Ben 10 Alien Force: Volume 1 (DVD)

Who wants a pet Humongosaur?

“This isn’t a good time for a reboot!”—Ben

I’m going to disagree with Ben’s comment above and say that now is the perfect time for a reboot. Ben 10 thrilled viewers with kid empowerment and superhero action. But after four seasons, it was time for the show to grow up. It has, into Ben 10: Alien Force.

It’s been five years since Ben Tennyson (Yuri Lowenthal, Naruto) discovered the Omnitrix, a device that allows him to transform into numerous alien creatures, each with its own powers and abilities. Ben used the device to battle various criminal masterminds and alien invaders.

Now, Ben is 15, and life is mostly back to normal. He’s the star goalie on his school soccer team, and he still hangs out with his cousin Gwen (Ashley Johnson) and his grandfather Max (Paul Eiding, God of War), a retired alien fighter. When Max turns up missing one day, leaving behind a cryptic message for Ben, Ben decides to don the Omnitrix once again, to uncover the secret behind a new alien conspiracy here on Earth.

Gwen, whose magic powers have matured along with her, joins Ben in his search, as does former bad guy Kevin 11 (Greg Cipes, Teen Titans), who can absorb the strength of any substance he touches. To Ben’s surprise, the Omnitrix reboots itself, giving Ben ten new aliens to become:

• Swampfire, a plantlike creature with numerous powers, including control over other plants and the ability to summon fire.

• Chromastone, a giant walking prism that can use light and electricity to its advantage.

• Humongosaur—the name says it all.

• Jetray, who is capable of flying at great speed and blasting laser beams at enemies.

• Big Chill, a spooky, ghostly alien who can control cold and ice (and he doesn’t look anything like Kevin Kline or Glenn Close).

• Echo Echo, who is not one but several small aliens operating with a single mind. They pack quite a punch, though, by generating powerful sound waves.

• Goop, a puddle of green slime controlled by a tiny spacecraft.

• Spider Monkey—again, the name says it all.

• Brainstorm, a giant telekinetic insect that temporarily boosts Ben’s intelligence.

• Alien X. Who is Alien X? What is Alien X? That’s the big mystery this season, and you won’t find out the truth until it’s revealed in the Volume 2 DVDs.

This episode list was created with illegal level five technology:

• “Ben 10 Returns” Parts One and Two
Max disappears, Kevin returns, the sinister Forever Knights have scheme brewing, and a new alien known as the Highbreed lurks deep underground, plotting the destruction of humanity. To sort all this out, Ben once again dons the Omnitrix, to find Max and kick butt—not necessarily in that order.

• “Everybody Talks About the Weather”
Ben, Gwen, and Kevin follow a clue to Max’s whereabouts to a small town where a young, fiery alien is in trouble with the law. Also, the secret behind crop circles is finally revealed.

• “Kevin’s Big Score”
When Kevin steals Max’s old motor home, Ben and Gwen fear he’s gone back to his criminal ways. After many twists and surprises, the three heroes must learn to trust each other to save the day.

• “All That Glitters”
The trio visits a town overrun by zombie schoolgirls (awesome!) and works together with a handsome young man named Mike Morningstar, who has golden energy powers and who takes a liking to Gwen. Star Trek bonus points for the first person to recognize who does Morningstar’s voice.

I was skeptical again when Cartoon Network announced Ben 10: Alien Force. Aging the characters five years was one thing, but tossing out all of Ben’s aliens in favor of ten new ones? It looked to me like the show was about to jump the shark or nuke the fridge or open the hatch or screw Spike or go to feudal Japan or replace Singer with Ratner or whatever hip metaphor you want to use for when a good series goes bad. Fortunately, after a few episodes into the run of this new Ben 10, I could tell that the same Ben 10 spirit is still here, and this is still one really fun cartoon.

At the conclusion of the two-part season premiere, Ben coldly states, “the training wheels are off.” Max’s disappearance is not just the ongoing arc of this new season, it also gives Ben and company the chance to fight the good fight on their own, without their alien-expert grandfather watching their backs. Without Max, it’s up to our three heroes to find out what the bad guys are up to and how to stop them, with no one else to rely on but each other. This adds an exciting new element to the show, and it genuinely feels like the characters are learning and maturing as part of their adventures.

Character growth is nice, but don’t forget aliens punching each other. As usual, with ten different aliens to choose from, that means the action scenes can be varied, and not just the same few action beats reused over and over, like some other, lamer cartoons often do. Swampfire and, of course, Humongosaur are clearly the favorites at this point, while some of Ben’s other aliens have yet to be fully explored, leaving it open as to how much they can do and what (if any) affect they could have on Ben. As for the villains, the big bad of this season is the Highbreed and his army of so-called “DNAliens.” They’re appropriately powerful and gross-looking, but their motives are still a mystery at this point. It’s worth noting that character and tech designs look more Jack Kirby-like now than they’ve ever been, and that’s a good thing in my book.

A lot of folks have argued that these new aliens aren’t as iconic as the ones we enjoyed during four seasons of Ben 10. After thinking about it, I don’t think the issue is with the aliens themselves, but the show’s attitude towards them. In Ben 10 the 10-year-old Ben delighted in turning into the aliens and discovering what they could do. He often used their powers for his own fun as often as he did to fight the bad guys. Now with Ben 10: Alien Force‘s new, more grown-up tone, there’s little room for that sense of playfulness. Ben has been given a serious job to do, and he’s taking it very seriously. That leaves little room for him to just sit back and enjoy what he’s been given. This matches the tone of the new series, which is good, but some of the wonder is gone. Perhaps that’s just one of the cruel truths of growing up—you can’t go back to being who you once were.

Going along with the nicely staged action are strong visuals. This is one of the best looking cartoons on TV, with fluid movements, vivid colors, and expressive faces. The full frame picture on the DVD shows it all off nicely. The stereo sound is excellent, with laser blasts and explosions booming throughout the room. The only extra is the “10 of 10” game. This is not an interactive game you play with your remote. Instead, it’s a short cartoon that shows you scrambled images of Ben’s aliens and gives you seven seconds to guess each one. Where are the commentaries, or the storyboards, or any other behind-the-scenes stuff? If the show has grown up, why haven’t the extras? Also, a five-episode disc instead of a full-blown Season One set? Weak.

They’ve managed to update the show without ruining it. I’m impressed. If you like good old-fashioned superhero adventures in the traditional Lee/Kirby style, give Ben 10 and Ben 10: Alien Force a shot.

The Verdict

Humongo—not guilty!

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