The comedy-adventure Fairy Tail (2009) has a rollicking, character-based humor that’s become all too rare in American animation. Based on a manga by Hiro Mashima, the TV series was only supposed to run for 48 episodes. But it proved so popular, it was expanded to more than 170 episodes, and has already spun off one feature, several OVA’s and scads of character merchandise.

Lucy, a young celestial wizard who uses magical keys to summon the spirits who serve her, comes to the city of Magnolia, hoping to join a sorcerer’s guild. She stumbles into the headquarters of the most eccentric guild, Fairy Tail, and soon forms a team with three of its nuttiest members. Beneath fire wizard Natsu’s rough and tumble good cheer lie extraordinary supernatural powers. He always travels with his sidekick Happy, a flying, talking cat. But whenever Natsu boards a train, boat or any other conveyance, he gets violent motion sickness, which undercuts his power.

Natsu spars and quarrels endlessly with Gray, a redoubtable ice wizard. Gray has the disconcerting habit of losing his clothes, leaving him to fight in his boxers. The even more formidable Erza, a hot-tempered, buxom redhead who practices transformative magic, keeps Natsu and Gray in line, but she’s no saner than they are. Voice actors Todd Haberkorn (Natsu), Newton Pittman (Gray) and Colleen Clinkenbeard (Erza) bring a likable, lively edge their feuding friendships; Cherami Leigh (Lucy) avoids the clichés of the anime ingénue.

This mismatched quartet tackles various assignments they find on the guild’s job board, battling demons and evil wizards. Over the course of their adventures (and misadventures), the viewer learns more about the quirky cast. Gray studied with the great ice wizard Ur: being cold was a sign of weakness, so he got in the habit of shedding his outer garments and running around in his underwear. Lucy acquires more magic keys, although the attendant spirits don’t always perform the way she hopes. Taurus the Bull makes terrible puns off “moo” and has a lustier nature than any American animated spirit. Natsu is happiest when he’s tackling a foe, the stronger the better, but he’s searching for Igneel, the dragon who was his instructor many years ago.

Although he doesn’t realize it, Gray inadvertently wins the heart of water-wizard Juvia (“drip drip drop”). When she attempt to capture Gray’s love with a magic potion, it backfires and makes anyone who smells it attack what they perceive as an enemy. Erza squares off against one of the pillars supporting the Guild Hall roof, while Gray charges the horizon line.

Episodes #76 through #95 (Sets #7 and #8) span the “Edolas” arc, in which the cast is carried away to a parallel world, where magic is a rare, strictly controlled source of power. The king of Edolas plans to rob the Fairy Tale wizards of their enormous powers and use it for his for his own purposes. Natsu isn’t about to let that happen to his friends and sets out to free them.  The inhabitants of Edolas include an outré alternate version of Fairy Tail in which Gray puts on clothes and pursues a domineering Juvia and Lucy delights in tormenting a cringing version of Natsu. It’s like turning on The Simpsons and discovering that Homer has stopped drinking, Bart is an honor student and Flanders is worshipping graven idols.

As in their previous outings, things eventually get resolved through a mixture of clever strategy, surprising allies, previously undiscovered powers and an unshakeable belief in the bonds of friendship. Although many anime series have blended slapstick and supernatural daring-do, director Shinji Ishihara and his crew keep the material fresh, funny and thoroughly entertaining.

Fairy Tail