Sugar, spice, and everything nice; these are words commonly associated with Toei’s Pretty Cure franchise. Though understandable, this franchise has garnered criticism for its stagnant plot formulas, characters, and juvenile themes. Unfolding in an identical manner to many traditional magical girl tales, Smile Precure perhaps gives the initial impression that it is just another fish lost in the sea of mass consumerism. However, with just a sprinkle of creativity dust, this installment proves that it is still possible (with no pun intended) to transform a standard formula into something possessing a certain charm of its own.
In what can only be considered a cliché by now, the story unfolds in practically the same way as any other entry in the genre – Miyuki, a perpetually happy girl whose infectiously positive catchphrase, “Ultra Happy!”, could be marketed as a brand of anti-depressants, encounters a cute fairy from a magical land. Shortly thereafter, she is transformed by the forces of magic into Cure Happy to fight against the evil Bad Ends. Along the way, she is joined by four of her other classmates who also become Pretty Cure, sparking their ongoing fight against the Bad Ends for 48 consecutive weeks (excluding holidays of course, since even magical girls require their downtime).
So then what’s the catch exactly? Isn’t this just the same fish wearing a different frilly outfit?
Well here’s the punch line, there is no catch. Unlike some of the more recent attempts to break the mold of the genre, Smile remains firmly anchored in the roots of the monster of the week formula. However, this is not the be all, end all of its success as rather than attempt to tell a grandiose story, Smile does the exact opposite and spoofs many of the more serious tropes within the genre. For instance, some episodes outright parody the infamous transformation sequences, throwing mascots, infantile versions of the main cast, and stand-up comedians into the mix. Similarly, others rely on absurd set-ups to provide entertainment such as having the Cures swap bodies, shrink down to microscopic size, or drawn into a picture book. As such, it is the sheer amount of comic mischief that makes Smile truly enjoyable to watch.
Of course, Smile’s success doesn’t just stem from the fact that it contains a great deal of humour, but rather how seamlessly it integrates comic relief into its traditional plot formula. Since the monster of the week formula has undoubtedly become predictable to anyone above the age of ten, Smile helps keep things fresh by adding a few twists along the way. While every episode’s conflict still boils down to defeating whatever monster the Bad Ends can conjure up, it is generally the unusual methods the girls have to resort to that helps break the stagnancy. Whether this is accomplished by turning what is supposed to be the climactic battle of the week into a quiz show or game of whack-a-mole, there is simply no shortage of variety.
Adding to the hilarity is the fact that the characters just seem to be along for the ride, at times breaking both their expected roles and behaviours. While the Cures are supposed to be warriors of justice, more often than not one will see them happily enjoying the Bad Ends’ tricks, goofing around and doing everything except saving the world. It also helps that each girl has an upbeat personality, which causes their comical group dynamic to make quite the splash. On the other hand, the Bad Ends deserve a special mention for both their hysterical incompetence and ridiculous ploys. Although they still cackle in the wind while tying young damsels to railroad tracks, at times they behave more like rivals for the Cures, attempting to one-up them in stand-up comedy and student council elections. In essence, they play out like self-aware Saturday morning cartoon villains, and their amusing exchanges with the charming Cures results in a harmonious suite.
Unfortunately, while Smile has the sugar and spice, it doesn’t always have the nice. Being a commercial work targeted at juvenile girls, the show still has to devote time to its core elements, which detracts from its charm due to how uneven they are. Since Smile is a more episodic season than its predecessors due to a general lack of plot and character progression, it causes the show to run into some noticeable drawbacks later on. For instance, while the episodes devoted to developing each of the girls are solid on a standalone basis, the show’s format prevents their growth from being pronounced. This can make it seem as if these episodes are inconsequential in the long run, particularly when the next instance of character evolution occurs half a season later. Another aspect which may disappoint some audiences are the fight sequences, which tend to be uneventful aside from the Cures firing off their finishing nukes. Although this is remedied somewhat by the show opting towards more unorthodox battles, fans of the older seasons may find themselves craving some good old close-quarters combat.
Perhaps the worst offender of Smile’s unevenness is its finale, which sadly fails to encapsulate its true lighthearted spirit, instead using melodrama and overstated monologues to convey its main themes. Although this is an issue some of the other seasons have, it is to Smile’s unfortunate detriment because of its foundation. Most of the season is not character-centric, and so the girls have little life experience to support their tears and preaching besides the forces of evil doing their thing. As a result, Smile’s drama falls flat and the show ends on a rather sour note despite its uplifting ending, diluting its otherwise sweet taste.
In terms of aesthetics, Smile is generally a pleasant season to look at. Many of its character designs and backgrounds are brightly coloured and the animation quality remains good throughout. However, there is a general lack of stylistic visuals or fluid animation outside of the Cures’ finishing moves and transformation sequences, meaning that the season doesn’t really excel in this department either. On the other hand, the soundtrack is composed of upbeat, catchy tunes that are generally implemented nicely alongside the lighthearted moments. Before long, some audiences may even find themselves dancing alongside the Cures during the ending credits.
At the end of the day, Smile Precure will not have a profound effect on one’s perception of magical girl shows, nor will it revolutionize the genre. What it does provide though is a genuinely enjoyable experience through its hilarious scenarios and abundance of self-aware comic relief. Although the show’s uneven format hampers some of the core elements, its overall lighthearted charm will certainly bring a smile to the faces of many audiences, both young and old.