Before it premiered, Son of Zorn relied on the allure of its half-animated/half-live-action world to pull potential viewers in. The “He-Man out of water” premise was always pretty thin, a stretched sketch backed by a talented but not exactly exciting ensemble. But the protagonist is a cartoon! His surroundings are real! His son is half-cartoon, half-Johnny Pemberton’s real scrawny bod! Its weird. It’s visually intriguing enough to initially hook. It has the same visual dissonance of Space Jam and Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Mary Poppins; they’re all veritable masterpieces in their own right.
Any story that uses animation has the chance to create whole new worlds. In a live action/animation hybrid like Son of Zorn, the animation adds literal layers to the world and renders a familiar place unfamiliar. On Son of Zorn, Zorn and the rest of the Zephyrian tidbits that follow him are bolder, brighter, and bigger than their real-life surroundings. They’re solid-color. But they still move like the rest of the show. Zorn occupies the same spaces as Cheryl Hines, Pemberton, and Tim Meadows. He fills them up, moves around in them, interacts with his real-life surroundings. Here, Son of Zorn is often technically impressive, the animation looking like it’s really existing with and operating within the real world instead of just sitting on top of it.
If anything, Son of Zorn needs more of the animation. Zephyria has become gradually more specific and developed over the course of the season, and “The War On Grafelnik” introduces a Zephyrian holiday that coincides with Christmas but celebrates revenge. Like most Son of Zorn gags, it gets hit pretty hard on the head: Grafelnik snowballs are just rocks and a typical Grafelnik greeting is a hard punch to the face. But other than one-off jokes — like the scary costume Zorn sports in the beginning of the episode — there’s no other visuals to flesh out the concept of Grafelnik. Son of Zorn doesn’t make enough use of its otherworldly aspects, and only uses Zephyrian artifacts and creatures when it’s convenient with the plot instead of letting them disturb and distort this world in a more organic way.
“The War On Grafelnik” actually has a strong storyline at its core. Edie, Zorn, and Alan all prove selfish and manipulative, and it’s nice to see them on more even playing ground rather than the normal dynamic (Zorn versus Edie and Alan). But there’s an emptiness to the episode, and not just because it remains wholly predictable. It’s fun to watch in its weirdest moments. A lot of those weird moments come when Son of Zorn’s normal world is infiltrated by Zephyrian madness, which is why Edie and Zorn’s battle in Santa’s village at the end is one of the highlights.
But a strong storyline is something audiences can’t count on Son of Zorn for. Zorn is so horrible and unchanging and Zephyria is so violent that the story is consistently bonkers. Zorn killed his best friend at the end of the last episode, but you wouldn’t know that from watching “The War On Grafelnik.” Son of Zorn is detached from serialized storytelling, detached from reality; It certainly feels no need to be narratively grounded. But if Son of Zorn isn’t going to take risks by making its characters more grounded and taking on more emotional storytelling, it needs to go all in with the show’s visuals and untether it completely.