When Steven Universe wrapped its most recent season back in January, there was both rejoicing at the conclusion for five-season saga plotted out by creator Rebecca Sugar and sadness that there was no word of a sixth season on the horizon. Fans' only solace was the knowledge that a movie was forthcoming this year. Details have been scarce; we knew the general premise and that it would be a full-on musical, but that was about it.
Now, finally, Steven Universe: The Movie is almost here — it airs on Labor Day — and by and large, it's worth the wait. The feature-length musical is a beautiful encore of sorts for the series, a reinforcement of central themes and concepts that Sugar and her team have woven across six years and 160 episodes. It may feel repetitive, but the repetition is by design, a reminder to Steven (Zach Callison) and to the audience that growth and change are vital parts of our existence.
The show's world and characters have never looked better or richer than they do in the movie, which picks up two years after "Change Your Mind." Steven is a 16-year-old now, and he has a neck! (At long last!) All this time, he's been doing his best to bring peace to the universe and remake the Great Diamond Authority, including teaching White Diamond (Christine Ebersole) that other beings are not lower lifeforms but "equal lifeforms." While the Diamonds, still very much in need of serious therapy, want him to stay on Homeworld, Steven's work is done, and he's ready to return to Earth full-time and enjoy his happily ever after.
In Beach City, Connie (Grace Rolek) is off to space camp; Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall) is learning to play bass — which she insists on pronouncing like the fish — from Greg (Tom Scharpling); Garnet (Estelle) is as cool as ever; and Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) is helping with the construction of Little Homeworld, a Gem haven located on the outskirts of Beach City. In short, everything is just about perfect. Everyone is free to lead the lives they desire, free from war and the baggage that came with Pink/Rose's mistakes. Naturally, this is when the new antagonist — whose rubber hose-inspired design and movement fill my animation geek's heart with joy — arrives in Beach City, ready to ruin this idyllic moment in Steven and the Gems' lives. I won't spoil her name or any major plot details for you, but from here on out, the movie's antagonist causes havoc and mayhem, forcing Steven and the Gems to come to terms with how their lives have changed during their struggle against the Diamonds.
The path to the conclusion is a windy one, but the scenery is mostly the same. You can guess the basis of the antagonist's motivations, and the way in which her arc is resolved is similarly easy to predict. Indeed, much of what Steven and the Gems must accomplish in the movie are things they've done in one way or another in the past. There's a pleasure in this, however, and the movie's beats are just the right amounts of emotional, funny, and self-aware, especially in ways that reward viewers.
That last bit, the self-awareness, keeps the repetitive nature of the movie in check. We've been through this all before, and so have the characters, but that understanding leads to dramatic reaffirmations that, in turn, drive home one of the central messages of the series: Change is hard but thrilling, painful but wonderful. It is also constant, and you can't lose sight of that. If you do, then you can fall into old habits or, worse, give up and become stuck. (Other central messages, particularly the importance of empathy, get plenty of play as well.)
And it's especially hard to be too grumpy about things when the music is so delightful. There are more than 10 songs packed into the runtime, and while some are short, they are all pretty solid. The antagonist's introductory song of madcap menace is particularly up my alley, as is her origin song. There's a lushly animated quasi-rock ballad about being an individual while being with someone else. An R&B number is an ode to falling in love, and its companion song, if you will, waxes wonderfully about love and the support it provides. Another very different (and vaguely judgemental) introduction ditty is a comedic hoot. Basically, there's a little something for everyone, audiences and performers alike.
While we always want more — a final epiphany, a bit more growth — Sugar's choice to reaffirm core facets of the series in what may be its swan song is probably the right one. The movie has the air of an encore, and we don't want new material in an encore; we want to end on what we know and love so that we go home happy. With the movie, we and Steven Universe get exactly that.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Steven Universe: The Movie premieres Monday, Sept. 2 at 6 p.m.