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Infinity Train

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What it’s about:

A mysterious, endless train lures passengers into its own pocket universe, where they are forced to work out their personal issues as they travel from one bizarre car to the next.

Names you might know:

While the main characters tend to be voiced by unknowns, there are quite a few celebrity cameos recognizable among the recurring characters. Notable voices include Ashley Johnson, Ernie Hudson, Kate Mulgrew, Lena Headey, J.K. Simmons, Ben Mendelsohn, Bradley Whitford, Margo Martindale, and Matthew Rhys.

Why it’s worth your time:

Infinity Train is one of those rare animated shows that’s deceptively simple on its surface—making it a fun and accessible watch for kids—but also deals with deeper, philosophical themes that viewers of any age will find meaningful.

The world was first introduced to Infinity Train in 2016 as a single pilot “minisode” on the Cartoon Network app and the network’s official YouTube channel. It became so popular that fans petitioned for a full series, and eventually got one. And then three more (it moved from Cartoon Network to HBO Max beginning with the third season, and you’ll find the older ones there now as well). The short format has remained intact throughout, with 10 episodes running around 11 minutes each. That means you can watch an entire season (or “book,” to use the show’s terminology) in the same amount of time it takes to watch an average movie. Which you’ll likely want to do, because Infinity Train is positively addictive.

The premise is difficult to explain, but easy to understand once you’re a few episodes in. Basically, the train in the title somehow identifies people experiencing trauma or emotional distress (particularly when it’s self-inflicted) and offers them a chance to become better people by way of an arcane rating system and a series of unorthodox trials. Upon entry through a portal, each passenger is assessed via their memories and assigned a number based on how much they need to learn. That number is displayed on the palm of their hand and can go up or down, depending on their actions. Do something that shows emotional growth and the number goes down. But if you backslide or do something harmful or destructive, it goes up. Once the number reaches zero, an exit will appear and you can leave the train. But not until then.

Each of the four “books” focuses on a different main character, or characters. In Book 1, a girl named Tulip (voiced by Ashley Johnson) is struggling to cope with her parents’ divorce and works through those feelings while aboard the train. The rules are not immediately clear—it’s up to the passengers to figure out what the numbers mean and how to escape—and much of the first season is devoted to Tulip piecing together how it all works with the help of her companions, the hilarious One-One, a robotic ball with a dual personality (voiced jointly by Jeremy Crutchley and Owen Dennis, who also happens to be the show’s creator), and Atticus (Ernie Hudson), the good-boy king of a car inhabited by intelligent, talking corgis*. It ends with a terrific and unpredictable reveal that explains who’s controlling the train, and who is supposed to control it.

The first season gives only a hint of the world of possibilities offered by the wildly inventive car environments—which run the gamut from simple puzzles and challenges to surreal dreamscapes to entire civilizations, and are inhabited by a variety of odd denizens, who can make things easier or harder for passengers. We see even more of that anything-can-happen spirit in Book 2, which takes a minor denizen character from a prior episode—a mirror version of Tulip from a car made of chrome—and sends her on a journey of self discovery, as she struggles with her identity beyond her origin as a reflection of someone else. She is joined by a friendly passenger named Jesse (Robbie Daymond), who needs to learn to stand up for himself, and a shape-shifting deer awesomely named Alan Dracula. Who is perfect in every way and doesn’t need to learn anything.

In Book 3 we follow Grace (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), another character who appeared in a single episode and gets an expanded storyline, complete with a redemption arc. She starts out as the leader of a gang of young passengers who flaunt the rules and, rather than working to better themselves and make their numbers go down, challenge each other to get their numbers as high as possible. New characters in this season include a child named Hazel (Isabella Abiera), who may or may not be a passenger herself, and her guardian, a gorilla named Tuba (Diane Delano).

Book 4 (released on April 15, 2021) is a bit of a departure, in that it takes place before the other three and brings in two characters we’ve never met before—former best friends Ryan (Sekai Murashige) and Min-Gi (Johnny Young). They board the train together after having grown apart over the years, and are assigned the exact same number. Their guide is a talking service bell named Kez (Minty Lewis), a bit of a troublemaker who has a problem with taking responsibility for her own actions. The season is bursting with the same mad, creative energy as the others, but doesn’t do much to expand the greater story of the train itself, which is a bit disappointing considering it may be the last we get. Still, it’s far more interesting than a lot of shows out there, animated or not. Infinity Train became a streaming staple in our house during quarantine, so I can tell you from experience that it holds up well to repeated viewing.

*When I told my daughters I was writing this recommendation they said, “Be sure to mention how funny One-One is,” and, “Don’t forget to tell them that Atticus is a good boy.” So consider my obligation fulfilled. And with that, I’ll take my exit.

The takeaway:

Don’t let the animated format put you off of this thoughtful series full of imaginative designs and compelling, layered characters. Infinity Train finds the sweet spot between mature themes intended for an adult audience and lighter, more whimsical fare aimed squarely at kids. How many shows can do that?

Watch it with:

Your entire circle of family and friends. There’s something here for everyone to enjoy on many levels.

Worth noting:

Although the fourth season was the last one ordered, fans have been campaigning for a fifth, which Dennis has said he’s already storyboarded and would wrap up the series in a satisfying way. There’s even a hashtag for it: #FinishInfinityTrain.

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