This review was commissioned. That means I was paid to watch and review the series in question. You can learn about my commission policies and how to buy commissions of your own here. This review was commissioned by Yarrun. Many thanks, as always.

This review contains spoilers for the reviewed material. This is your only warning. This review is for an ongoing series. Facts and opinions are subject to change. Images occur courtesy of the Mao Mao Fan Wiki.

“Has anyone ever told you you have issues?”

Cartoon Network’s slow slide into a streaming-first content mill as opposed to a TV network per se has been equal parts troubling and kind of fascinating. One consequence, among many, is the increased reliance on the short-form action-comedy formula repopularized by Teen Titans Go!. This isn’t anything actually new for the network exactly, but the pace of these shows has gotten increasingly frantic over the years. Whether the actual result of the decreased attention span of the internet age or just some executive’s delusion of such is a question for sociologists and fans of TV programming inside-baseball, but one can’t deny that the trend exists.

Mao Mao, the protagonist. He sounds a bit like Batman, that’s how you know he’s a good guy.

Thus, we have Mao Mao: Heroes of Pure Heart. Set in something akin to a lower-fantasy version of Adventure Time’s Kingdom of Ooo, our three leads are the titular Mao Mao and his friends / roommates / co-heroes of justice Badgerclops and Adorabat. Their job, at least in theory, is the defense of Pureheart Valley, the sleepy abode where they live and act as “sheriffs”, which is populated by a technicolor gaggle of cutesy animal-people called Sweetypies. 

Lest one get the wrong idea about Mao Mao, the series’ (actually quite thorough) fan-wiki singles out just six of the 40 episodes that make up the first season as having “full story progression”. This is not a cartoon where the narrative through-line is the main focus. It is also, it should be emphasized, not a series that likes to neatly package itself into simple life lessons. Many episodes either subvert their apparent theme or never bother to build one up to begin with. What, for example, would one make of “The Truth Stinks”, an episode chiefly about how Badgerclops does not like to shower and resorts to hokey new age trinkets to “purify his toxins” instead, and thus smells bad as a result? Maybe, one could argue, that the target audience should shower, but the episode itself doesn’t really go that route, and neither do almost any of the episodes that seem inclined toward a simple lesson. 

Mao Mao, thus, tends to eschew easy morals in favor of presenting itself as “pure” comedy. Comedy that is, by and large, quite solid. Mao Mao’s characterization as a self-sabotaging neurotic is fairly rare among this kind of series. And while it’s not hard to sympathize with the guy, he does run himself into the ground so often that you can’t help but laugh, too. Occasionally to the point of a full-on odyssey, as in say the absurdly-named “Mao Mao’s Nakey”, where the herocat loses his clothes to a stray gust of wind and must dart around town frantically to find them while avoiding the prying gaze of his constituents.

There’s a lot of terrible jokes one could make about this image. I respect my readership, so there are none in this caption.

Mao Mao‘s general vibe may have something to do with its pedigree. In addition to another entry in this subgenre, OK KO!, showrunner and voice actor Parker Simmons has a history with [adult swim] that includes Metalocalypse and Superjail. The adult subject matter is largely absent from Mao Mao, of course, but an [as]-like sense of humor does run through the series.

Like many of that sub-network’s shows, the weaker episodes here tend to take their comedic grounding to an unfortunate extreme. As a result they often feel less like episodes and more like just a sequence of Things Happening. Occasionally the jokes hit oddly, too. “Popularity Conquest”, an early episode full of ambiguously-intended swipes at other Cartoon Network shows (going especially hard at Steven Universe), is a prime example. By far the worst though is the series’ occasional attempts to frame its protagonists’ cop status as a joke. Gags involving riot gear and the failures of the justice system have arguably never been funny, and they certainly aren’t in 2020. These particularly egregious examples are, thankfully, rare.

One could thus argue that Mao Mao has something of an issue with undercutting its own emotional core. But on the other hand, when it does let that core come through untouched, it tends to make for the strongest episodes of the series. Mao Mao’s judgmental, emotionally abusive, perpetually-disappointed father, Shin Mao, haunts him, (sometimes literally, as in “Scared of Puppets”), and informs his character flaws. The show is named after him, so it’s fitting that Mao Mao is the most rounded character in the series. More than even many more serious shows, Mao Mao understands that trauma tends to outlive the malice or carelessness that births it. 

Shin Mao doing what he does best; looking vaguely condescending.

“Small” does not end with Mao Mao overcoming his complex. Even at the episode’s end, when he saves his father from a rampaging beast, finally earning his respect, Mao Mao is apologetic and self-deprecating. Later episodes like “Super Berry Fever” or the aforementioned “Scared of Puppets” illustrate in a surprisingly subtle way how the fallout from malformed family relationships can infect the most random of things, damaging one’s emotional functionality well into adulthood. The idea that fruit cobbler or a fear of ventriloquist dummies could possibly reflect deeper emotional trauma can seem superficially ridiculous, and the series is in fact occasionally guilty of treating it that way. But in general, these episodes are the strongest of the series, and bely a more thoughtful emotional sensibility than one might assume.

The other two leads, and their own sets of issues, get a similar focus, though not as much. Adorabat in particular is the star of “Adoradad”, perhaps the single best episode in the series thusfar and its most straightforward story-driven adventure to date. “Adoradad”, in fact, with its complex family dynamic, impressive art, and commendable economy of character, may point to a way forward for Mao Mao on the whole. 

As good as Mao Mao can be–and at its heights, that’s a good deal more than your average jaded animation fan may expect–what it feels like it’s missing is that sense of forward drive. “Adoradad” offers up the notion of Mao Mao as a more narratively-driven experience. Still with laughter at its core, but with a more ambitious goal of weaving sophisticated stories for its young audience without falling into being rote or crass. In a very literal sense, the story of Mao Mao is still being written, and if there’s anything worth hoping for, it’s that like Adorabat herself, it lives up to its potential.

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All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.

2 thoughts on “(REVIEW) The Cat’s Out of The Bag: MAO MAO: HEROES OF PURE HEART

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