Steven Universe: The Movie (2019)

If you’ve been watching the Cartoon Network fantasy series Steven Universe since its 2013 debut, it’s difficult to think back to when the show was a collection of one-off adventures instead of a complex intergalactic epic with five seasons of mythology guiding its every move. Insular adventures like Steven begging for French-fry bits at the wharf or raising an island of adorable Watermelon Stevens have gradually given way to emotionally tough, intellectually challenging tales of queer love & war across the endless canvas of Space & Time. It would be a total shame to roll back all that careful incremental progress from the canon adventures of Steven & The Crystal Gems at this point in their saga, which is entirely the point of Steven Universe: The Movie. Most “The Movie” addendums to television shows dial the clock back to their respective mythologies’ starting point to welcome in new audiences at a late stage in their run, once they’ve earned that larger platform. Steven Universe: The Movie isn’t screening in cinemas across America or anything, but it does mark the occasion of having gradually earned a sizeable audience by reaching for the grandiose spectacle of a feature-length musical. It also leans into its “The Movie” designation by resetting all character development & plot complications back to a square-one factory default setting. What’s most impressive about the movie is that this reset is treated as a devastating tragedy for longtime fans, not an ingratiating plea for a new audience.

As accustomed as we’ve become to our favorite pop culture institutions extending themselves into perpetuity through reboots, network jumps, and crowd-funded movie sequels, the harsh truth is that Steven Universe pretty much wrapped up the story it needed to tell by the end of its fifth season. This feature-length follow-up to that arc about says as much. All the work of dismantling an intergalactic empire is through; all the characters have reached a personal & communal place of self-acceptance; there’s nowhere left for the show to go. All that can be done at this point is to tread water solely so that we can spend more time with the Crystal Gems whom we love so much, or to dial the clock back and ruin all their progress for the sake of establishing a worthwhile conflict. Steven Universe: The Movie expertly demonstrates the folly of both approaches. It opens with the Crystal Gems on Earth in peaceful communal health and the empirical Gems in space no longer searching to destroy deviants outside their colonial rule. Steven announces that he hopes things never change, aligning himself with the satiated fandom. Then, a Fleicsher cartoon-style villain, Spinel, arrives on Earth to cause havoc by erasing all the memories & personal progress the Gems have earned over the course of the show as vengeance for a past wrong. It’s heartbreaking to lose all that progress at an instant, but at least the challenge of rebuilding the Gems’ memories & personae gives Steven something to do besides reveling in how perfect his life is now and how he never wants anything to change. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Steven saves the day by empathizing with & healing Spinel (as is his usual M.O.), once again resetting the scenario back to normal with characters settled exactly where you’d want them to be. It’s an incredibly smart, concise demonstration of why the show needs to end as soon as it will (after its sixth, final season), as it looks back at all the work it’s already accomplished – work we don’t want or need to see cyclically destroyed & restored.

Unlike most “The Movie” mutations of ongoing television shows, I don’t think this will necessarily win over anyone who hasn’t already converted to the cult of the Crystal Gems. The show has gotten so detailed & insular in its own mythology that even slight changes in costume & character design have massive implications for fans of the show (especially regarding Steven’s physical maturity in this instance), whereas a casual viewer or newcomer would likely shrug those details off or fail to notice them at all. Because this movie resets its characters to their factory-default settings, it does somewhat work as an introduction to its featured players, but the recaps are so compressed that they mean more as a reminder to fans of how far we’ve come than they’d signify to the uninitiated. The best chance a Steven Universe newbie would have of being reeled in by the movie is in director (and series mastermind) Rebecca Sugar’s songwriting. The film’s structure as an Old Hollywood musical (or a Golden Era Disney throwback, depending on its whims) allows for plenty of space to feature Sugar’s emotionally potent songs, which have always been a vital cornerstone for the show. In particular, the fictional band Sadie Killer and The Suspects’ number “Disobedient” is legitimately the best song I’ve heard all year—in a movie or otherwise—and should work just as well for someone who doesn’t know how much personal progress Sadie had to achieve in order to perform it (a lot!). Otherwise, the movie is clearly aimed at an already converted audience. It reminds us of how far the story has progressed, allows us to briefly celebrate that victory, and then demonstrates why continuing the show past this point could only lead to stagnation or heartbreak. It’s apparently possible to love Steven Universe and still be happy that it’s coming to an end.

-Brandon Ledet

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