Mahou shoujo has become a stagnant genre, full of over-used cliches, transformation sequences, and shallow characterization. It seems like lately the only way for a mahou shoujo to succeed is to parody or viciously subvert the genre (see: Madoka). Heartcatch Precure breathes some life into the archetypical formula by showing why these things became tropes in the first place: if done correctly, they work.
The series begins innocuously enough- having just moved to town, Tsubomi becomes a PreCure and teams up with Eirika to revive the Heart Tree. In opposition to them are the Desert Messengers, a shady group that preys upon people's emotional distress by transforming them into rampaging Desertarians, which, once defeated, allow peace to return to their host's heart. The majority of the series is made up of these episodic tales, but most manage to avoid tediousness due to their light-hearted humor, subtly averting the expected, or impressively fleshing out the victim-of-the-week. Adroit writing ensures that the stories stay fresh even while re-treading age-old morals (Do your homework! Always be honest! No, your parents don’t love your little sister more than you!). Minor characters whose hearts have previously been healed have the tendency to show up as cameo roles in later episodes, which gives the setting a notable permanent quality.
Underneath all the bright colors and cheery characters, the series is quite dark. One of the characters endures depression for more than half of the series, and issues like death and parental abandonment aren't skirted around. This keeps such a cute show from veering into the insufferably saccharine, and allows it to be enjoyed by more than just preteen girls.
For all that it does right, Heartcatch still gets a few things wrong. Namely, there are too many coincidences. The baddies just happen to target the very same people that the girls have just happened to interact with. The town's denizens are also a bit too accepting of all the crazy things going on; nobody questions that their loved ones have suddenly transformed into ungovernable monsters. There's also the deplorable idea of having Shypre shit out the heart seeds (the girls' prize for healing people's hearts, and the catalyst to revive the Heart Tree), a scene which is repeated almost every episode.
Heartcatch's animation is bright, cheery, and very consistent, with fight choreography rivaling the best shounen and locales like the Burton-esque villain base that ooze with creativity. But it's the slick retro feel of the character designs that stands out. The fluid effortless-looking style allows for some wonderfully expressive facial expressions and excels at showing motion.
Unfortunately, these same designs betray a few of the surprises in the show, as "secret" characters fated to be mains have the more eye-catching designs. Amidst a field of sorrel and maroon, of course the girl with bright purple hair is going to be important later.
The transformation sequences are similarly gorgeous and dynamic, which makes their excessive length slightly more bearable. Somewhere along the line, the producers must have decided that it wasn't enough to have some of the prettiest transformation sequences; they also needed the longest ones. Hence, every single episode featured a solid two to three minutes of preteen girls twirling around as their hair grew and their clothing lit up- a length further exacerbated when allies sporting their own sequences show up.
Power-up items and other magical props look like gussied-up cheap plastic toys- a comparison hammered further home by the decision to animate them with CGI.
Heartcatch is gilded with a cheery and energetic soundtrack that always fits the mood. Battle sequence songs are especially awesome, and the series boasts a school festival concert rivaling that of Haruhi's. The only odd choice is the second ED- a baffling pop/gospel hybrid.
Unlike many shows aimed at children, the cute chirpy voices of the leads avoid being obnoxious.
Shoujo series aimed at a younger demographic often doom themselves by focusing on a boring cast, a fate which Heartcatch has avoided. It helps that all the leads are flawed. They act like real fourteen-year-old girls- they argue amongst themselves, misinterpret things, and have insecurities. Tsubomi is introverted, shy, and desperate to better herself. Eirika is effervescent and amiable, but has difficulties keeping friends due to her brash nature and uncouth habit of blurting out whatever is on her mind. Late additions to the cast mix up the group dynamic with their more mature personalities, such as Yuri, the cool, strong older girl with the bad habit of keeping her negative emotions bottled up where they’re prone to festering.
The leads also have lives that have nothing to do with being PreCure. They have other friends, are involved in extra-curriculars, and have close-knit families. Too many anime series have protagonists whose relatives are never mentioned. Others are free to save the world and hang out with their classmates without having to report back home. That these girls don’t fall victim to absent anime parent syndrome makes them far more believable.
The cast’s only weak spots are the mascot characters, which luckily don't get an exorbitant amount of screen-time. The fairies are too rife with cutesy attributes like ending all their sentences with "desu" to take seriously or allow any genuine character development- if only Shypre and Coffret were as badass as Coupe-sama, the partner of PreCure-turned-grandmother, Kaoruko.
With a reluctance to subvert the genre's established tropes and a plot that won't surprise anyone over twelve, Heartcatch still manages to far outstrip the majority of mahou shoujo series and deliver a fun show full of heart, excellent choreography, and loveable characters.
Like many shows of its genre, Heartcatch could and should have taken much fewer episodes to tell its story, but in a franchise like Pretty Cure, whose main goal is merchandizing, it's lucky they managed to churn out a quality show at all. Giving the series a 26-episode run would have whittled out all the meandering episodic fluff, making the whole more akin to its stellar finale and more palatable to a general audience. As it stands, I'm reluctant to recommend Heartcatch to non-fans: the first two-thirds will do little to change anyone's mind about the genre.
The legendary warrior, Cure Moonlight, was defeated and it's up to shy Tsubomi and fashion-obsessed Erika to step up and become the next Precure team. Together they must battle the Desert Messengers, an evil organization preying on the negative emotions blooming in people's hearts. They want to help their friends and the quickly-wilting Great Heart Tree by collecting Heart Seeds, but can they prevail given they are the weakest Precure in history?!