Netflix' Castlevania is a bit of an anachronism. Just over a decade after it was first announced, we're finally able to watch the Castlevania animated feature. After years of floating around the industry, waiting to be made, it's finally real. Animated by Powerhouse Animation Studios (Mortal Kombat X, Darksiders 2, The Banner Saga) and Frederator Studios (Fairly OddParents, Adventure Time); produced by Adi Shankar, the man who brought you the bootleg shorts Power/Rangers and The Punisher: Dirty Laundry; and written by comic author Warren Ellis (The Authority, Transmetropolitan, Dead Space) with input and help from former series producer Koji Igarashi. Castlevania is not a thing that should exist.
We're lucky that it does.
There's already a second season of the show incoming and it's easy to see why when you finish watching the first "season". I use quotes there, because this isn't really a season of a television show. It's four 25 minute episodes, something that probably would've done fine as a single 100 minute feature. It's clear that it was written as a feature, as the ending cuts are a bit abrupt and the intro sequence is just thrown in there. It's not binge-able like a normal Netflix show; just carve out the time it takes to watch a movie and you should be fine.
Castlevania is an adaptation of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, blown out so the story is more than "special folks vs. Dracula". In the original Castlevania timeline, Castlevania III isn't the full origin of the Dracula-Belmont conflict (that would be 2003's Lament of Innocence), but it is the first time that a Belmont fought someone named Dracula and sealed his castle. Dracula's Curse was an Nintendo Entertainment System title with a very slight story, so Ellis and Igarashi had room to go back and flesh out the entire conflict.
From the very beginning, Dracula is actually a sympathetic villain. The show opens with Dracula living in his castle, surrounded by the ancient and impaled bodies of his enemies. He's more myth than reality to the people. It's here that Lisa, a human interested in science, comes to seek his aid. They strike up a relationship and Lisa grounds the immortal Dracula in the human world, right up until the Church burns her at the strake as a witch. Oops.
The Church is a major source of conflict in this new Castlevania timeline. In previous versions of the lore, vague Christian religious orders are usually seen as either benign or helpful. (The exception is Order of Ecclesia.) In Dracula's Curse, Sypha and Trevor were actually a team brought together by the Eastern Orthodox Church to fight Dracula. Here, every person related to the Church is seen as corrupt, stupid, or both. The Church's actions, condemning Lisa to death as a witch over her advanced science, are what cause Dracula to start his war on humanity. And then the Church tries to cover it up.
Likewise, Trevor and Church aren't on great terms. In the original lore, the Belmont family was avoided by the Church and feared by the people of Wallachia. Here, Trevor and his family are outright excommunicated from the Catholic Church by order of the Pope. It's a far more antagonistic relationship, one that's mirrored in the general populace.
That's the second major source of conflict in this new Castlevania plot line: the people of Wallachia. Dracula offers the people a year before he begins his revenge, blaming the general populace for being cowed by the Church and not stepping up to defend his wife. When he returns, he drops a hot statement that says it all.
"I gave you one year to make your peace with your God, and what do you do? Celebrate the day you killed my wife."
The people almost feel like they're not worth saving. Trevor is introduced in a bar where men try to fight him for simply being a Belmont. Trevor himself is a bit of the misanthrope, driven to drinking and a general hatred of people, due to years of poor treatment for simply doing the right thing as a vampire hunter.
In the next town the people are preparing to, at the behest of the local clergy, kill the Speakers, a tribe of storytellers and lorekeepers. The Speakers are essentially monks, trying to help a people besieged by Dracula's horde, but the Church is painting them as the reason the horde is attacking. Trevor only gets involved to help the Speakers and save them from the townspeople. The townspeople never really get any better, with the murderous mob ultimately trading one target for another. It's not the people that make Trevor better in the end, it's the kindness and faith of the Speakers.
When Dracula attacks Wallachia and Trevor doesn't try to help people, you're kind of on their side.
Castlevania sort of ends right when it begins, with most of the game's original cast coming together. There's actually not much "Castlevania" here actually, outside of the cast of characters. The castle itself is seen briefly, one scene does feature some traversal of familiar environments, and another is a direct callback to how you recruit one of the characters in the original game. Largely though, this is a medieval fantasy with Castlevania trappings.
Luckily, I can say it's a good medieval fantasy. The character designs are solid, evoking the feeling of the classic anime Vampire Hunter D and Ayami Kojima's designs on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The voice cast is great, with Richard Armitage killing it as Trevor, Matt Frewer delivering a great performancer as The Bishop, and Graham McTavish brings gravitas to Dracula himself.
Does Castlevania falter? Sure. Ellis' script feels like it carries some dialogue that would feel out of place in the 1470s. Some of the early sections do stray into try-hard "Look! We're adult and we can do this!" territory. The animation itself can be strong, but it comes across a bit stuttery and flat in some of the latter episode fights; I think a bit more time and budget will probably improve that, but this isn't a Studio Trigger operation or anything.
Overall, Castlevania is far better than it has any right to be. It's a good show that makes some changes to the original tale to create some real drama. Some may want a straight retelling of Dracula's Curse, but the Church and the people of Wallachia as rough antagonists grounds this first season in something resembling reality. It'll be interesting to see how Castlevania transitions into the second season, as the team heads into Castlevania itself and the conflict becomes far more straightforward. I'm looking forward to how Ellis handles it.
Castlevania shouldn't exist, but I'm glad it does.
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