“If I can just keep this up for the rest of my life, no one will suspect a thing.”
Steven Universe is not made for me. This is good and correct, as it is made for children and the alternate Earth where it’s packed full of references to Hellraiser and soundtracked with deep cuts from Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s discography is not one in which children should be raised. So, while I think it’s a charming show with a tremendously talented voice cast and spectacular art direction, I will no longer be covering it. It’s not that I’m averse to writing about things that don’t tickle me. I wrote about Flesh and Bone and True Detective at length. What I’m averse to is reviewing something so clearly intended to bring joy to others, something I think is a positive influence for children of all ages, and picking it apart under a critical lens. Someone should write criticism for this show, but it shouldn’t be me. Tonight, with Steven Universe devoting its airtime to the idea of arrested development, seemed like a good time to get off a train I no longer feel interested in staying on. With that out of the way, let’s get to the review.
“So,” Connie says after learning Steven has looked the same for about six years, “he’s never going to grow up?” ‘Steven’s Birthday’ is a truly weird episode of Steven Universe. At first it dwells on the oddity of Steven’s unique nature and the pressures of getting older, and then his goofy attempt to fake a growth spurt winds up causing him to turn back into a baby. It’s…odd. Stranger still, the episode’s emotional resolution comes when Connie affirms that even though Steven is now reduced to infancy, she’ll still take care of him until things get back to normal. It feels baffling. What lesson are we supposed to learn from this? What does it communicate about human connection? If the idea is to encourage a willingness to care for our loved ones during times of weakness, it seems like a hell of a pole-vault to get there.
Steven has always seemed so joyful in his childishness, his occasional dashes of seriousness just self-imposed aping of adult behavior. Bringing him face to face with his own perpetual youth seems like a good move on the show’s part, a way to address the idea of maturation. It’s a curious choice for a show that trades so heavily on its 20-something audience, but perhaps it’s meant as a message to those of us out of short pants. The revelation that he’s fourteen comes as a considerable shock. I’d always assumed he was ten, eleven, tops, and there’s a fragile sadness to realizing that he’s frozen in time.
The episode’s weakest element is its rampant off-model animation, especially when it comes to hand and head size. It gives otherwise touching moments a slightly grotesque flavor and heightens the bizarrity of others into disorienting parody. There are moments when Connie’s head looks overinflated to the point of medical emergency, a titanic legume weaving at the end of her stick-like neck. This show has always had a deeply varied stable of animators and season 2 of Steven Universe has rightly taken lumps for inconsistent animation quality. On the other hand, Amethyst’s “Yo, bring back that shuttlecock,” is the best line reading I’ve ever heard.