When I look at Smile Precure! in hindsight, I feel like its status as a hit was almost inevitable. The 9th entry in the mega-popular Precure franchise, it’s in many ways a return to the tried-and-true formulas of magical girl anime. However, it ends up pulling off those well-worn aspects with such confidence and excellence in execution that it never really comes across as stale.
The premise is typical magical girl and typical Precure: Hoshizora Miyuki is a girl who loves both fairy tales and spreading happiness, and when her family moves to a new town she not only makes a bunch of new friends but ends up encountering Candy, a young fairy from the land where all fairy tales come from, Märchenland. Miyuki turns out to be one of the legendary warriors capable of saving Märchenland from the dreaded “Bad End Kingdom,” and so becomes the pink beam-firing Cure Happy. Later, she’s joined by her friends, the quick-talking Hino Akane (Cure Sunny), the shy but imaginative Kise Yayoi (Cure Peace), the straight-forward Midorikawa Nao (Cure March), and the graceful Aoki Reika (Cure Beauty).
The simple mix-and-match character design philosophy sometimes (and somewhat erroneously) referred to as “database” character design is quite easy to write off as inherently lazy or artless, but Smile Precure! shows that there is a strength to being able to convey characters so succinctly. For quite a few people I know, Smile was the first Precure series they really got into, and though the reasons might have differed, in the end it all boils down to a cast of characters who each possess an immediate and unique appeal which stays consistently strong throughout the series. While it might not have the inspiring feeling and depth of character development of Heartcatch Precure! or as much rough-and-tumble action as the original Futari wa Pretty Cure, what Smile Precure! does, better than any other entry in the franchise for the most part, is give each of its characters an extremely vibrant and magnetic sense of presence.
Thus, even though Candy of all characters gets the most development in Smile Precure!, the robust representations of the entire cast allow the show to place them in all sorts of Silver Age superhero comics-level wacky situations, from turning invisible to getting lost in Osaka to transforming into a giant robot, and have it be as memorable as the rarer episodes of heartfelt personal exploration and growth. It also helps that the villains of the series are equally fun. Derived from recurring antagonists in fairy tales, the werewolf Wolfrun, the red oni… Red Oni…, and the witch Majorina humorously approach the task of being up to no good with such carelessness that I think they could possibly carry a show all by themselves. Rounding out the villains is the masked Joker, who is menacing enough to give the story an injection of seriousness when needed, and whose appearance usually signals an upping of the stakes.
In many ways, Smile Precure! feels like a more refined version of Yes! Pretty Cure 5, and not just because of the obvious similarities (five-man team with the same color scheme and roughly comparable personalities). Smile has the same type of fun and silly character dynamic as Yes! 5, but brings to it those stronger individual characterizations, and adds to the mix a better design sense, more consistent art (especially when it comes to the action), and stronger comedic timing. The places that Smile feels a little weaker are that sometimes the interactions aren’t quite as clever as Yes! 5, the humor of the characters is more reactive than active, and the conclusion (which is pretty similar) isn’t quite as satisfying. That said, I would dare wager that anyone who enjoyed Yes! 5 would get into Smile as well (unless you like Cure Lemonade so much that Peace is a poor substitute), though I’m not sure if the opposite is true.
Also somewhat similar to Yes! 5 is the fact that some of the more minor characters have a surprising amount of popularity. In the case of Yes! 5 it was the handsome princes who were really mascot characters, and for Smile it’s the Precures’ moms. Go figure.
Smile Precure! isn’t darkly experimental, nor is it a representative pinnacle of where the very concept of a magical girl anime can go. Its presentation is mostly conventional, and its similarities to previous shows, especially within its own franchise, are numerous. However, Smile Precure! also has a level of polish that allows it to extend its appeal beyond its expected audience. It’s no Heartcatch (admittedly an incredibly unfair benchmark), but overall its characters and just sheer fun factor makes for a memorable show that’s very accessible and rewarding in its own right. It wouldn’t be so bad to introduce people to Precure through Smile Precure!