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'Digimon Adventure:' (2020) retrospective: A series both propelled and hindered by its own nostalgic foundation
Toei Animation

Manga and Anime

‘Digimon Adventure:’ (2020) retrospective: A series both propelled and hindered by its own nostalgic foundation

A critically maligned reboot of a beloved classic draws to a close.

We’ve reached a major transition point in Digimon anime. Last night was the finale of Digimon Adventure: (2020), and we’re just a week out from the premiere of Digimon Ghost Game. It’s the first time one series’ end has been immediately followed by another’s beginning since 2002, signaling a level of health and success for the franchise not seen since most of its hard-core fans were literal children. Before speculating about the future much, however, it’s time to give a proper sendoff to the series that just concluded.

Digimon Adventure: (or Adventure 2020 as I’ll refer to it throughout to differentiate from 1999’s original Digimon Adventure) was nothing if not notable. It was the first series in franchise history to be simulcast in English (via Crunchyroll), enabling American fans to follow and discuss it with an ease and speed not even present in the franchise’s heyday. As a lifelong fan of the franchise myself, that fact alone made my experience viewing the show uniquely exciting.

As for my and other fans’ reactions and judgments of the anime’s quality, however…the kindest description would be “mixed.” Many fans have voiced outright disdain, perhaps heightened by another first the series boasts: it’s the first to outright reboot its characters’ continuity rather than continuing a past canon or simply creating a new, standalone timeline of its own. Though it’s generally wise not to detract one piece of art for not being another, that’s turned out to be much harder with a series so rooted in nostalgia than the only change to its name from the original is a silent colon.

'Digimon Adventure:' (2020) retrospective: A series both propelled and hindered by its own nostalgic foundation

What confusion could possibly arise with a clear, unique title like this one? (Toei Animation)

Nonetheless, there have also been a number of fun surprises across the series’ sixty-seven episode span. I’ll be diving in topic by topic, exploring what did and didn’t work about Adventure 2020. It’s my hope that an even analysis might be more fair to the series and acknowledge its positive contributions, even if its haters have several valid points.

Of reboots and rehashes

Digimon fans are no strangers to change. With that said, they haven’t always been good at dealing with it. Virtually every anime after the original Adventure received considerable pushback for deviating from prior formulas that the audience got familiar with. Digimon Tamers, the first series to abandon the continuity established in the first two series, was instantly dropped by many fans as a result. Digimon Frontier in turn received criticism for ditching the concept of pairing its human protagonists with Digimon partners. Digimon Savers then got flack for the fact that its lead character didn’t wear goggles (a recurrent design choice that’s been charming and nostalgiac across franchise history but seldom serves any actual functional purpose in narrative).

So on and so on. With all that said, each of these series has been able to find a following and become beloved regardless of its deviations from the norm. Digimon Tamers is widely considered the best entry in the history of the franchise, a far cry from having “ruined Digimon” as plenty of angry kids (myself, embarrassingly enough, included) first thought in 2001. As the fandom has matured (again, myself included) an ethos has been adopted of embracing new approaches to classic concepts. It’s much easier to appreciate something new when one isn’t comparing it to something else that it has no interest in actually being.

Even from such a viewpoint, however, Adventure 2020 is in a tough spot. It’s virtually impossible not to compare it to the older series with an almost same exact title. The entire core cast is the same, from the children to their Digimon partners. Even the designs and art style used are extremely similar, with the main differences of note just being some slightly updated clothing for the kids.

'Digimon Adventure:' (2020) retrospective: A series both propelled and hindered by its own nostalgic foundation

On the plus side, we get to see all the classic Mega forms who never appeared in the original series. (Toei Animation)

How, then, does one keep up an open mind when comparing the two series? This situation is notably different from what fans have been faced with prior. Rather than just having to accept that the concepts of “Digital Monsters” and “Digital Worlds” can be reinvented in multiple ways, fans are now asked to accept differences in tone and approach between two series that are aesthetically larger the same. Ostensibly, these characters are the same exact ones that made the original anime so popular twenty years ago. Stripped of most of their previous history, however, they’ve been rendered into something like templates of themselves.

Think of, say, Batman, or really any major American superhero. While the core comics may have a canon, that canon itself is constantly shifting via Crises and retcons. That’s not to mention how frequently new takes on said canon are created for films, video games, TV shows, etc. Batman may (more or less) always be Bruce Wayne, but is he always the same character? Yes and no. If you use the word character loosely, then yes. Certain thematic elements and visual motifs remain constant. But will specific plot events from golden age Batman stories necessarily have much relevance to Robert Pattinson’s take on the character? Probably not.

By and large, characters as archetypes with malleable histories is a new concept for Digimon fans to have to get used to. Sure, there’s been the occasional out-of-continuity movie or drama CD, but there’s never been an entire drawn out reboot that begged the question: “Which version of Yagami Taichi do I like the best?” It’s not an unfair question, either. So, how effectively does Adventure 2020 take its beloved cast of characters and meld them to fit the new story?

Character development and the lack thereof

A major part of what made the original Adventure stand out from other cartoons of its time was its strong attention to character work. Each of the eight human children possessed a plot-critical device called a crest which symbolized a major aspect of their personality and/or character arc. Take for instance Sora and her crest of love. It instantly made sense given her role as the team mom, but it took on even more significance as her backstory was fleshed out. Her troubled relationship with her mother made for poignant TV, as it impacted Sora’s view of herself and her ability to love other people.

It wouldn’t be fair to say Adventure did much that was utterly unheard of, but it was still notable in the variety of issues it tackled and its level of commitment when doing so. With Yamato and Takeru you had issues of divorce and split-up families. Koshiro’s character arc included his struggling with the knowledge that he’d been adopted. These were real world concerns that made a major impact on the children watching them, and could provide a truly formative take on problems and how to cope with them. Not only that, but by the end of their…ahem…adventure, each of the children had changed considerably from the person they started out as. The only potential exception would be Hikari, and to be fair she had less than half as much screentime as all the other characters did.

The Hikari of Adventure 2020 is similarly lacking in development, but unfortunately all of the other characters are as well. Izzy’s adoption is never more than briefly hinted at. For that matter, all the children’s families have barely any screentime (in the cases where they even appear at all). We get virtually no glimpse of the characters’ home lives prior to their adventure, and any lessons learned are obtained in a very “of the week” fashion with little followup or prolonged thematic significance.

'Digimon Adventure:' (2020) retrospective: A series both propelled and hindered by its own nostalgic foundation

TFW you find out you have to carry the weight of the entire narrative on your back. (Toei Animation)

Nowhere is this more baffling than with Taichi. One of the most recurrent complaints in the fandom across Adventure 2020′s run was how central he was to the plot at the expense of the other kids. Even when the group was split up across different areas in the Digital World, Taichi would always make his way to the center of the action week after week. At its worst, Adventure 2020 reads as a commercial for merch of Taichi and the Greymon line with all the other characters just being auxilliary.

Even with far more focus than any other character, however, this version of Taichi is incredibly flat. The original underwent more riveting character drama and conflict by episode fifteen than 2020‘s Taichi does in sixty-seven episodes. It’s a case of character dominance where the dominant character doesn’t even comes out better off. A lack of character development would be enough to break most shows, but in a reboot of a classic that was beloved specifically because of its tender handling of the characters’ struggles? It’s a damning disappointment.

New and forgotten faces: the Digimon themselves

While the human characters of Digimon Adventure 2020 are flops, the actual Digimon depicted are fantastic. If this series is to be taken as a toy commercial, then it’s at least one that pays homage to the franchise’s long history by adding new toys to the toy box and breathing new life into old, forgotten ones.

Unlike with Pokémon, there is no official number of Digimon. Any rough fan count always reaches four digits with ease, with many species being introduced in the like of cards or video games without ever getting animated. Adventure 2020 pulls considerably from this well, bringing to life Digimon many never would have expected to see. Take for instance the original PlayStation 1 Digimon World’s Golemon. A bipedal figure with no facial features and made up entirely of black and green grid-patterned blocks, it’s a design that screams “early internet conceptions of the internet itself.”

'Digimon Adventure:' (2020) retrospective: A series both propelled and hindered by its own nostalgic foundation

*Smugly clears throat* Only ’90s kids will remember this. (Toei Animation)

Adventure 2020 has also repeatedly featured Digimon species that aren’t quite as deep of cuts but who nonetheless were never animated before now. Some actually played pivotal roles in prior media or gained fame due to being evolutions of species that did appear in prior anime. Take for instance Strabimon and Valkyrimon— long considered the de facto Mega and Rookie forms of Silphymon and Lobomon, who were pivital Digimon in Adventure 02 and Frontier respectively. By being entangled with such pivotal characters lore-wise, these species have long been fairly well-known but only recently got some time to shine on TV themselves. In these cases, Adventure 2020 did a good job following up years of anticipation by giving the characters some spotlight, even is just as the stars of monster-of-the-week stories.

Unfortunately, there are also examples of well-known Digimon finally being animated in Adventure 2020 just to end up being major letdowns. The most notable example of this is Millenniummon. He was a pivotal villain in a series of early 2000s video games that, despite being canonical with the original Adventure, were never released in America. Millenniummon was a major threat to existence itself, and constantly shows up in lists or discussions of the most powerful Digimon of all time.

In Adventure 2020 however he’s just a mid-season villain. Sure he gets hyped up a bit in show as a harbinger of ruin, but once he actually appears he’s defeated within a matter of episodes. In this case Adventure 2020 pulls from the franchise’s lore in a way that seems needless and almost disrespectful to all that’s come before. Why use such a pivotal and well-known character just to make him out to be no more significant than any of the other villains in a series full of unremarkable antagonists? (More on those lackluster villains later.)

Thankfully, Adventure 2020 does a much better job when bringing back Digimon species from prior anime who haven’t or only seldom returned since their first animated appearances. This is especially notable with Digimon who debuted in later series long after the franchise’s heyday. The likes of Gravimon from Digimon Xros Wars may never hope to compete popularity-wise with Digimon that starred the original Adventure, but it’s still nice to see them return in a series that has more eyes on it even if just for nostaglia’s sake. Adventure 2020 utilizes this nostalgia poorly in many ways, but it does at least take advantage of its high viewership to allow new and old but forgotten Digimon some brief time in the spotlight.

'Digimon Adventure:' (2020) retrospective: A series both propelled and hindered by its own nostalgic foundation

The utility of Trailmon mixed with a mechanical dog aesthetic? Perfection. (Toei Animation)

Plus, this is the series that gave us Komondomon. That’s gotta be worth several points in and of itself.

Agumon shinka!!

Speaking of taking the old and amplifying it for a new audience, Adventure 2020 leans into one specific franchise staple more than any previous Digimon anime ever have: branching evolutionary lines.

Unlike in Pokémon, Digimon species don’t have perfectly linear and predetermined evolutions. Sure, Pokémon has some examples of variance (most specifically in the case of Eevee) but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. In Digimon’s case variety has been built in from the start. The very first Digimon media were virtual pets in which the way players raised their partners affected what evolutions would then take place. This spirit of variety has remained constant for more than twenty years now with card games, video games, manga, v-pets, and more all introducing new potential evolutions for existing species.

With that said however, the franchise’s anime have made far less use of branching evolutions than its other media. This isn’t surprising; each new species introduced adds pressure on animators to craft and incorporate more designs. Plus, when you use the same species over and over you can reuse animations of them in turn, helping to save on budget. Consistency serves to lessen confusion on the audience’s part as well.

For all these reasons, departures from primary evolution paths in Digimon anime have been rare and served specific narrative purposes, most often to symbolize characters having lost their way. The earliest example of this is in the original Adventure, when Taichi’s Greymon evolves into SkullGreymon due to the mistreatment he’s received at the hands of his human partner. SkullGreymon, an out-of-control skeletal beast who attacks friends and foes alike, is a far cry from MetalGreymon, who serves as Greymon’s proper evolution once Taichi has undergone significant character development.

Adventure 2020 may not have the same level of evolutionary variety as the original v-pets, but it does introduce many alternate evolutionary paths that aren’t just a result of characters going astray. Take Patamon’s repeated evolutions into both Angemon and Pegasusmon, for example. WereGarurumon, too, evolves not just into the classic MetalGarurumon but also the more modern CresGarurumon. MagnaAngemon also gets to evolve into both Seraphimon and Goldramon (another example of a decades-old species that finally got animated for the first time in Adventure 2020).

Sure, the classic species introduced in the original Adventure still get the most screentime, but they don’t get all of it. Never before has a Digimon anime introduced so many alternate evolution paths that weren’t dictated by narrative necessity (i.e. the aforementioned dark evolution into SkullGreymon). Animation budget concerns and more may have prevented Adventure 2020 from giving us frequently branching evolutionary paths, but the ones we did get were a fun nod to the franchise’s long history, especially its v-pet roots.

Sure, we didn’t get a Digi-Rap, but…

Another consistent highlight throughout Adventure 2020 has been its music and general sound design. The actual writing might not do a good job of conveying the stakes of combat in a way that feels engrossing, but the audio pops off. A prime example of this is Takayoshi Tanimoto’s “Break the Chain.” As the theme music for Mega evolutions, it serves to hype the audience up for climactic action. If this show is a toy commercial, then it’s one that knows exactly what music to play to help remind us of just how cool WarGreymon still is (even if his bare ass is a much more noticeably bizarre design choice when viewed as an adult.)

On the topic of amping up the audience, there’s also the series’ opening and endings to consider. The opening remained the same across all sixty-seven episodes: “Mikakunin Hikousen,” also by Tanimoto. Musically it’s decent but nothing to write home about. It’s stylistically similar to past Digimon opening songs without adding any unique flair to stand out. The opening’s visuals are similarly forgettable: brief glimpses at all the main characters but with the most focus paid, as in all other aspects of the show, to Taichi and Agumon. Much of the action depicted also takes place in a general white and geometric setting, with no sign of the lovely Digital World imagery that helped make the original Adventure and its opening to memorable. There’s a really cool shot of Greymon sprouting MetalGreymon’s wings and mechanical arm, but that’s really the only moment that stands out at all.

'Digimon Adventure:' (2020) retrospective: A series both propelled and hindered by its own nostalgic foundation

The series’ best ending bar none. (Toei Animation)

Fortunately, the show’s endings were more enjoyable. The first, “Kuyashisa wa Tane” by Chiai Fujikawa, is also the best. Both the track itself and the animation are very well-crafted. Fujikawa’s delivery of the lyrics is emotive and a just plain cool example of semi-sad-but-also-exciting anime music. Visually, meanwhile, the focus is on Yamato. There’s a consistent color palette of blues and golds that helps reinforce the tone as we watch Yamato move about his life as a loner before encountering the possibility of friendship with the rest of the Chosen Children. At this point the filtered dark blues and golds are replaced by brighter skies and bright flowers, with Yamato literally stepping into the light. The subsequent endings are all decent as well and feature some cute art, but none top Fujikawa’s.

Antagonists and the conflict at large

Alas, there’s still one major con to the series left to address: the core villains. If heroes are only as good as their villains, then the heroes in this series suck. Early on we get the Algomon line, who are clearly reminiscent of the classic Diaboromon line from Our War Game but just don’t have the same sharp, creepy edge. From there the series moves on a version of Devimon who lacks the camp sensibility that helped make his counterpart in the original Adventure so iconic. The rest of the antagonists are all generically evil; none of them have unique goals and they’re all just part of some vague “Great Catastrophes” that keep resurfacing for Taichi to punch in the face. There’s Deathmon, Soundbirdmon, the sad excuse for a Millenniummon I mentioned earlier, and finally the series’ ultimate big bad Negamon. Negamon is the worst of the lot, spouting off words like “pain” and “thirst” while also claiming that it’s going to destroy all existence. How can there be pain when there’s nothing at all? Because pure evil, that’s why.

There’s just nothing to grasp onto and care about with regards to any of these villains. They’re not uniquely tied to any of the protagonists in terms of lore or even just thematically. They don’t clash with the Chosen Children in interesting ways or force them to face uncomfortable truths and grow as people. Rather, they just exist to be punching bags until the next punching bag comes along. You could swap all the villains around chronologically and it would make no difference to how they reflected the kids’ journeys because they simply don’t have or contribute any sense of depth whatsoever.

'Digimon Adventure:' (2020) retrospective: A series both propelled and hindered by its own nostalgic foundation

The Rebellimon episode has a sense of continuity and subtlety largely absent across the rest of the series. (Toei Animation)

The only real exceptions to this arise from some of the one-off villains the Chosen Children encounter as they make their way around the Digital World unsure of what to do with no actually engrossing conflict to take up their time. Two of the most likable opponents the kids ever face are BanchoMamemon and Rebellimon. They’re far from all-time-greats in franchise history, but they’re at least somewhat tethered to the struggles that Mimi and Taichi are undergoing when they meet. Their motivations, though relatively simple, stem from actual personalities that don’t revolve around some vague notion of evil or destruction.

With that said, the most interesting conflict of the entire season doesn’t stem from a villain at all. It comes in the form of Sora and Hououmon trying to save some newly befriended Digimon from a volcanic eruption. A volcano can’t charm the viewer or move the plot along with expository dialogue, but it does allow the focus to remain on the heroes as they work to minimize the damage. Frankly, Sora and Hououmon facing off against a natural disaster is arguably the most interesting event in the entire series. A similar standout episode involves Takeru and friends trying to help the absolutely massive ElDradimon scale a steep mountain so that it can return to its home. It’s a struggle simply rooted in the desire to help a friend return to where they belong. Moments like these are among the series’ best because they’re the only times that characters have motivations and desires more specific and personal than the destruction or non-destruction of the entire world.

So…what was it all for?

With all of Adventure 2020‘s mixed qualities taken into consideration, a question remains. The question isn’t “Is it good?” Regardless of all the praise that could be heaped upon the series’ sound design, variety of Digimon used, and occasional moments of creativity and charm, there are just too many glaring flaws to make this anime worth recommending to anyone but franchise completionists. The most damning flaw is the complete and utter lack of character development, even for Taichi. The villains and general story are also poor, with no real sense of stakes or emotional investment established by the core conflict at any point in sixty-seven episodes.

With that said, there are at least some individually good episodes. This isn’t a downright horrible show, and the positive aspects I’ve mentioned throughout provide at least some fun and entertainment. Adventure 2020 is like a terrible forest where if you stop and squint for a minute you can at least see some really nice individual trees.

'Digimon Adventure:' (2020) retrospective: A series both propelled and hindered by its own nostalgic foundation

Come on, this is just great. (Toei Animation)

With all that said, my question at the series’ end is: “What now?”

I’m not one for defending flaws in children’s media by simply pointing out that the media is, after all, for children. Children can reason and follow well-written plots, and frankly they deserve better than hastily made slop. The original 1999 Adventure and the franchise’s critical darling Tamers were both kids’ shows themselves. It is in fact possible to craft media that will attract newer, younger audiences without disrespecting the intelligence of either them or the franchise’s older legacy fans.

Nonetheless, it would be difficult to deny that Adventure 2020 was a financial success and general boon to the franchise. The current Digimon card game that it helped promote is the most successful the franchise has had in years, perhaps ever. We’re getting another new anime next week as well, indicating that Adventure 2020 wasn’t some definite flop. Rather, the franchise is thriving to a degree that many fans never thought it would again.

From an anime critic’s point of view the dull writing in this series was near inexcusable, but from a practical standpoint I’m just glad for the show’s existence. It’s the year 2021 and I just watched the finale of one Digimon anime mere days before another is set to premiere. Even if Adventure 2020 is a poor chapter in Digimon history quality-wise it’s at least just a single chapter: one which helped pave the way for a future that’s already headed our way and shining brightly as it does so. To quote Podigious! host Jeff Ruberg, “Remember, never stop Digivolving.”

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