Reviewing Steven Universe: The Movie feels awfully nostalgic for me. I remember growing up watching Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and seeing made-for-TV movies of some of my favorite cartoons. The Fairly Odd Parents had Abra-Catastrophe and Channel Chasers, Samurai Jack had an entire premiere film, and Teen Titans had Trouble in Tokyo just to name a few. There was just such an inherent thrill in watching my favorite TV shows get the big screen treatment, despite still premiering on TV. It didn’t matter to me whether or not these shows were actually movies or just hour long specials, they were called movies and that was enough for me. It was a rush watching them as a kid, and that same feeling came over me the second I sat down to watch Steven Universe: The Movie.
I’ve gone on at lengths before about how much I enjoy the show, but the biggest question on my mind was where the show would go from its Season 5 finale, which could have also functioned as a series finale. So I sat down both excited and anxious to watch the movie, wondering exactly how it will play out. As I watched it, I felt myself in complete conflict. The kid in me loved the spectacle of it all, but the adult in me was disappointed at how safe Steven Universe: The Movie played things.
Steven Universe: The Movie
Director: Rebecca Sugar,
Release Date: September 2, 2019
Taking place two years after the Season 5 finale, Steven (Zach Callison) is happy that he’s finally earned a peaceful life. War with the Diamond Authority has ended, there are no more enemies to fight, and Steven is content to spend time relaxing with the rest of the Crystal Gems. And then a Gem invades Earth, drops a doomsday weapon on the planet, and eviscerates Steven and Crystal Gems with a scythe. This is Spinel (Sarah Stiles), a mysterious Gem who has it out against Steven, whose scythe Garnet (Estelle), Amythst (Michaela Dietz), and Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall) back to their factory settings, essentially forgetting who they are while Spinel also loses her memory in battle. Unfortunately for humanity, her doomsday weapon is still annihilating the Earth, leaving it up to Steven to save his friends and somehow stop Spinel’s drill.
First and foremost, the movie was going to live or die for me based on its new character, Spinel. We had already gotten to know the cast intimately over the past several years, so if Spinel was going to be a new character to throw off the dynamic and be a true threat to our heroes, then she had to be a damn good one. From a design perspective, she rocks. Animated like a Fleisher character, she’s incredibly bouncy and manic, almost like a Cuphead boss left on the cutting room floor with an attitude to match. In the first three minutes she’s on screen, she kicks ass and takes names, instantly garnering my attention.
That enthusiasm fades the more we learn about her and through her interaction with the core cast. At her worst, she’s annoying to listen to, playing meaningless games with the cast to the point where she’s distracting us from our heroes, like a little sibling that just won’t leave you alone. What’s most disappointing about her is that she confronts the shows idealism head-on, initially presenting as an antagonist that Steven can’t negotiate with. He’s always been able to talk himself out of a bad situation and bring his enemies to his side, which even the other characters admit to, but Spinel can’t be negotiated with. How can Steven confront a villain that wants nothing more than to completely destroy him? Without spoiling anything, the movie pushes the idea aside and instead goes for the safest possible ending, making the conflict inconsequential by the time the credits roll.
Not only that, but because of the factory reset the Crystal Gems undergo, most of the characters we know and love aren’t really present. At first, I was excited about this, leaving us with a movie initially focused on the side characters, but the movie instead chooses to offer recaps of each character’s arc and how they grew over the course of the series. We get brief vignettes on restoring everyone to their original selves, which is nice and all, except when the cast is doing this under the literal shadow of a weapon of mass destruction eradicating Earth. There’s a scene where Steven and his dad hold a rock concert to help regain Pearl’s memories, all while people are evacuating the city due to Ivan Ooze spooge.
While the plot may leave a lot to be desired, at least the movie looks incredible. Between Spinel’s springy animation and effort given to several musical sequences, Steven Universe: The Movie is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. Yes, this is a musical we’re dealing with, with a whole cavalcade of songs on display. Featuring over a dozen original songs, there’s not a bad song in the bunch, which is a feat that very few musicals, movie or otherwise, can attest to. While all of the songs are excellent in their own right, the oddest of the bunch is actually the lead single off of the soundtrack, “True Kinda Love.” The song is great on its own, but its placement in the movie is tonally misplaced and really offsets the action on screen.
The delivery and visuals of the movie are wonderful, as per usual for the series, but it’s the core that’s throwing me for a loop. After the Season 5 finale, some fans raised concerns that the show decided to overlook some crippling social commentary in favor of keeping the status quo. I didn’t agree with it them, but now I see what they’re talking about.The biggest mistake Steven Universe: The Movie makes is its framing of Steven and how his pacifism and idealism is always the answer, adamantly ignoring any negative implications it presents. From his first appearance, now with a neck, he’s painted as a Christ figure out sorts that everyone adores and loves. He’s practically flawless at the beginning of the movie and he’s practically flawless at the end of the movie, never having to dirty his hands. Even Superman had to get dirty every now and then, and the moral implications from those moments led to some of his best moments. Steven Universe, whether intentionally or not, is choosing stagnation over growth, which worries me going forward.
Instead of taking a risk, Steven Universe: The Movie ended up being 87 minutes of reminiscing about our favorite show. It’s a memorial to how much the characters have grown since 2013 while offering up no real challenge or development for them. Everyone stays the same, the morals of the show are still enforced, and we’re just left with a bunch of really cool new songs and some great animation. This isn’t a condemnation that Rebecca Sugar and crew should have done more, but a simple fact that this is more of the same. It’s more Steven Universe, just on a larger scale, which is nice enough, but easily could have been bolder and more substantial than it is.