There have been dozens upon dozens of wartime epics committed to the screen, but none look like “The Liberator.” I mean this quite literally: after getting stuck in a lengthy development hell at the History channel once it became clear how expensive it would be to film, “The Liberator” team made a calculated artistic choice to shift from eight live-action episodes to four animated ones that would significantly slash costs and bring a jolt of unique energy to the production. The version of “The Liberator” premiering Nov. 11 on Netflix, produced in conjunction with Trioscope Studios, reveals a striking combination of animation and live-action performance that feels like a graphic novel come to life.
The series, based on historian Alex Kershaw’s book of the same name, follows the winding path of Felix Sparks (Bradley James), an officer who led his infantry unit on a remarkably treacherous 500-day march through Europe in the waning days of World War II. His so-called “Thunderbirds” were comprised of an unusually diverse group of soldiers including Mexican and Native Americans who, as Felix’s somber narration tells us more than a couple times, he wouldn’t be able to enjoy with a beer with back home due to his American peers’ stubborn racism. The combination of the unit’s demographics and unlikely survival through even more extraordinary circumstances than many other World War II narratives is ostensibly what sets “The Liberator” apart.
And yet, as written by Jeb Stuart (“Die Hard”), the series depends too much on Felix (aka the nice white guy in charge) as the show’s true hero; Jose Miguel Vasquez’s Corporal Gomez is the only other Thunderbird to make much of an impression on his own as “The Liberator” spreads its sprawling story too thin. The series might have slimmed down in its transition to Netflix, but it would have done even better to narrow its focus instead of trying to cover just as much material in half the time. Even as “The Liberator” does its best to become a capital-d Different sort of war show, it too frequently lapses into the same beats and tropes TV’s explored before.
And so the most effective moments of “The Liberator” take full advantage of the animation’s capabilities. The animation of the characters is impressively detailed, but as directed by Triscope’s Grzegorz Jonkajtys, the medium’s real value comes forth in the series’ shocking bursts of gunfire, crimson explosions rolling over meadows, sweeping snowy vistas with terrified soldiers dotting the hillside. Perhaps it’s fitting that the scenes that once made “The Liberator” seem impossible to produce are the ones that eventually distinguish it from the countless other war stories from which the series draws, in the end, too much.
“The Liberator” premieres November 11 on Netflix.
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