Steven Universe: The Movie Is a Mindblowingly Heartfelt, Musical Masterpiece

Scenes from Steven Universe: The Movie.
Image: Cartoon Network
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From the moment Steven Universe: The Movie’s sumptuously-produced opening credits begin rolling, you can see how Rebecca Sugar really, really wasn’t being subtle earlier this year. She explained how the Crewniverse had been secretly preparing for the Crystal Gems’ latest adventure with a number of the series’ earlier musical episodes and, interestingly, the illustrated storybooks based on the show that reimagine important moments as fairytales.

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Steven Universe: The Movie brings many of the things fans have come to love about the series—the music, the deeply-moving character development, and clever homages to animated classics—together, much like the Diamonds’ quartet of limb ships, to tell a story that takes Steven (Zach Callison), Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), and Pearl (Dee Dee Magno Hall) back to their roots by pushing them into a bold new future.

Set after two years after the events of “Change Your Mind,” The Movie—which debuts on Cartoon Network on Monday, September 2—finds Steven and the Gems adjusting to life in a world where Earth and Homeworld have become friendly allies with a diplomatic relationship that’s growing stronger every day. Steven’s grown up in more ways than one. Now that he’s 16, he’s finally caught up to the other Crystal Gems and gained a new form that reflects both his physical and emotional growth, and the new Homeworld-related responsibilities he’s taken on as Pink Diamond’s rightful successor.

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Steven Universe: The Movie very carefully toes the line between being a straight-on continuation of the show and a “special adventure” kind of story often featured in anime movies that are distinctly set just outside the main continuity. You don’t need to be fully familiar with everything Steven and the Gems have done up until this point, because The Movie spends a few glorious moments recapping all of the basics through a series of inspired songs that speak to how Steven Universe’s creative team has continued to grow into their respective talents over the years.

Steven Universe has always been a musical show, but The Movie truly is a big, brassy Old Hollywood musical epic in the sense that you’re never waiting for more than a few minutes before someone bursts out into an elaborately-crafted song about their inner feelings that drives the narrative forward. The consistent catchiness of the movie’s tracks is a feat even by Steven Universe’s standards. Nearly every member of the movie’s sprawling cast of established characters is featured in a musical performance that highlights important, less obvious elements of their characters in classic Steven Universe style. And the songs from Sugar, series composers Aivi & Surasshu, Estelle, Aimee Mann, Chance the Rapper, and James Fauntleroy all feel like a concentrated effort to elevate Steven Universe’s presence as an explicitly musical endeavor.

The sheer size of Steven Universe: The Movie’s roster of musical talent and the way the movie gives most every cast member a moment to shine ends up working both for and against the movie, at times. Zach Callison’s teen Steven takes some getting used to because of how much of Steven Universe’s classic sound has been built around his younger voice. But by that same token, The Movie’s shift provides characters like Magno Hall’s Pearl and the trio of Diamonds voiced by Patti LuPone, Lisa Hannigan, and Christine Ebersole the chance to showcase their musical talents in larger, cinematic ways the series’ episodes don’t always have space for.

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A new Gem introduced in Steven Universe: The Movie.
A new Gem introduced in Steven Universe: The Movie.
Image: Cartoon Network

Some of the big musical numbers feature lyrical and melodic callbacks to established bits of Steven Universe lore that add to the movie’s overall atmosphere, but many of the more intimate songs—like “Let Us Adore You,” a throwback close harmony number, and “system/BOOT.pearl_final(3).Info,”—explore new things about Steven and the Gems’ lives in exciting ways.

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This is especially true of The Movie’s central villain, who suddenly shows up on Earth out of nowhere with the singular goal of murdering Steven. The new Gem’s arrival is one of the Steven Universe’s slickest action set pieces to date and cause for obvious alarm, but she’s also the heart of the movie in the sense that she’s what really sets everything in motion. But, in typical Steven Universe fashion, the true story at hand isn’t quite as it’s been presented in The Movie’s first act and learning the truth pushes each of the Gems to their breaking points in different, fascinating ways.

Steven Universe: The Movie is, well, a very Steven Universe movie, meaning that the twists and turns it takes you on feel both surprising and pleasantly familiar. The clues about what’s happening have been right in front of you all along, but you were too busy enjoying the adventure to bother trying to get ahead of the story. As always, everyone’s feelings are a core part of Steven’s journey, and the movie does an excellent job of putting the titular character in a position to demonstrate how much he’s grown as a leader for his people. The Movie’s scale and ambition also point to how Steven’s story has become so much more dynamic, and you can see by the movie’s end that the Crewniverse could very well have more than a few more ideas about what the future holds for the Crystal Gems.

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Steven Universe: The Movie will debut commercial-free on Cartoon Network at 6:00 p.m. on September 2.


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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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DISCUSSION

saintheartwing
SaintHeartwing

The music being nice and animation being nice is fine. What about the whole “Diamonds getting off basically scott free after eons of murder and genocide” thing? If you go by the murals of how many worlds they’ve had under their “care”, then over 30 planets, at least some of them had to have sentient life on them, got devastated and ravaged and the inhabitants slaughtered, and that ignores the millions of gems shattered that didn’t get corrupted by their Corruption Wave, and the gems they experimented on and made into shards that still haven’t been put back together and weren’t part of the Cluster that’s now at peace. It’s basically ProZD’s “Everybody forgives the villain even though they did awful things” video but played straight in SU. And this is an issue that’s not properly addressed at all. I can forgive the problematic coding. I can forgive the whole “Garnet had to forgive Pearl at the barrel of a gun basically cuz they were both about to die” thing even though it’s a sleazy act and Garnet was right to feel betrayed. I can forgive the whole “Forgiveness is everything” thing being hypocritical since they didn’t really forgive Kevin (the jerk who tried to dance with Stevonnie, who is a whole other creepy can of worms) even though his “sins” were paltry and the Diamonds got off scott free though they literally instituted slavery on their planet and they’ve been murdering gems for years for not being up to snuff and doing genocide of other worlds-

Actually, no, I can’t overlook that last one. The film. Does it address this blatant “letting the big bads of the series get away with blatant atrocities” thing? And furthermore, if they just beat this new bad guy with yet another redemption even though a sad backstory doesn’t justify atrocities and attempted mass murder...is that what happens too? Because if it is, I’m sorry, but...no. I’m not going to watch the movie through legitimate means. I will pirate this thing and not give the “Crewniverse” one dime. Because Sugar’s overindulge on tropes like forgiving the villain and redemption arcs and huge stakes have made a show with very messed up implications: that you should always forgive family even if they only really showed care about you when you were dead. That you should try to sympathize with fascists and understand their feelings. That you should forgive folks who do absolutely monstrous things even if they’ve slaughtered millions. Especially if they’re too powerful to even try to fight. Oh, and who cares about sentient people in slavery. Can’t forget about that “Zoo’. Because if they’re happy, then that’s fine! You don’t gotta go back and try to save them or anything. That’s not problematic at all.

I can’t...be the only one who sees these issues.