In the Steven Universe movie, Steven and the Crystal Gems must deal with yet another ramification of Pink Diamond. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Steven Universe.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of trauma and grief
Oh, I just love this show, y’all.
I also love musicals, and there’s so much I want to talk about in regards to Steven Universe: The Movie, but this feels like the most natural place to begin. I don’t even know when I began to love the format of the musical as a means of storytelling, but I bet I could trace it back to a lot of the classic Disney films. (Which brings me to the first of many tangents: the animated The Lion King is one of my absolute favorites, and I’ll never quite experience the betrayal of what it was like to watch that “live-action” abomination. UGH, YOU GOT MOST OF IT WRONG also I need facial expressions!!!) The first proper musical I saw was probably Guys & Dolls, and I was lucky enough to see a touring production of Into the Woods with Vanessa Williams in high school, which is also when I made my musical debut as Harold Hill in The Music Man. I discovered RENT during this time, and then it was like falling into an abyss, except the abyss sings to you on your way down about how sorry it is that it didn’t move out of the way, but you’re here now, so why don’t you sing about what you’re feeling and advance the plot in the process?
There’s long been a strong musical bone within Steven Universe, and this is certainly not the first time that I’ve talked about musicals and the way this show utilizes elements of that art form. (At least I hope not. I feel like I’ve done it before! If not: SHAME, Mark. SHAME.) If I look at Steven Universe: The Movie purely as a musical: THIS SHIT RULES. It’s got the perfect structure! Songs that advance the plot and reveal important information! Refrains and reprises that provide additional information that’s vital to the story! (Seriously, the repurposing of “Let Us Adore You” to be about Spinel instead of Steven is FUCKING BRILLIANT.) The arc is PURE musical theatricality, taking us from a place of static emotions and joy to something that’s DEEPLY upsetting. Like, even the whole gem reset thing works super well, since each of the main characters sings about who they were in songs like “The Tale of Steven” and “Happily Ever After,” but then must discover who they are through song throughout the episode.
And then there’s “Other Friends,” which manages to sound fucking SPECTACULAR and exists within a tradition of antagonistic musical numbers that are somehow the most poppy and catchy moments in the whole show. Holy shit, that song??? Spinel’s performance—which goes to SARAH STILES, OH MY GOD, I DIDN’T REALIZE IT WAS HER—is just so heartfelt and revealing and entertaining. And it should be entertaining! She needed to have the big, over-the-top showstopper because her character is meant to entertain. And I love that sort of thought put into the construction of this movie, which is something we saw in the show, too. (I’m particularly thinking of many of the songs that have been written for Pearl, all of which perfectly match her characterization.)
As a continuation of the story from the season five finale, and as a Steven Universe “episode,” I gotta say that this really worked for me. I’ve definitely written about this before: I’ve come to love the complicated nature of the show’s serialized plot and how it never lets things resolve in easy ways. There’s an element of this film that’s in conversation with a lot of seasons three and four, and even earlier than that. As Steven vocalizes here, he’s long had to contend with the ramifications of his mother’s actions, and this is no exception. But we start at such a different place! The first act of the film is unbridled joy, and it was such a fascinating emotional anchor for the story. After finally “defeating” the Diamonds and helping them to reform their ways, Steven and his friends and Beach City were… problem-free. THE WAR WAS OVER! And I loved how the show addressed that the Diamonds were changing, that Steven had, over the years, pushed them to end their colonization EVERYWHERE, not just on Earth. I mean… I feel like I’m also just brushing past the huge reveal that STEVEN AND CONNIE ARE SIXTEEN YEARS OLD NOW??? It only took me 750 words to get there, but WHAT A SURPRISE. Is that something the show is going to commit to in further seasons? I imagine they have to, especially since Zach Callison and Grace Rolek are getting older and their voices must be changing. (Zach did sound different here, but I don’t know if that’s all performance or because he’s now in his early twenties.) It’s kinda cool, too, because the kids who have grown up with Steven are now getting older, too, and the idea of this character getting older with them is so damn great!
Anyway, the point I’m coming to: Steven’s life has changed in undeniable ways, and thus, I understood why he wanted his life to be static. It’s all been chaotic since he came into the truth of who he was and what his powers are. Finally, his life is happy. His friends are all well and full of joy, and gems are now building their own Homeworld on Earth. It is a portrait of HAPPINESS, and it’s well-deserved after everything that’s happened. But no single person’s life can ever truly stay the same, at least not without isolating one’s self from… well, literally everything. Change is an inevitable part of being human. Our bodies change. Our feelings change. Our circumstances change. And often, those forces for change are external, too, like the sudden arrival of Spinel and her drill. Internally, Steven is actually quite fine! Sure, he’s dealing with the Diamonds’ attachment issues and their desire to have him live on Homeworld when he just wants to be on Earth. But relative to the things he’s had to deal with since he was a kid? That’s nothing. It’s a fairly small problem to have!
In just a few minutes, though, the tranquility that Steven has evaporates. Spinel arrives, loudly announces her intent to destroy Earth, Steven, and Steven’s friends. And lord, can we talk about the animation??? I loved that Spinel felt like she belonged in Looney Tunes, and the decision to have her style mimic a goofier kind of animation was brilliant. She was made to entertain! Comically so! She shares a meta-purpose with that age of animation, and it works so perfectly in showing us who this character is long before Pearl actually explains what Spinel’s original purpose was. But I think that’s actually the case for the show as a whole! Like, if you never saw an episode of this show, I think the film works real well to onboard a new viewer to the larger story while still respecting those of us who have been watching the entire time, and that goes for all the visual storytelling that happens, too.
Take the storytelling that happens once Spinel uses the Rejuvenator (and has it used on herself). What we’re effectively watching is a reset, a moment where each of these gems are sent back to their “default” settings. Their memories, experiences, personalities… all of it is gone. So what do these characters look like? They’re each animated in ways to remind us of their default gem states. Pearl is now formal, upright, proper, and eager to serve. (In this case, it’s Um Master Greg, one of the best running gags of the episode.) Amethyst is smaller and only mimics those around her, unable to feel worthy of developing her own personality or sense of self. Garnet is split into Ruby and Sapphire, and the two of them easily fall back into the roles they are supposed to play.
I loved this plot, for the record. There’s the looming threat of the drill and the possibility that life on Earth will be destroyed, but everything else felt so personal. In order to “reboot” the Crystal Gems, Steven has to trigger the missing pieces of their lives. WHICH IS VERY SATISFYING TO WATCH. Look, I’m just never going to get over watching Ruby and Sapphire fuse? And “Isn’t it Love?” made me cry? I LOVE GARNET SO MUCH??? So I felt a ton of joy watching Steven try to figure out what it was that each of his friends needed to transform back into their original selves. (Well, he also involves Peridot, Bismuth, and Lapis, and I’m so happy the three of them got as much screen time as they did.) And through song! “No Matter What” highlighted the special friendship that Steven and Amethyst had; AND THEN THERE WAS “INDEPENDENT TOGETHER.” I had to text a friend to find out that Steven and Greg’s fusion name is STEG. (I don’t Google these things to avoid spoilers.) I just… can’t deal. I can’t deal with how amazing and shocking that sequence was, how much the song worked, and how TED LEO VOICED STEG AND TED LEO IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE MUSICIANS ON THE PLANET! But let’s talk about that theme, the message of independence and agency, and how much this helped Pearl to realize that she can be her own person, and THIS IS EXACTLY PEARL’S CHARACTER GROWTH, and I am so thrilled by this show, y’all.
And because this is Steven Universe, there’s gotta be something gut-wrenching or heartbreaking, and that arrives in the form of Spinel. I got the sense that she was yet another unintended ramification of Pink Diamond’s choices, but… lord. Y’all, I wasn’t ready for how utterly soul-destroying this was. I’ve enjoyed how much this show is willing to give their villains sympathy and understanding, and Spinel is no exception to this. Her dedication to wanting to destroy Steven, his friends, and his home was confusing, right up until the point where Spinel reveals what was done to her. SIX. THOUSAND. YEARS. Wasn’t that the number given to us? She was abandoned by Pink Diamond after Pink Diamond was given Earth as a colony, but Pink Diamond wouldn’t take her with her. Instead, she made it into a game where Spinel had to wait for Pink Diamond to return, and SHE NEVER DID. She wait thousands of years for her, and it was only when Steven sent out a message to all the gems of Homeworld that Spinel found out what had happened to her. That image of Spinel ripping her foot out fo the ground? THAT SHALL HAUNT ME FOREVER.
Yet even the solution to this isn’t cut and dry, and I found myself fascinated by the complicated turn of events that followed. It was natural that Steven offered to make right what his mother had done wrong, but how do you make up for that many years of solitude? Plus, Spinel wasn’t exactly reading to trust everyone, and most of the Earth characters weren’t ready to trust her, either. And so, we get this complicated mess of intentions and misconceptions, and it’s how Spinel comes to see Steven’s actions as inherently self-serving, even though Steven is doing his best to try to save Earth. But that’s the crux of this problem! Steven is trying to save Earth, which is a noble idea, but his whole motivation is that he wants to go back to the “ideal” happily ever after that he thought existed towards the beginning of the film. He wanted perfection, even though that’s not what happiness is. He’s working against Spinel, whose entire life was designed for one purpose: to entertain Pink Diamond. How is she supposed to do anything else? Her life had been unchanging in the most dramatic, ridiculous way imaginable, and now, it’s all changing rapidly before her.
But change, while scary and frightening and upsetting and frustrating, is an inevitable part of us all. It’s part of the very fabric of Steven Universe and, more specifically, of Steven’s life and powers. It was only through embracing his changing body that Steven was able to truly use his powers, and thus, that’s the piece he has to find alongside Spinel. (Oh, “Change” was SO good, y’all. These songs!!! They are so much!!!) They have to accept that their lives have changed, that they can change, that they can grow out of trauma and hardship and become something else. And in the Diamonds, Spinel can find a life where she is appreciated for once, you know? The Diamonds seem to see her as more than what she was created for, something that Pink Diamond was ultimately not able to do.
I don’t know what the future of Steven Universe is. (Don’t tell me!) I feel like there’s so much left to explore in the world. Beach City has been fundamentally changed after Spinel’s drill, and while Steven can “heal” much of the world, I wonder what he’ll leave as-is. What’s worthy of change? What’s part of the new city? And how will the new Homeworld become a part of life in Beach City? I want to see these sort of questions answered! So, whatever comes of this show, I’ve been so happy it exists. This film was yet another reminder of this for me, and I’m glad I got to experience it. And you better believe I went and downloaded the soundtrack so I can listen to it a million more times.
The video for Steven Universe: The Movie can be downloaded here for $1.99.
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