11th Sep2015

‘Steven Universe 2×19: Nightmare Hospital’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“Do you know how many children I see every day who’ve cut off their faces playing with swords? None! Because they all have parents who love them and who don’t let them play around with deadly weapons like some sort of gang member!”

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Strong art direction can make even a mediocre episode of Steven Universe sing, and while ‘Nightmare Hospital’ offers thin plot and implausible characterization, it also dishes out one of the most visually immersive episodes the series has done to date. The long, warped corridors of the titular hospital buzz with uneven fluorescent lighting while rapid footsteps echo through the gloom. Greens, browns, beiges, and greys blend into an inhospitable but uncomfortably naturalistic palette that makes everyone look simultaneously ill and like an interloper in a hushed mausoleum. Hallways stretch on forever, distorted by perspective. Figures rush through enormous spaces as though nervous about lingering too long. Monsters lurk in sterile operating rooms. It’s a haunting collection of images just cockeyed enough to dial up the unease.

Doing something with the tension between Connie and her parents is a natural move for the show. It’s been a low-key element of her presence in the supporting cast for a while, but it doesn’t land well here. There are attempts, both visual and dialogue-driven, to make Mrs. Maheswaran’s behavior believable, and to be fair the idea of a mother fixated on keeping weapons out of her daughter’s hands does, in fact, scan. It’s the execution that falls down; Mrs. Maheswaran treats everything, from her first domineering exchange with Connie in the living room to their rushed exchange in Steven’s bubble as Gem mutants howl around them, with the except same towering dismissiveness. It’s absurd to believe that she would remain so focused on keeping Connie away from the sword even as reality bursts its bounds around her and headless, groaning abominations lurch through the hospital’s halls.

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That pat resolution, Mrs. Maheswaran immediately recognizing and admitting all her faults and committing herself to be better, seems less like a rush job this time and more like an emerging flaw in the show’s DNA. It strays close to territory traditionally inhabited by cartoons out to teach children Important Lessons without grounding those lessons in the idea that humans are distinct and function differently from one another. It’s also just sloppy storytelling. We don’t see why Connie’s mother feels such a need to control her daughter, nor are we treated to any real view inside her mind at all outside of the single terrific shot in which her frightened face occupies the upper left of the screen while the children barely stand in frame, the horror of the moment shifted firmly into the realm of adulthood.

Steven Universe has an unparalleled stable of creative talent. To make a shot like Steven and Connie staring through a featureless yellow window not just noteworthy but faintly unsettling is a mark of how well Hye Sung Park (animation director), Jasmin Lai (art director), and Ian Jones-Quartey (director) work with Raven Molisee and Paul Villeco’s storyboards. The story feels sequential and lovingly paneled, a queasy feast for the eyes even if its human elements don’t stand up to scrutiny.

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