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Teen Titans

From the time they burst onto the scene in 1964, the Teen Titans has been the sort of superteam that adults were sure would capture kids' imaginations. After all, it's a bunch of youthful wards and teen sidekicks banding together to prove that just because they're young, that doesn't mean they can't fight evil on their own.

Except for brief guest appearances on the 1967 Superman/Batman Adventure Hour, the Titans surprisingly haven't broken out of the comic book medium. Even Robin, the most well-known member, tended to appear in cartoons as an adult, not a kid. Must have been that Casey Kasem voice.

Well, wait no more. On Saturday, July 19, at 9 p.m., Cartoon Network finally brings the kids into their own. And as is perhaps appropriate, Teen Titans is definitely a show for kids.

After more than a decade of darker, more adult fare with various Batman shows, Superman, and of course the occasionally brilliant Justice League, producer Glen Murakami has taken a younger approach. Along with Bruce Timm and Linda M. Steiner, the WB animation vet has absorbed the style of more popular children's shows, namely anime imports.

The result art-wise may take some adjustment. Some of the character design remains recognizable to the rest of the animated DC Universe, particularly in the villains. But the Titans themselves could rub shoulders just as comfortably with Ash and Pikachu as Batman and Superman. It's most noticeable with Starfire and Raven; in particular, Starfire moves and expresses herself more anime than classic Saturday morning.

What does that really mean? Characters' faces become more malleable to reflect emotion. The lower halves of their faces become just huge mouths as they shout and cry - and there's a lot of shouting and crying. Villains flail comically before fleeing before the might of Cyborg or Beast Boy in dinosaur form. And for further emphasis, during tense scenes the characters all become super-deformed.

It's not just a matter of forced perspective; bodies shrink and heads enlarge. Even inanimate objects move when necessary; there's a silly little moment with Titans Tower ejecting team members by scrunching down before violently regurgitating them. Kids today eat it up, but it may be jarring for those used to the regular stylization but realistic portrayal of these characters from Timm and Murakami.

For what it is, though, it works. Seeing the adult superheroes this way might not, but the Titans are definitely younger teenagers in this show. As such, they may not hold older viewers' interests, but kids will definitely see themselves, only with cool superpowers, in the team.

In appearance taken from Marv Wolfman and George Perez' most critically-acclaimed version of the team, the characterization actually owes more to Peter David's run of Young Justice. For some reason, the Titans live on their own in a San Francisco-based Tower.

They're very much teens of today. Beast Boy and Cyborg spend a lot of time playing videogames. As is only appropriate, Robin tends to be stand-offish, wearing the ostensible mantle of team leader. The alien princess Starfire is love-sick over the boy wonder, and though she'll kick bad guy butt in a pinch, she'd clearly rather write about Robin in her diary. Starfire does, however, still make reference to the Gordanians, so she probably has some serious troubles still lurking in her past.

Even the demon spawn Raven has been made semi-normal. Though she has some vague command of magicks and still seems creepy to the rest of the group, Raven has been recast as a goth girl, more playing at a dark worldview than really worrying about suppressing the evil legacy of her otherworldly father Trigon. Heck, she's even kind of cute. By animation standards.

If there's any form of adult supervision, the first three episodes leave that unexplored. They really need it, though, if only to make them clean the tower. There's a semi-running gag about all the food in the place being moldy; Starfire doesn't know that's not normal.

Starfire's older sister Blackfire does appear, so we know that at least her parents know where she is. (Rather than the raving psychotic of the comics, Blackfire comes off as a cool but troubled older sister - definitely an issue young girls can understand.)

The only actual adult that seems to have a regular presence is, of course, Slade. Occasionally known to fans by the unwieldy moniker Deathstroke The Terminator, he has streamlined for animation. Voiced by Ron Perlman (soon to be Hellboy), Slade stays in the shadows, literally, a dark outline with one baleful white eye.

In two out of the three initial episodes, Slade manipulates the Titans from behind the scenes. First he hires H.I.V.E.'s "graduating class," consisting of Jinx, Mammoth, and Gizmo, considerably younger than they've appeared in comics. Later Slade stages a breakout for the grotesque monster Plasmus. Both episodes, though, the Titans remain unaware of their true enemy's identity.

Murakami and company have struck a decent balance between the points they're trying to make about teen life and actual adventure. Again, it skews a little younger than you might expect, but perhaps for the first time with this creative group, this superhero show really is meant for kids. Even more impressively, the Titans actually seem like real kids.

Overall, the series looks influenced by all of its comic past. Wolfman is on board as a writer for the show, though none of the preview episodes we saw were written by him.

Even the opening credits go back to the team's origins. Definitely intended to have a sixties vibe, the title design offers a retro look, all the while with a strangely cool theme song. Done by the Japanese pop band Puffy AmiYumi, the Teen Titans theme combines modern pop with a little surf guitar and a hint of "Secret Agent Man."

It's cool. It's groovy. But really, your kids are going to have a much better time with it than you will. In fact, as I write this, my daughter is hypnotized by the tape. Between this and Spy Kids 3, this summer is a good time to be a dad trying to raise the next generation of fan.

Derek McCaw

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