Arcane: Season One is a Stupendous Achievement of Animated Storytelling

Arcane is a nine episode animated series based on the world and characters of the video game League of Legends.

I played League of Legends many years ago but was never a huge fan. When this adaptation was released in November, I gave it a miss. LoL didn’t strike me as a particularly fertile medium for incubating good television.

A few months later I learned, through the accident of one recommendation algorithm or another, that Sting had written a song for the Arcane soundtrack, titled What Could Have Been. Really? THE Sting? Holy shit, this is actually one of his better songs in my opinion.

OK, I reasoned that if they were willing to hire Sting and he made the effort to get this right — I might as well give Arcane a watch.

What followed was the fastest series binge of my life.

Critics have almost universally acclaimed Arcane as the greatest video adaptation ever made. Admittedly, this is a low bar. That genre is filled with cash grabs and low budget productions. (Not the case with Arcane, which took six years to create, and is rumored to be the most expensive animated series ever produced.)

In fact, Arcane’s triumph in its own category is so obvious that the question which has preoccupied fans and critics since its release has been: Is Arcane the best animation ever created in the West, period? I struggle to think of anything better. How about in the East? That raises the bar substantially. Are we dealing with something here which rivals the ethereal creativity of Miyazaki’s capstones or the existential heft of the better Ghost in the Shell adaptations? I’m not sure, but owing to the progress of technology and the talent of Fortiche Productions, the quality of Arcane’s animation surpasses them all. Its music is also one hell of a ride (Sting, Raymond Chen, Imagine Dragons, and Pusha T all contributing original work to one album? WTF*$!#! planet am I on?!).

And we still haven’t gotten to the real strength of Arcane: its story and character development, which have lit the Internet on fire with endless plot analyses and fan reaction videos. This show makes people cry, man. It makes them cry buckets. It tackles subject matter which is deeply relevant to modern audiences, but it’s smart enough not to beat them over the head with moral conclusions. I question whether a story like Arcane’s could ever be the story of a live action production, and I’m not talking about the fantasy elements — I’m talking about the personal impact of the issues around which the plot revolves, the flaws of its heroes, the humanity of its villains, and how close to home the hard parts clearly hit for a surprising number of people, which a Hollywood studio in 2022 would struggle to give the green light. Joker comes to mind as a live action production in this category and that’s about it. (I think Arcane is better than Joker.)

So ironically this is a computer animated production which manages to be more real than just about all the live action out there.

Arcane certainly has its flaws, which I’ve started to notice after watching it three times — but it feels like talking about them would be doing it a disservice at this stage. It has no equal within its category. In the future people may talk about animation in terms of what came before Arcane, and what came after it. You should watch it now. It’s too soon to give all the other stuff much consideration — right now, the thing to do is just to watch it.