A cartoon receiving a feature-length movie to either wrap up or begin a new plotline is not a new trend, especially for Cartoon Network, but no recent series is better suited for the format than Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe. The series is often praised for its intricate plot and emotional character growth, but Steven Universe: The Movie highlights another strength of the series: its music. With a runtime of 90 minutes, Steven Universe: The Movie is not just the first movie of the series, but also its first full-length musical.
After “Change Your Mind,” the 44 minute season 5 finale of Steven Universe, aired this past January, the show seemed liked it was over. At this point in time, audiences knew there was a feature-length movie scheduled to release later in the year, but with the episode wrapping up the main plotline of a series that has aired for six years, what could a movie really further entail? Apparently, a lot, as The Movie gives fans more closure from the past 5 seasons with a hint towards the future of the series.
Set two years after the events of the finale, the universe is now at peace as Homeworld and Earth finally have a friendly alliance. Thanks to a now more mature 16-year-old Steven Universe (Zach Callison) serving as Earth’s diplomat, Homeworld has adopted new Earth-like customs, signifying the new era of peace that was foreshadowed in season 5. Finally returning back to Earth, all Steven wants to do is retire from fighting and live a normal life with the Crystal Gems and his friends. For a moment, it seems like Steven will get his wish, that is until a new threat lands on Earth.
From its opening credits, title card, and music, The Movie provokes a sense of admiration as the movie pays homage to the medium of animation itself, with inspired callbacks to classics from the 50s and 60s, including a fairytale-like prologue that tells the story of how Steven Universe ushered in a new era. This will likely invoke positive feelings for longtime fans who have appreciated how far the series has come since 2013.
Using emotion as a driving force for its characters’ actions comes with the territory of Steven Universe, and the movie is no exception. If you are unfamiliar with the series, don’t worry, as The Movie doesn’t alienate newcomers but welcomes them with spectacular recaps done through song that introduces the cartoon’s main characters that we have grown to love over the years while revealing their new facets.
Perhaps one of the most prominent themes of the film is growth. The movie spends a lot of time reflecting on past adventures, lingering trauma, and the characters’ resilience in the face of adversity. The characters are in a better place, but their sense of accomplishments, more specifically Steven’s, is a cause for introspection. Saving the universe at the age of 14 is a massive feat, but what comes next? The movie’s new villain is a worthy adversary for the Crystal Gems, but most importantly they prove to Steven that his job of protecting the universe will never be over.
Growth isn’t just exclusive to character development, as Sugar and composers Aivi & Surasshu elevate the The Movie soundtrack to a new level. The elevation is mainly in part to Sugar knowing exactly what she wants after six years on a series, but for the movie specifically, the talented list of collaborators plays a huge role in the fantastic soundtrack. Sugar and Aivi & Surasshu are joined by Chance the Rapper, Estelle, Aimee Mann, and Stemage, to name a few.
During the regular series of the cartoon, characters would sometimes break into song to reveal their inner feelings and motives, but songs were sparingly used after season 1. Make no mistake, Steven Universe was always a music-based show, but The Movie allows the music to shine in newer and more elaborate ways. Here, they are used to their full effect; every few minutes there is a musical number or melody to break up regular dialog. Most impressive are the improved vocals among the regular voice cast and the wide range of lyrical songs.
Steven Universe: The Movie is a passion project, and, to reference the first single of the film, it’s also a “True Kinda Love.” Sugar and company have successfully added numerous details that make a second and perhaps even a third watch all the more rewarding. With songs that can go toe to toe with some of the best in the series, callbacks to pivotal scenes from the first several seasons, and revelations that will change the world of the show forever, Steven Universe: The Movie is a musical worthy of a standing ovation.