By: Michelle Young, Editor-in-Chief
Rilakkuma is an adorable brown plush bear from Japan, loved by many. His friends, Korilakkuma and Kiiroitori also feature in the giant line up of merchandise created by San-X, “one of the largest character manufacturing” companies in Japan. The plushies are well-loved, and extremely soft, with bean-padded paws. Despite the simplistic character designs, Rilakkuma himself has “reached a total of $10 billion throughout Asia since its launch by San-X in 2003, as well as 14 dedicated shops and a Rilakkuma café in Japan.”
So, when Rilakkuma and Kaoru, aired in 2019, I jumped to watch my favourite stuffies come to life in a beautifully animated stop-motion series. It was a delight. It had gorgeous scenery and a bittersweet approach to real life issues like finances and apartment demolitions. It wasn’t without its flaws, but it definitely exceeded my expectations for a series about plush bears.
Obviously, when Rilakkuma’s Theme Park Adventure premiered on Netflix at the end of August, I rushed to watch it, expecting the same amount of care and delicacy from the first series. However, between the overly-bright pastel palette to the dysfunctional theme park staff, I was left underwhelmed.
The series functions on the premise that the characters are trying to spend a nice day at a soon-to-be-closed theme park, but are split up and left to find each other for the rest of the season. Along the way, we meet the theme park cast and fellow park go-ers.
What could have been a cute and heartwarming series falls flat from the lack of depth put into the plot and characters. For eight minutes per episode, the series tries to do too much. They introduced at least seven additional characters, but really should have only focused on two or three. Since Rilakkuma and Kaoru takes its time to understand Kaoru (the bears’ roommate and caretaker) and neighbour Tokio — the series revels in its simplicity. However, Theme Park Adventure rushes the stories of everyone, only granting one or two characters a decent amount of development. The bears themselves don’t get enough spotlight, either.
Not only are the characters rushed and often cliché, but the plot falls apart when you begin to question anything it stands on. A kid runs away from her parents and they just nonchalantly wander the park trying to find her? Perhaps it’s possible, but it probably isn’t a good sign. A mechanic takes the kids and bears on an abandoned ride? Questionable at best. Someone else literally takes containers straight out of Kaoru’s purse thinking they’re his? Increasingly absurd. Kaoru’s love interest is also mistaken for theme park staff for most of the series and never says one word to correct anyone. Kaoru doesn’t even try to call him until episode seven (of eight)!
I know this is a show about plush bears, but seeing how none of these things would work in reality pulled me out of the series too much to be able to enjoy it — especially when Rilakkuma and Kaoru felt so seamlessly real and human.
However, my biggest issue with the whole thing lies in Suzune. She works at the ticket booth, the dango stand, and also performs as an idol for attendees. She’s exhausted due to the short staffing of the theme park, and makes mistakes until she decides to run away from her overbearing boss.
Upon taking a ride during the sunset, she suddenly remembers her love and passion for her work. Looking at the crowd that waits for her to perform, she happily gets ready to sing. What is supposed to feel heartwarming, feels like a bitter message to put aside your own needs for the sake of other people. Because the park is closing, there is no real solution as to hiring practices or proper compensation for her work. Her boss simply apologizes and that’s supposed to resolve the issue. It made me wonder if Suzune could actually go into the world and advocate for her needs in a future job, or if she’s simply supposed to accept mistreatment because of her own passion. That’s not a message to be sending to kids or working adults.
The show isn’t a complete write-off: it has some heartwarming scenes, a detailed set, and the cuteness of the kumas to keep you engaged. However, it’s largely missing the aspects that made the previous series so lovable: internal growth, the feelings of life passing by as you age, and the formation of strong friendships.