No one is going to confuse “Crossing Swords” for being a treasure trove of subtlety. The medieval-set animated series cracks giant dragon eggs, roasts tiny adorable animals, sets up a sex-fueled monarch, establishes another as a sucker for monster track rally-level spectacle, and answers the age-old conundrum: If animated people made from woodblocks don’t have arms, do they still have genitals?
And that’s just the first episode. (You can probably guess the answer to that question, too.)
The new Hulu comedy is a cavalcade of sight gags and glancing pop culture nods, all set within the confines of this kingdom where members of the royal family and their minions are offered detailed expressive features, while many of the peasant class get simple painted, nondescript faces. The show is a spiritual descendant of “Robot Chicken,” the stop-motion Adult Swim staple where “Crossing Swords” co-creators John Harvatine IV and Tom Root served as executive producers.
Swapping out clay for wood, there’s something instantly attention-grabbing in the “Crossing Swords” character design. From our adequately brave protagonist Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) to the aforementioned King Merriman (Luke Evans) and Queen Tulip (Alana Ubach), all the humans are fashioned as Duplo-looking characters rendered without any arms. All flying, jousting, and assorted forms of bodily contact happen with swords and accessories floating alongside.
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For as detailed as the land around the castle is, the medieval setting is an extremely flexible one. Like “Miracle Workers: Dark Ages” from earlier this year, “Crossing Swords” uses its time period as a means for bringing in what versions of modern amenities and dilemmas may have looked like in that time. Along the way, it manages to squeeze in everything from a rollicking sea battle with a mythic creature to an Arthurian Coachella. As Patrick uses his newfound, unlikely place within the King’s inner circle to set forth on both deadly and monotonous tasks, each new episode finds something else to undercut the expectations of valiant knights and fair maidens.
Like “Robot Chicken” before it, the show milks every drop of irony out of using a Rankin-Bass-adjacent style for truly depraved ends. That parade of surprises from the pilot is very much sustained in the following nine episodes, as characters are exploded, garroted, stabbed, filleted, and otherwise brutalized, resulting in comically-sized rivers of jelly. For better or worse, this is a show powered by the same frenetic, hormonal, action figure-slamming energy that rarely lets up.
With Harvatine serving as the director of every episode, there’s more than the limbless protagonists and the translucent blood to catch a viewer’s eye. The exhausting scope of these episodes demands some inventive, practical solutions to bring them to life. A new spin on drug hallucinations here, a reimagining of fairy dust there, and “Crossing Swords” has so much happening around its edges that it’s almost more satisfying to watch all this debauchery on mute.
Some stretches of the show make that prospect even more tempting. With so much of the tonal groundwork taken care of by that first episode, each new attempt to go back to that well gets less and less shocking. By the season’s midpoint, the driving force of “when in doubt, add a penis (or five)” gets tiresome fairly quickly. In the constant quest for “Crossing Swords” to bring in new outside ideas to stir up Patrick’s already-crazed world, most of those setups feel drawn out, even at 23 minutes. Those other characters in Patrick’s orbit — new friend Broth (Adam Pally); his siblings Coral (Tara Strong), Ruben (Adam Ray), and Blarney (Tony Hale); the Princess Blossom (Maya Erskine) — are designed to be blunt instruments, brought in to add their one defining trait to whatever chaos a new chapter calls for.
Yet, even when those people around Patrick seem thin, it’s the voice work on the show that becomes another saving grace. Hoult and Evans are almost unrecognizable here, but “Crossing Swords” is all the better for how much unreserved gusto they bring to their respective parts. Hale shows off his versatility by playing more than just Patrick’s aspiring clown brother, while Ubach makes the Queen one of the series’ true wild cards. The parade of guest stars infuses those single-minded characters with enough personality to make this more than just a series of setups and punchlines. (Don’t look up who Alfred Molina plays — it’s one of the season’s best reveals.)
There are times when “Crossing Swords” really lets its imagination run wild, like in a late-season episode that builds on the foundation of a classic fairy tale. To see this team use that sense of unpredictability rather than being tethered to having to parody existing things helps cut through that feeling of simmering sameness. Those moments when it sheds its thick over-the-top, shouty shell — it’s fun seeing what they uncover inside.
“Crossing Swords” is now available to stream on Hulu.