So, I just finished watching the finale of Wander Over Yonder. I felt doing something like this was appropriate.
For the uninitiated, this was a show about a fuzzy, overly-optimistic alien named Wander who travels across space with his best friend/steed/muscle, Sylvia. Together, they travel and look for other aliens in need of help, whether it’s small favors or need of rescue from villains looking to conquer their planet. Among said villains is Lord Hater, a skeleton-man with magic powers who seeks to become “The Greatest in the Galaxy” by conquering every planet with his army of eyeball soldiers known as The Watchdogs, led by Hater’s right-hand man and true brains behind his villain operation, Commander Peepers.
The show was created by Craig McCraken, best known as the creator of The Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends. Through this body of work, he became one of the first “celebrity animators” to people of my generation, where his name is almost like a brand in and off itself, synonymous with a mixture of adventure, screwball comedy, outlandish scenarios that mix the mundane with the bizzarre, and memorably over-the-top characters. The style of animation, character design, and writing associated with his shows became fixtures that fans could latch unto and identify as symbols of his work, and it’s been interesting to see how he (and his evolving team of associates) continue to evolve those basic tools and adapt them to new ideas.
In terms of scope, the show seemed to be the least ambitious of the three he’s done at first glance. PPG was primarily about satirizing superhero tropes by embodying them through a trio of kindergarden-aged superheroines and their oddball adventures. Foster’s was a surreal take on the idea of children outgrowing their imaginary friends (i.e. whatever symbol of their childhood they’re supposed to represent) by making said friends become real-life characters and showing what happens to them after their kids move on (or, at least, when they’re “supposed” to). So, it doesn’t seem like there’d be much to compare in a series that’s mainly about a guy who may be too kind for his own good, and believes that with enough kindness, anyone can be a friend. However, this is only one part of a bigger whole, and it’s the way the show bounces this concept with its other characters where the show becomes something truly memorable.
Let’s start with the basics. Jack McBrayer, an actor who’s made a name for himself for playing overly enthusiastic, overly friendly, overly nice, bordeline childlike characters, was a perfect fit for Wander, capturing a being made entirely of positive energy and a desire for doing good. While it very much feels like type-casting, he still owned the role, and delivered his lines with saccharine charm to spare. April Winchell’s gruff, bullish portrayal of Sylvia made a welcome compliment to Wander, as she helps keep him grounded when he ends up being too nice for his own good. She desires to help as well, and while her methods usually tend to be more aggressive, there’s a real sweetness in her core that’s brought out by her best friend. Keith Ferguson brought plenty of manic energy to Hater, which may be the most complex role in the whole show, constantly straddling the line between being genuinely menacing, showing how a guy like him could be a serious threat if he had his act together most of the time, while still being kinda pathetic in how he gets bent out of shape and looses sight of his goal because of Wander’s positivity. He’s basically stuck with the mindset of a moody teenager, always trying to validate his own sense of being cooler and more evil than what he actually is, and having his emotions getting the best of him constantly. Tom Kenny continues to be one of the most versatile voice actors working today, pulling off some noteworthy work with what may be the series’ most thankless role. He’s the subordinate to an idiotic blowhard, and more often than not his work comes off as babysitting. He’s the glue that holds his army (and any kind of credibility) together, yet it’s apparent that he wouldn’t get far without working with someone like Hater. They need each other, and the result is a love-hate relationship based on a sense of loyalty and mutual desire to become galactic conquerors.
There’s little in the way of strong recurring characters, the series generally opting for coming up with new characters that will show up for an episode or two before outliving their usefulness. That may sound like a bad thing, but the show uses this as an excuse for McCraken, his team, and the animators from Boulder Media (who also worked with him on Foster’s) to cut loose and come off with as many imaginative and weird character designs as they can and populate their world with them. After all, this is a series all about exploration and the offbeat characters that our characters run into is all part of the experience. A few (personal) standouts include Westley, a tiny Watchdog (voiced by Aziz Ansari) eager to prove his loyalty to Hater, Hater’s not-Xenomorph pet Captain Tim, the evil kitten bounty hunter Little Bits, reformed villain (and walking “Dude” Lebowski reference) Major Threat (call him Jeff), a sentient Black Cube of Darkness, an evil talking sandwich named Sourdough, and Dr. Screwball Jones (voice by Weird Al Yankovic), a living banana who’s idea of being evil is playing pranks on others and topping them off with puns. According to Wander, he’s truly the greatest threat to the galaxy. The closest thing the show has to recurring characters are Emperor Awesome, a brash, cocky shark-man (who loves parties and tight pants) who’s also looking to take over the galaxy with an army of his own, and Brad Starlight (voiced by James Marsden), a narcissistic would-be storybook hero who believes he deserves praise simply because he calls himself a hero. He’s basically a toxic, non-good-hearted version of Marsden’s character from Enchanted.
So, that’s it right? Not by a long shot.
Of course, you can’t talk about supporting characters in the series without talking about Lord Dominator (voiced by Noël Wells), who’s introduced in Season 2 as a foil for both Wander and Hater. She’s exactly the kind of ultra-evil, ultra-resourceful, ultra-overpowering bad guy that Hater wishes he could be (or rather sees himself as). Her morality is basically the same as Wander’s, only turned all the way in the opposite direction. She’s just as committed to evil and destruction as he is to kindness and compassion. She doesn’t just want to take over the galaxy, she wants to destroy it. As far as the audience and other characters are concerned, she’s unrepentantly bad, and doesn’t care who she hurts to get what she wants. When we first meet her, she wearing a giant suit of armor (that shoots lava!) with a Fred Tatasciore voice-modifier, putting a focus on how overwhelming her very presence is. In that same episode, we learn who she really is under the hood (and how enthusiastic she is about violence). When Wander, etc. learn that she’s actually a lady, it leads into a mid-season arc about Hater having a crush on her and trying to win her affections (with Wander’s help). However, they all get to learn in the worst way possible the true depths of her evil, and gets to show off (in song-form) how the very idea of affection for anything is a weakness in her eyes and uses it to crush Hater, both emotionally and literally. Best of all, the series never gives her a reason to be so evil, the same way Wander never needed a reason to be so nice. It’s hard to pull of a character like this without making her feel like too much for our heroes to handle, which can suck out any kind of tension or sense of fun from what is still a comedy-adventure at its heart, but the show balances this out by punctuating how she may be kind of sad in her own right, and that no matter how powerful she is, the will of the characters she thrashes against are just as strong.
So yeah, pretty terrific cast of characters. Now, how about we start taking a closer look to what the show is actually about?
Much like Foster’s, the true lifeblood of the show is it’s cast, all of which represent some kind of extreme, larger-than-life personality, and the way they play off each other, learning about each other, themselves, and whether putting them against those odds can make them show cracks in their respective persona. It’s essentially about watching unstoppable forces collide with unmovable objects. While our two main villains would hate to admit there’s chinks in their front of evil, their resilience to those influences say otherwise. While Wander always wants to do the right thing, he has to modify what the “right thing” actually means in a given scenario.
Ok, you’ve probably figured it out by now how it’s pretty much love vs. hate, but it’s the way that that old yarn is presented that makes it count. Whatever Wander is, he’s very clearly not a child, possibly already an adult. It could be easy to write off his optimism and good-nature as naiveté, the show never does that. While it’s true that there were always plenty of less-than-upstanding beings looking to take advantage of him, he’s never condemned for thinking otherwise. Eventually, we start to learn that he’s been doing his “travel the galaxy, helping folks out” thing for far longer than anyone could’ve guessed, even before meeting Sylvia. It’s even implied that Wander isn’t his real name (or that he might not have a name at all), he just calls himself by whatever others call him. The only time he’s done anything that could be considered dishonest, the time he acquired his magic hat, is when it would’ve ended a conflict.
No matter how bad things ever got, he would always keep an eye out for a silver lining and any small victory he could get, to the point where while he may not always win, or become everyone’s friend, if he feels he’s still making a difference in someone’s life for the better, that’s good enough for him (“He may not be MY buddy, but I’m still his!”). Dominator is figuratively stomping all over him and Hater? At least the experience just might get him closer to being Hater’s friend. A planet is destroyed by Dominator’s starship? As long as he can reunite a bunch of kids with their families in an escape pod, everything will be not-so-bad. In Season 1, his story is about setting up how strong his spirit and resolve to his cause can be. Season 2 is about whether he can keep it up when life as he knows it is falling apart in front of him.
That being said, it’s clear that he’s too nice for his own good, and needs someone to either pick him up when things go wrong or pull him out of trouble when things get too heated. Plus, what good is the Power Of Friendship when you have no one to share it with (I SWEAR it’s not as sappy as I’m making it sound). This is where his bond with Sylvia comes in. We don’t know much about her story, other than she’s something of a reformed bad guy in her own right. She used to be a bounty hunter and it’s implied she turned her life around shortly after meeting Wander (One can assume she was eventually worn down by his jolly nature). It’s not clear-cut, but it’s still apparent that she always had some sense of morality in her actions, even when they were not exactly righteous. Over time, she came to understand and respect Wander better than anyone, and shared in his mission. It’s this understanding that allowed Wander to be as influential as he eventually became. Without someone who believed in him, he would’ve continued to be aimless and taken advantage of, not really getting anywhere. As for Sylvia, it’s clear she enjoys her new life better than her past, as she can still enjoy being an adventurer (even get in the occasional brawl, which Wander doesn’t seem to mind so much) while having a sense of purpose.
The relationship between Hater and Commander Peepers feels like the “anti” version of Sylvia and Wander’s. They’re not exactly “friends”, and it’s clear that their relationship is one more of co-dependence. Hater is the muscle, Peepers is the brains, and together they could actually go far. It’s clear that Hater sees Peepers as nothing more than a means to an end, if even that. His ego is too inflated to even think of sharing his desired glory with anyone else. He knows he needs an army because that’s what galactic supervillains do. If it were up to him, he’d do everything himself, but he can’t. It’s clear Peepers shares his desire to rule the galaxy, even going so far as letting Hater take the credit for it and being strictly a subordinate. He’s much more aware of his limitations than Hater is, and could theoretically make a better leader than him. Nonetheless, it’s clear he admires Hater in some way and never gives any hints that he’s working behind his back in an attempt to usurp him. He WANTS him to succeed, even if he has to take matter into his own hands. Still, it’s unfortunate that we never get much details on how Hater met the Watchdogs and how they agreed to work together, and as is, it feels like there’s a missing layer to their interplay. I don’t think it’s enough to undo the roles they play, but it still stands out.
If the show has any other kind of shortcoming, the only thing that comes to mind is how a good chunk of episodes are built around taking a single joke and running with it for as long as it can. When it works, it can be very inventive and funny. When it doesn’t, it feels kinda pointless. This seemed to be the M.O. for most of Season 1, up until Season 2, where the flow of the show took a more serialized feel thanks to the Dominator arc, with several key episodes having serious repercussions throughout, and everything in between, while still connected, could still be its own stand-alone story, without having the need of understanding what came before to know what’s happening. Now, this is definitely a good thing, and perhaps the biggest deviation (and improvement) from McCraken’s previous work, and if you were ever familiar with his body of work, you’ll know what to expect. Still, as it was with those other shows, not every episode, character, scenario, etc. is going to work when so much of the writing is built around stretching jokes. For example, having an entire episode be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 parody where the characters watch a He-Man spoof that nails how cheesy and cheap shows like that used to be? Very funny. Having an entire episode built around Wander getting into watching cute viral videos which are all part of a plan to destroy him? Didn’t really work. An episode were a cute puppy is going to destroy an entire planet? Terrific. An entire episode where Wander must put up with an annoying family of birds while escaping an active volcano? Not as fun as it should be.
So, overall, sounds like this show was pretty special, right? Well, I sure wish more people thought that way. It originally aired its first episode on Disney Channel on August 16th, 2013. The next few episodes aired there as well with some pretty solid ratings, but eventually the show was moved wholesale to Disney XD, where more niche, less homogenized family entertainment type of content tries its luck at either getting some kind of lasting following or eventually fade away. This has been a trend at Disney for many years now, where the main channel is more about family sitcoms and more traditionally Disney-feeling content gets shown off, and whatever else can try its chances in a much lower-rated network (I would argue whether TV ratings matter that much in a post streaming/on-demand/binge-watching/divided audience world, but that’s a discussion for another day). It also didn’t help how there was practically no merchandise for the brand, which can be the death for many children’s show today. In the end, it never got picked up for more than two seasons, although to its credit, it may be the best finale for any series he’s done. The finale for The Powerpuff Girls never aired on TV because censors thought it carried a strong socialist message (No, Really.) and Foster’s finale was built around a Whacky Misunderstanding ™. Also, not only does it wrap up the Dominator Saga, it also leaves it open for new developments to her character while teasing what could’ve been a new threat to the galaxy.
While the show had a strong following from fans of McCraken’s previous work and other older animation fans, it was hard to say whether there was that much of an impact outside of that, which is a shame, not just because I wish kids today (Yup, I just said that. Might as well own it.) would recognize a good show made by talented people that they could also learn a few things from. I believe that characters like Wander are vital in entertainment today; someone (on television) needs to teach them that doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it must be done, that no matter how bad things get, there’s nothing to gain from giving into hatred and anger, and that even an enemy deserves to be forgiven. I’ve been a fan of animation for most of my life, and I’ve come to appreciate how in recent years, a lot of shows have learnt to embrace genuine emotional sincerity as a virtue rather than something that should be mocked or dismissed (Usually the characters who do that in this one are the ones that end up looking bad).
So yeah, I feel like this show was underappreciated that it was gone too early, and I think I should be more bummed out by it, but honestly, I’m not. Now, would I be happy if it made a comeback somehow? Of course. Besides, crazier things have happened. Kim Possible came back after its finale due to enough demand. Samurai Jack is a few months away from making his decade-in-the-making comeback. I’m much happier for what I got to experience than for what I didn’t. In a way, I like that it wasn’t as big as other shows of its time, it makes it a little more special for me. While I still haven’t decided whether it’ll truly be deserving of more praise than what I’m making it out to be (I feel that kind of thing only becomes apparent after-the-fact), I’ll remember it for the times it made me happy and feel like a kid again. I’ll remember it for Wander’s reckless optimism, the way Sylvia will throw herself into danger, the way adversity brings out the best in Hater, how delightfully evil Dominator was, how every major character comes with their own music, the fun songs that blend into the actions of the story and constantly bounce between one genre to another, the gorgeous art design, the lively and eye-catching physicality of the characters’ animation, the fun character designs, and most important of all, how the show had something meaningful to say and executes it to the best of its ability while having fun along the way.
So, Mr. McCraken? All the voice actors? Writers? Animators? Composers? Corporate people that allowed this show to exist in the first place? From the bottom of my heart, thank you for these few seasons (of our lives) and reminding us that it never hurts to help.
And now that that’s out of the way, here are in no particular order my favorite episodes.
This is the episode that sold me on this series. It’s always a good sign when a show can take something modern/of-the-moment and incorporate it in a way that doesn’t feel tacked on. Short version: Wander and Sylvia help out a kingdom of anthropomorphic sheep people (it’s called Baa-halla) who are attacked by a troll, who grows bigger and stronger by mocking people and feeding off their insulted remarks. It’s clearly more allegory than anything else, but it works.
One of the first examples of how Wander and Sylvia are capable of positive change. When a watchdog named Westley gets a chance of capturing them and bringing them to Lord Hater (even though he’s clearly in over his head), Wander and Sylvia play along, slowly winning him over to their side. Killing with kindness is underrated.
Let me say it again. A giant, adorable space-puppy is going to destroy a planet. Enough said.
Easily the best episode about testing Wander and Sylvia’s friendship. The duo encounter a dimension powered by thought, where anything they can think of becomes reality. While Wander is thrilled by the possibilities, Sylvia doesn’t share that enthusiasm for long.
This show was really good at building entire episodes around weird sci-fi premises, and this one stands out as one of the best. Wander and Sylvia encounter a sentient planet named Janet who becomes obsessed with Wander and attempts to separate him from Sylvia. Permanently.
I wanted to include at least one Hater/Peepers episode as they were more than capable of carrying the show by themselves when given the chance. This one is my favorite, though it mostly has to do with the way it frames an act of kindness by Wander in the eyes of Hater and Peepers like a horror movie. You know what else is clever? Releasing this episode first as a Halloween special, and then releasing the “original” one as a holiday special, from Wander and Sylvia’s POV.
It starts out pretty silly, as Wander encounters a crystal cave that separates him into the multiple parts of his personality (of which there are plenty), much to Sylvia’s annoyance, but then dropkicks you at the very end, as it reveals what truly makes Wander tick, why he values helping others so much, and how this separates him from a traditional hero.
The aforementioned MST3K parody. Ever wanted to see what He-Man would be like if Skeletor was the star? Ever wanted to hear Jon Hamm in one of those cheesy, very marketable 80’s cartoons? Ever wanted to see what you get when you blend Gravity Falls with Scooby-Doo? Well, you’re getting it anyway.
When one of Dominator’s most trusted sentry drones learns to value life, it’ll learn about the price of insubordination in the worst way possible. Much like The Little Guy, it shows how Wander’s influence can make someone bad go good, only now the reformed gets to face consequences for it in the most cruel way possible. It’s one of the earliest reminders of how heartless Dominator can be. The show never handled tragedy/melancholy in quite this capacity (yet).
What if I told you this show pulled off building an entire episode (and I do mean entire) around toilet humor? Well, it did. According to McCraken, he and his team wanted to pay tribute to the dirty humor of 90’s cartoons like Ren & Stimpy while presenting it in a way that would allow them to get past the censors. Literally from beginning to end, this is a barrage of references, puns (both visual and dialogue-based) and allusions to butts and/or poop. The twist is that the fancy, stuffy, uptight people that Wander and Sylvia are trying to impress (so they can help them with Dominator) are the ones dispensing the dirty jokes and they can’t laugh at them because they think they’ll be insulting them. Also, they’re called the “High Gnee” council. And they have giant butts for heads.
Wander and Sylvia at their lowest. As Dominator’s rampage across space continues and planets keep getting destroyed, Sylvia feels that Wander is giving up hope, and wants to build him up again. She feels that if they can protect a single flower blooming from the ashes of the destruction, then maybe they can still have a chance. We also get to see Dominator at her pettiest, as she actually makes it a personal mission to destroy that flower and rub it in Wander and Sylvia’s faces. The episode ends with Wander declaring that his resolve is the same as always, and while Domiantor technically won, it may do more good in the long run.
I also wanted to include at least one episode about Wander bonding with Lord Hater (happens quite often, actually), and this one was the funniest. Hater finally has Wander and Sylvia in his grasp, but Wander puts off his destruction by convincing him that his execution needs to be truly perfect, resulting in Hater making the event as special as he can. Eventually, it starts to feel less like an execution and more like a…well, that would be telling. Let’s just say that the interplay between Wander and Hater becomes a little more chummy as it goes on.
The Dominator Saga
Consisting of 4 episodes that chronicle the rise and fall of Lord Dominator , we get to see how Dominator establishes herself as the greatest threat to the galaxy, and Wander and Co. try to either stop her, defeat her, or win her over. Featuring the best action the series had to offer, show-stopping musical numbers, birth and death of love, dramatic turn-arounds, and the biggest tests of our heroes (and villains), it captures some of the best moments of the whole series.