Judging by the huge success that Ben 10 has already acquired, whatever I say here will have little effect on the DVD sales or popularity of the show. I can, however, give an insight into how I found the four episodes included on this DVD, having never seen a complete episode before, especially as I saw them out of context and with no real idea of the tone and structure. So as an outsider’s guide to Ben 10, here are ten things I learnt from the little I’ve seen:
- Having a catchy theme tune is still a fantastic way to ramp up the excitement level of a cartoon and Ben 10 is no exception. I still have vivid memories of bouncing excitedly in front of the TV to the sounds of the Transformers/M.A.S.K/Thundercats etc. themes and having heard the Ben 10 theme only four times it’s already firmly stuck in my head, and makes me glad that a whole new generation of children have something of the same musical greatness that makes Saturday mornings as a kid all the richer. It’s also a handy way of having the basic story explained in seconds and in verse.
- Monsters rule. I have always had an absolute love of all things horror and superhero orientated, so it is a master stroke to combine those two things so seamlessly, while making Ben himself a ten year old boy, the same age as (I presume) the cartoons’ target audience. The fact that he has the ability to transform himself into one of ten different monsters, all of which have different abilities, made for an entertaining game of ‘which one will he pick?’ and I all too quickly found myself shouting “Monster up, Ben!” at key points. The monsters themselves are fantastically designed, the two standouts being Heatblast (a cool aesthetic combination of Iron Man and Ghost Rider) and Ghostfreak who seems far too sinister for a children’s cartoon and is likely to find himself on a t-shirt I own at some point soon. The most interesting part of Ben’s transformations is that most of the monsters seem to possess their own characteristics and voices, yet still retain Ben’s personality at the same time, making for a much more interesting and complex dynamic to his powers than I expected, while still working on a purely visceral level.
- It came as no surprise when I discovered that one of the creative team (known collectively as ‘Man of Action’) has worked on a variety of X-Men comics, as the word ‘freak’ recurs throughout. It works on the usual level of referring to monsters as freaks, but plays on the ordeals of being at that difficult age when your body is about to hit the insanity of puberty and everything starts to feel alien. Hardly an original theme, but no less valid and always welcome for bringing depth to what could so easily have been a soulless exercise in marketing children’s toys.
- Yet another cartoon that manages to combine eastern animation influences with its western setting. The animation is fantastic and the fusion of different styles contained in one episode help to keep everything looking fresh and exciting and, above all else, look attentively drawn and in no way does it feel like anyone has cut any corners, either creatively or artistically.
- With great power comes great responsibility. The show’s synopsis on The Cartoon Network website even uses the words ‘power’ and ‘responsibility’ and the fact that Ben is spending the summer travelling with his wise grandfather (ok, so he’s not an uncle, but the characters seem like kindred spirits) and in one argument Ben even shouts, “You’re not my father!” The family tension helps to keep things in line with all those familiar stories I’m so attached to and keep things as grounded as they can be, given that it’s about a boy who transforms into monsters by way of an alien wristwatch…
- Emos are bad. Or is that Emo-s? Or Emo’s? Emus? Anyhow, they’re bad and not just because they’re like diluted Goths. In one episode, Ben befriends an emo-looking chap after helping him avoid a beating from a local gang, but all too soon the emo kid isn’t content with revenge, he wants to commit mass murder! Luckily, Ben soon learns that being friends with an emo is a bad idea and that it’s probably best to drop heavy concrete buildings on top of him instead. In the fourth episode on the disc there is a group of circus ‘freaks’, one of whom has a distinctly emo-looking haircut and would you believe it – he’s a rotter. I think Ben and I both learnt a valuable lesson.
- “Clowns aren’t funny.” Ben makes that statement in the most surreal and dark episode on the disc (and one which I consequently thought was the best), involving a clown fantastically called Zombozo who steals the laughter from his audience, transforming them into depressed, and in severe cases, withered old shells of their former selves. Clowns freak a lot of people out at the best of times (myself included) and Zombozo is no exception, especially in one scene where he morphs into a clown-spider, which seemed almost too sinister for a young audience and left me curious to see what future episodes would hold. The episode also marked the first time I saw Ben’s monster Ghostfreak appear and defeat the clown using a tactic that Beetlejuice himself employed, so a win on all counts.
- Always rely on the brain. Ben’s cousin Gwen provides the biggest thorn in Ben’s side, yet just like Penny from Inspector Gadget, seems to provide the brains and ingenuity to make her place at Ben’s side necessary, whilst also causing him the aggravation that boys suffer from girls at that age. Oh, and she’s also an ace at flying kicks, which is a bonus.
- Lessons can be learnt. In keeping with any good form of kids entertainment, while watching Ben avoid laser fire and fighting alien life forms, there is both moral and scientific lessons taking place in each episode. The great thing is that the moral lessons don’t seem to be force fed at the expense of fun, while Ben is learning to control his power he’s also becoming aware of the jeopardy in which he puts his family while fighting and the friction between the characters just seems to make the cartoon more immersive. Science, meanwhile, comes from the weaknesses and strengths of his monstrous incarnations; similar to the way that Pokémon used elemental traits such as fire and water, Ben 10 then expands into the realms of the technological and spiritual and is especially well done.
- Ten is the number. It’s all about the ten for obvious reasons, Ben and Gwen are both ten, the number of monsters he can transform into are ten and his name is Ben Tennyson. A simple gimmick but it works. All in all, the small amount of Ben 10 that I’ve seen has whet my appetite for more, seeing any cartoon not aimed directly at me, yet to still be able to enjoy it on multiple and unexpected levels, is a testament to the creative team’s dedication and devotion to make a thoroughly entertaining and dark show, that could have so easily been a lazy cash cow.
There is also a short extra which shows one of the animators demonstrating how he draws Ben, in a ‘how to’ way, which is short but sweet.