Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
All Part of the Show, Folks!
The Cuphead Show! is a 2022 animated series based on the 2017 video game. The game is an incredible mix of hand drawn animation and a beautiful jazz-infused soundtrack that takes heavy influences from classic cartoons specifically between the late 1920s and 1950s. It’s a run-and-gun video game that is incredibly difficult. Despite owning the game on Steam and the Nintendo Switch, I’ve never beaten the game but absolutely love its artistic style. Cuphead sold six million copies in less than three years, and it won a ton of awards. Seriously, check it out if you haven’t already.
In the show, Cuphead and Mugman are a rambunctious pair that never go anywhere or do anything without the other. They live with Elder Kettle, who is always scolding them for fighting and never listening to him. After losing a game of Soul Ball at the local Carnevil (an evil carnival, obviously), Cuphead owes his soul to the devil, but the gag is he never pays up. Several of the game bosses show up (The Root Pack, Ribby and Croaks, and Grim Matchstick, to name a few), but they are often only in brief supporting roles or throwaway gags.
The episodes typically run for 14-16 minutes, but with the intro and end credits average out to about 9-10 minute episodes. The first season is 12 episodes, but a second and third have already been greenlit by Netflix and are said to debut sometime this year. The short length means you can sit down and watch the entire season in about two hours. The runtime of each episode also falls in line with shorts from the likes of Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies, which seems to be exactly what the show wants to remind you of.
I'm All Out of Spare Pants
At first, the back-and-forth shenanigans between Cuphead and Mugman seem like witnessing two nearly identical Spongebobs being annoying on a variety of adventures. Tru Valentino and Frank Todaro are loud, high pitched, and overbearing at times in their voice acting as the cuptastic duo just like Spongebob can often be. But they do get easier and more enjoyable to watch and listen to as the series progresses. By the time the Handle Fairy/baby handles concept is introduced, you are totally sold on every character and performance in the show.
The aesthetic of the show falls in line with the style of the video game. The soundtrack isn’t quite as jazzy and great as it is in the video game, but it’s very close. In the third episode featuring Ribby and Croaks and their yacht club, the music has New Orleans pizazz to it as horns are triumphantly featured throughout the series.
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The Cuphead Show! is inspired by a variety of different animated shorts that came before it. The second episode featuring a murderous baby seems to be direct homage to the 1954 Chuck Jones short Baby Buggy Bunny with Babyface Finster. The fifth episode with King Dice (voiced by Wayne Brady) and his game show that only seems to award people by punishing them feels like it also borrows from The Ducksters; another Chuck Jones short. The sixth episode where Mugman is proud to only have had to change his pants three times while watching a zombie movie before they take a shortcut home through the cemetery has some of the best imagery in the entire series, but also features skeletons whose ancestors look to have come from Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony 1929 short The Skeleton Dance. The Cuphead Show! also manages to throw in some references to Fantasia and the little man from the draft board from Draftee Daffy.
We've Been Saving Up Our Chore Nickels!
But even with its influences and the fact that the show is based on a video game, The Cuphead Show! is its own thing as well. The series seems to combine multiple types of animation at times often incorporating stop-motion footage (the backgrounds during the opening credits, the cemetery sequence, the face off between The Devil and King Dice, and the cottage they live in when it shows the goat in the front yard). The stop-motion sequences were actually done by Screen Novelties (thanks, Twitter).
The facial expressions alone are extraordinary, and if the series isn’t traditionally animated, then it certainly has the appearance of something that is hand drawn. The use of shadows in dark settings as well as highlights like when The Devil erupts in fire whenever he’s angry give the series an almost painted look at times. Those techniques along with rotating camera work give the series an incredible sense of depth, as well. The fact that The Cuphead Show! incorporates the styles of traditional, stop-motion, and hand-painting all into one gorgeous to look at cartoon is astounding.
And You Sold Your Soul to the Devil
It seems like we’ve been waiting for The Cuphead Show! to debut for ages. Netflix had a few clips and a trailer or two debut last year with no word of an official release date until early 2022. Animation takes a long time and COVID has delayed just about everything the past two years, but another factor could be the inclusion of Ms. Chalice. Ms. Chalice is a character that is introduced in the final episode of the first season, but she’s also set to debut in the video game. The Cuphead game is getting an expansion, The Delicious Last Course, June 30, 2022 where Ms. Chalice will finally be playable. Getting The Cuphead Show! and The Delicious Last Course to align in a way that at least keeps Ms. Chalice fresh on people’s minds as they’re playing or watching the series is an integral part of the marketing of the franchise as a whole. Maybe the second and third seasons will debut closer to The Delicious Last Course's release date.
The only downside to The Cuphead Show! is that Cuphead and Mugman can be a little annoying at times. Otherwise the series is beautifully drawn and wonderfully animated with an energetic score and memorable characters. The Devil is like this incredible blend of Stewie Griffin and The Robot Devil from Futurama and he is absolutely delightful (and is eloquently voiced by Luke Millington-Drake). The Cuphead Show! is a joyous watch for people of all ages and we should all be eagerly awaiting any future seasons Netflix decides to release.
© 2022 Chris Sawin