The Legend of Vox Machina is a successful fan-service endeavor: a beloved Dungeons & Dragons podcast brought to the small screen through incredible animation. Hype for the series has been huge. As one of Kickstarter’s most successful campaigns, the community flocked to support the group of “nerdy ass voice actors who play Dungeons & Dragons.” And it lives up to the demand of both veteran and baby-faced fans.
Critical Role started as a weekly podcast of experienced voice actors role-playing Dungeons & Dragons. Airing way back in 2015, the property has continued to expand, branching into multiple seasons, a comic book series, and a recently released novel, among other projects. The Legend of Vox Machina is the most recent addition – a crowd-funded animated TV show that adapts the early events of Campaign 1.
Having first tuned in to Critical Role at the start of Campaign 2, I was along for the ride of the Kickstarter campaign hype train. For those unfamiliar with the project, the series is a comfortable way to dip your toes into the growing media expanse that is the Critical Role property. If you were always interested in the acclaimed D&D-based story but found the 373 hours of content (that’s only including the journey of the titular Vox Machina, by the way) too daunting, The Legend of Vox Machina is a considerably more manageable gulp. It’s fun, fast-paced, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. At least, not yet.
If you count yourself among the Critters—the affectionately coined moniker for Critical Role fans—you’ll enjoy the first 3 episodes of this much anticipated release. The series is littered with easter eggs, including several Matthew Mercer-looking NPC cameos, a cleverly avoided Copyright strike Chenga joke, and a personal favorite: an appearance from fourth-wall-breaking smut book Tusk Love.
We are introduced to our protagonists: the (in)famous Vox Machina. The main cast all reprise their roles: Travis Willingham as the oafish goliath Grog Strongjaw, Ashley Williams as the lovable gnome cleric Pike Trickfoot, Marisha Ray as the naive half-elf druid Keyleth, Laura Bailey and Liam O’Brien as twin half-elves Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan, Taliesin Jaffe as the gothic sharpshooter Percival (“Percy”) de Rolo, and Sam Riegel as the gnome scamp Scanlan Shorthalt. Matthew Mercer, the series Dungeon Master, also makes several appearances.
The story follows Vox Machina’s struggle to fame as they grow into the role of folk heroes. They are still navigating their allegiances to each other, as well as a world that is not yet theirs to save. However, an important warning to first time viewers and a reminder for fans who might have forgotten: Vox Machina is decidedly not the Fellowship of the Ring. At the start of their journey, they have a lot of growth ahead of them. They must battle their own demons, namely a certain cold and calculated ex-heir of Whitestone. Prepare yourself for No Mercy Percy.
As for the action, it is engaging, grand, and violent. Critical Role fan or not, if you enjoyed the explosive animation and unrestrained gore of Netflix’s Castlevania, you’ll like The Legend of Vox Machina. The series captures the feel of a D&D session through beats of irreverent humor and dramatic displays of barbarity. And it isn’t afraid to show you what caving in a dragon’s skull would actually look like.
To no one’s surprise, the voice-acting is incredible. Every one of the main cast gives a commendable performance. Marisha Ray deserves a special shoutout for her Keyleth, who is somehow infinitely more endearing than in the original series. Mercer relinquishes his role as, well, every character that isn’t Vox Machina. He hands the baton over to the likes of Stephanie Beatriz, David Tennant, Khary Payton, Felicia Day, and Tony Hale, among many talented others. Don’t fret, however, as Mercer still makes a perfect Sylas Briarwood, one of the big bads of this season.
If I were to jot down one complaint with the series so far, it’d be that I find the comedy to fall flat at times. There are some jarring juxtapositions of crude humor contrasted with heavy story beats. As a long time fan, I usually welcome the cast’s immaturity with open arms. But, within the 30 minute time frame of each episode, the tone is often inconsistent. I’m kept from sitting with the emotions of a callous death when Scanlan enters the scene for an ill-timed gimmick. Although “not taking itself too seriously” comes part and parcel for Critical Role, there is an allowed space for severity. Taking every chance to cram a joke detracts from that. I want The Legend of Vox Machina to be more than a generic adult animated comedy with a fantasy twist. For devoted Critters, take my opinion with a grain of salt. I say this all as someone who much prefers the Mighty Nein’s antics. If you love Vox Machina, you’ll be glad to know they are very much in character.
The Legend of Vox Machina presents an interesting situation: the series, after all, is telling a story that’s already been told. Instead of watching hours of live role-playing, its story dictated by spur-of-the-moment thinking and random dice rolls, the series presents a structured, pre-planned narrative with expectations to either abide by or subvert. Which path it chooses to tread is yet to be seen. As for the medium for its storytelling, the affordances of animation mean incredible action sequences are lovingly rendered in 2D and 3D. We are shown Tal’Dorei, given tangible sights of beautiful landscapes and endearing character designs. The series makes good on bringing an imagined world to life.
Yet I can’t help but miss Mercer’s immersive descriptions, yearning for the chance to dream up scenes for myself. Everyone’s favorite DM breathed life into the story with his diction and playful voice quirks. (Seriously, the lack of voice-acted sound effects is a true tragedy). I always jumped at the chance to close my eyes and interpret the setting for myself, to draw my own faces for the motley crew of characters described. Some of that has been lost in translation from podcast-to-TV. I grieve for that. However, I accept that as a necessary part of adaptation. The Legend of Vox Machina stands alone as its separate entry into the property, and has the opportunity to fashion a story with different cloth.
Alongside countless other Critters, I will be tuning in for the rest of the season. The Briarwood Arc offers some of Critical Role’s greatest moments, and I can’t wait to see it on the small screen.
You can catch new episodes of The Legend of Vox Machina on Prime Video every Friday.