, but it’s again a combination of techno beats and tribal mysticism. The latter harkens back to the nature-esque origins of the Digimon spirits, the former complementing the bar-code, machine-like putting together of our heroes during the evolution process.

But as much as the music is well above average, the people behind Digimon Frontier have made some serious miscalculations in some key parts of the show. It is awesome to see everyday kids transform into almighty Digimon guardians, but engaging personalities, backstories etc. are also vital to give the characters more emotional depth and contribute to the quality of the show. Frontier’s cast is sadly unimpressive. There is not much to any character in terms of personality and complexity, as they each embody one worn-out trope.

Takuya (middle) and Koji (right) get the bulk of the screen time, but to the detriment of the entire team.
Takuya (middle) and Koji (right) get the bulk of the screen time, but to the detriment of the entire team.

You got Takuya, the fearless, hotheaded, leap-before-you-look leader who is teamed up with Koji. The latter is, unsurprisingly, a calculating, unemotional lone wolf. It’s not like we saw this combination a gazillion times, or saw better iterations of that kind of duo. And yet, these two are actually the more prominent characters out of the five kids. Tommy, Zoe and JP on the other hand fall into the “useless, why the hell are you even here” category, as midway through the series their powers get taken by Takuya and Koji to evolve into bigger and badder Digimon, rendering the threesome to be sideline cheerleaders.

Zoe fits that “useless” role to a tee. Sadly the writers made her into an incompetent fighter and the source for fan service; as the team’s smurfette she has only one major victory all season, and that win was against the smurfette of the villains’ five-man band! Every other time she was outclassed by the baddies very quickly. Her Digimon forms are revealing, attempting to flash as much skin as possible to the teenage male demographic. There is also this dandy little clip which pretty much sums up the writers’ views of the team’s only female protagonist. There’s also not much else to note about Zoe, except that she grew up in Italy, could utter Italian phrases and is awkward communicatively. That’s about it.

There are Digimon characters, but they aren't worth discussing. One is an exposition fairy (left), the other is poorly designed comic relief (right).
There are Digimon characters, but they aren't worth discussing. One is an exposition fairy (left), the other is poorly designed comic relief (right).

All I can say about JP is that he wants to get into Zoe’s pants, eats a lot of chocolate and can’t make friends because, well, he tries to bribe people via magic tricks and chocolate. Beyond showing this flash of insight he doesn't really change per se [other than being a little more agreeable], or manage to overcome his flaws. Tommy does have some merit; as the youngest member of the group he has to grow up, stand up for himself, and be less trusting of complete strangers. He does not have the most original character arc, but at the end of the show you do see some lasting change in the guy. Sadly the writers have benched him from the action anyways.

And you think it’s just our heroes that have these issues. The villains are even less interesting if you can imagine that. The first four villains only have one gimmick, and that’s their accents. One sounds like an ogre/troll, another a Brooklyn cab driver. The team’s smurfette has a Southern Belle drawl and the leader of this “team” speaks Old English [Thou, Ye, Hath, you get the drill]. All the villains except Duskmon [who happened to be a kid trapped by the bad guys] just want to conquer for the sake of conquering. There is zero depth to any of them.

The Royal Knights, and their saga, almost made this show unbearable.
The Royal Knights, and their saga, almost made this show unbearable.

The other major misstep in Digimon Frontier has to be how the plot is paced. Though the series is 50 episodes long, it could have been pared down to maybe 30 or 40 had it not been for filler. Granted, filler early on is actually a good thing; coming in the audience don’t know anything about their heroes, and those episodes allow it to know more about them. Episode 7 has Takuya and Koji show off their contrasting personalities over how they should treat Tommy [lightly or harshly, given Tommy’s age]. Episode 8 allows Zoe to explain why she is stand-offish to JP. Overall these instances are good uses of filler episodes, even though the characters aren’t highly developed to begin with.

Unfortunately there is more instances of filler used poorly. Episode 18 is a Wacky-Racer parody, as the fivesome race on Train Digimon for no reason. Episode 19 has the characters cooking a bunch of burgers with a Digimon family. Exactly what do they contribute to the overall plot? But the ultimate crime of the show has to be its “Royal Knights Saga”. It lasts from Episodes 37 to 47, and in all these episodes the two Royal Knights defeat Koji’s and Takuya’s ultimate evolution forms every time. It’s the same crap over and over again and it gets painfully boring. What we got here is a show that has overstayed its welcome due to poor use of filler.

The show does end on a high note, with a tone of finality that is rarely seen in most shows nowadays. But any advantages this show has are compromised by a cast with barely anything redeeming or memorable about it and a story with uneven pacing. It’s not a completely terrible show, because there are good music pieces, flashy evolution scenes and some cool action, and I’d definitely recommend the series to anyone curious. Just make sure to temper your expectations if you do want to join Takuya and company in this adventure.

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