CUPHEAD May Be Visually Appealing but Lacks Depth

Photo from IMDb

CUPHEAD May Be Visually Appealing but Lacks Depth

By Movieguide® Contributor

THE CUPHEAD SHOW is a 2022 Netflix Original animated series based on the video game CUPHEAD. It is a slice of life, slapstick comedy inspired by the “rubber hose” sensibilities of 1930’s cartoons. The show follows the impulsive Cuphead (True Valentino) and his cowardly yet level-headed brother Mugman (Frank Todaro). Together, they encounter absurd situations while also evading pursuit by the Devil.

CUPHEAD is a charismatic, yet disposable piece of “streaming content.” The art direction, voice acting, and animation are top-notch. The slapstick humor, on the other hand, is hit or miss. Aside from the artstyle, the series falls under the “average yet forgettable” category of television. It is as empty as a broken kettle when examined for its moral or written content. It contains a few problematic elements like losing one’s soul, ghosts, and a literal devil character. For a TV-Y7 series, MOVIEGUIDE® urges caution for older kids.

The show’s most laudable quality is its superb production quality. The animators went to great lengths to emulate ancient Disney and Fleischer shorts’ coloring, design, and mannerisms. The character models are memorable, expressive, and remain distinct from their Mickey Mouse inspiration. The end result is a technicolor world that pops. The voice acting is expressive, and the storyboarding is dynamic.

However, CUPHEAD is almost devoid in terms of intellectual content. The worldview is a vapid chalice of pagan ideas. Ghosts and demons exist in this world. Cuphead and Mugman are inherently selfish and do not grow as people. The series follows “anything goes” cartoon logic, where absurd elements are played for comedy’s sake. The cup duo gambles with their souls, insults their guardian Elder Kettle, and causes chaos to their town.

In a way, Cuphead and Mugman could be classified as anti-heroes. They fight game show host King Dice, two rambunctious business frogs, and even tease the Devil himself. In the final episode, the brothers team up with Miss Chalice to swindle goods out of the townspeople. The trio robs a cookie factory, but the police ambush them. Miss Chalice abandons the brothers. At the cliffhanger, the cup brothers end up in prison. These cup people are the textbook definition of juvenile delinquents.

Moral bankruptcy aside, CUPHEAD fails to differentiate itself from other “absurdist cartoon” contemporaries. The characters lack any unique emotional traits. The “impulsive guy, cowardly guy” dynamic between Cuphead and Mugman grows stale very quickly. The slapstick and era-appropriate dialogue fall mostly flat. There are rarely any unique “twists” or surprises. The episodes are 11 minutes worth of white noise.

The most comparable example to CUPHEAD is the classic episodes of SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. Both shows focus on young characters getting into absurd situations. The difference is in execution. In retro SPONGEBOB, the situations are memorable and embrace ridiculous moments to the extreme. The yellow sponge knew how to surprise viewers while also etching effective gags in viewers’ brains. The character dynamics were nuanced, which led to more subtle and effective punchlines.

The Netflix cartoon is “sanitized” in comparison. It spends so much time emulating classic animation, it forgets to flesh out its character dynamics or its absurd world. The comedy is more “absurd for absurd’s sake” without any twist. The series ends up as an imitator rather than an innovator like vintage SPONGEBOB.

The biggest savior of CUPHEAD, aside from the visuals, is the music. The series employs a jazzy, ragtime orchestra and includes several vocal performances. The music numbers are upbeat, energetic, and genuine earworms. The songs with the Devil and King Dice are especially memorable. However, these songs are not enough to salvage a forgettable show.

In conclusion, THE CUPHEAD SHOW is too average for its good. The visuals are striking and the vocal talent is incredible. These qualities are buried under problematic protagonists and vapid pagan ideas. Moreover, the show fails to leave anything memorable on an intellectual or emotional front. It was made to fill up shelf space, and it achieves that underwhelming goal. MOVIEGUIDE® urges caution for older children.