Step right up: Welcome to… The Cuphead Show? The original hard-as-nails, boss-rush video game may not seem like an obvious candidate to turn into a fully-fledged series, yet Netflix’s new series is a love letter to Studio MDHR’s game that’s overflowing with charm and creativity.
The Cuphead Show sees brothers Cuphead and Mugman navigate their cartoonish world of Inkwell Isles in a dozen 15-minute adventures, the duo bumping into a motley crew of colorful friends, foes, and the Devil himself.
Where the original game does not imbue Cuphead or Mugman with any real character, the twosome are fun, infectious personalities here. Cuphead is the impetuous, hot-headed one, quick to rush in, even quicker to rush out; Mugman is a little more tentative and plays the straight man to Cuphead’s more OTT slapstick-heavy shenanigans. As a dynamic, it’s nothing new, but throwback is the name of the game here. Cuphead and Mugman’s vaudeville-style hijinks are straight out of the silent film era of classic Hollywood with misdirects and misdeeds, which neatly meshes with the lovingly created art style.
Like the games, director Dave Wasson and his team have built upon Studio MDHR’s love for the Walt Disney and Fleischer rubber hose animation styles of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Each scene – complete with era-specific film grain – pops with hand-drawn style kineticism that has, sadly, gone the way of the animated dodo in this more sanitized digital age.
The series’ celebratory tone is set from the opening salvo of The Cuphead Show, a beautifully crafted musical credits sequence that precedes every episode. Indeed, there are several musical bones in The Cuphead Show’s sturdy skeleton. There may not be a “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher”-style earworm, as heard in Netflix’s Witcher series, but the series pulls out all the stops when aping (and, in some cases, surpassing) its toe-tapping Golden Age inspirations.
As to be expected from a modern cartoon, there is a semblance of a serialized story throughout, beginning with Cuphead owing his soul to the Devil. Frustratingly, it’s a little stop-start, with most of Cuphead and Mugman’s escapades being standalone entries that do little to drive the overarching narrative until the home stretch. That’s a shame as the presence of the Devil (Luke Millington-Drake, channeling a wonderful concoction of Jafar, Mr. Burns, and Futurama’s Robot Devil) alongside crooning entertainer King Dice (Wayne Brady) adds a real pep in the show’s step. Amid a deep pool of talent, the pair of actors consistently deliver the strongest performances.
Without them, the show can sometimes feel a little rudderless, with a handful of entries clearly operating as padded-out and filler comedy sketches that overstay their welcome. But there are far more hits than misses across the 12-strong run – and Cuphead’s appearance on King Dice’s “Roll The Dice” gameshow is a particular highlight, firing on all cylinders with a hilarious six-to-seven minute routine that could have been ripped from the script of a Marx Brothers picture. It’s that good.
And yet, it’s occasionally difficult to work out who exactly this show is for. Fans of the games will undoubtedly revel in the world coming to life in such an inventive fashion. Bosses from the 2017 run-and-gunner – such as Chauncey Chanetay, Ribby, and Croaks, among others – are all here, and the smorgasbord of Easter eggs will have diehards sifting through each episode frame-by-frame. Yet, The Cuphead Show is broadly aimed at a younger audience.
That’s a slight worry given how dark and frankly nightmare-inducing some of the sequences are. One scene sees Cuphead and Mugman’s guardian, Elder Kettle, turning into a skeleton. Another features the citizens of Inkwell Isle being sucked dry of their lifeforce after losing a game of Soul Ball. Parents beware: you might want to wait until the tiny ones are a little older before switching this on.
It also doesn’t consistently hit the SpongeBob-style sweet spot of blending fast-moving physical humor (to keep the kids’ attention) with enough ‘adult’ wink-wink, nudge-nudge jokes. It sometimes skews a little too young and might disappoint those hoping for slightly bawdier laughs beyond Cuphead and Mugman’s more juvenile streaks.
Despite this, it’s almost impossible to watch The Cuphead Show without a big, goofy smile on your face when it’s always trying its darndest to entertain – and so often succeeds. Cuphead and Mugman continually evading the clutches of the Devil and his kooky schemes is a treat for animation and game fans alike.
If Netflix’s upcoming stable of adaptations – including Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, and Far Cry – have even an ounce of the craftsmanship on display here, we could be looking at a renaissance for video game stories being told in streaming shows. Until those other series arrive, though, raise your glasses to The Cuphead Show.
The Cuphead Show is available to stream on Netflix from February 18. For more, check out the best Netflix shows streaming right now