Animation: Infinity Train Season 1 (2019) - Reviewed

There is a certain charm to cartoons that takes me back to watching Phineas and Ferb on Saturday mornings in your pajamas over a bowl of cheerios. While most cartoons will pull me in and engage the kid trapped inside, it takes a special show to capture my younger viewer while engaging my older self emotionally. We all have our own special blend of animation styles, emotional beats, and character tropes to create the kind of magical escapism I’m talking about. Let me introduce you to a show that hit all the beats I’m talking about in a whimsical, magical and very real way.

Owen Dennis created Infinity Train with Cartoon Network while he was a writer on Regular Show. The show originally aired as a short on Cartoon Network’s YouTube channel, but was picked up as a longer running series after it was extremely successful on that platform. All ten of the twelve minute episodes in the first season aired on Cartoon Network, after which it was bought by HBOMax. Not a single episode in the first season failed to deliver a whimsical adventure tied into some larger theme of the show.

The first season begins with Tulip (Ashley Johnson), a young girl who loves computers and coding. Her recently divorced parents miscommunicate a date and have to cancel her summer trip to coding camp at the last minute. Tulip decides to run away and walk to camp, when she discovers a ghostly train in the middle of the woods going to her coding camp and jumps aboard, when the train takes off trapping her on the train. Each train car is a self-contained world, with it’s own magical rules and games Tulip needs to pass in order to move to the next one. Each magical car, which are used as titles for the episodes, tests Tulip in its own way as she navigates the train.

Tulip gathers together a rag-tag cast of friends from the various train cars she passes through while trying to reach the engine car. Early on she meets 1-1, a robot that is half depressed and half happy (Jeremey Crutchley), the depressed half voiced by Owen Dennis himself. He was similar to Marvin the android from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and delivered some very funny moments as a goofy, never on track sidekick. Tulip also joins up with the King of the Corgi’s who they meet in their first encounter with the antagonist in the Corgi Car, a monster that lurks through the train taking it apart systematically.

Tulip’s struggle to understand and accept her changing life outside the car is reflected in the way the car traps her inside. On her hand is a number that Tulip believes she needs to get to zero in order to escape. The number changes based on how she responds the challenges in the cars. The more she tries to ignore her problems and cover them up, the harder the train becomes to navigate, and the higher her number gets. This reflection of her own vices is so strong Tulip even visits a mirror car at one point and meets a reflection of herself, who was very much the opposite of Tulip’s personality. This is what I mean when I talk about a cartoon that lures you in with gorgeous illustrations and an interesting plot, and hooks you with an emotional resonance many shows aimed at adults fail to find.

Themes of memory, and how we remember key moments in our lives becomes central when the monsters attempt to stop Tulip by trapping her in her own memories. The most joyous and most painful memories become mixed up as Tulip learns and re-remembers moments that were haunting her as they actually happened. Tulip’s growing self-awareness helps her to push through the train, and allows her character to grow directly from her experiences.

The original themes, messages, and tone find good company with other Cartoon Network originals. It was pitched around the same time the acclaimed mini series Over the Garden Wall was airing, and the similarities were noted by both Cartoon Network and the creators. It is also reminiscent of another of my favorite shows Adventure Time for it’s ability to combine a whimsical tone with larger, more emotionally resonant themes woven throughout. It was even compared to Snowpiercer for it’s use of a train as a plot device to contain all the characters, for using vastly different cars to create a larger feeling of adventure, as well as structuring the hero’s adventure.

Although these comparisons, particularly to other Cartoon Network programs, may have hurt this series’ chances of making it to production, I think that this show is among good company. After all, those are all programs that resonated emotionally with a large group of viewers, each at their own place in life. The strong following and fanbase of all these programs, including Infinity Train, shows that cartoons can be as emotionally resonant as any live action show, while placing you gently in front of that television set on Saturday morning, bowl of cereal in your hand.
--Patrick Bernas