Cardcaptor Sakura is one of those series it seems like everyone has watched, or at least heard of, and for good reason--it's simply the best mahou shoujo series I've ever seen. I remember when I ordered the first DVD I was hesitant, because it was...well, about a fourth grade girl who has a talking plush toy as a sidekick, fights a different monster of sorts every week, has a crush on a high school student, and there were supposedly some yaoi overtones. How good could it really be? But I was pleasantly surprised to find Cardcaptor Sakura was...well, just awesome. I'm not saying it's perfect, and I'm not normally a big mahou shoujo fan, except for parodys of the genre like Komugi-chan or Pretty Sammy, but Cardcaptor Sakura easily would make my top 10 anime list. It's one of those series you watch that makes you thank God, Kami-sama, Haruhi, or the deity of your choice that you became an anime fan.
To give it a (very) short summary: Sakura's your typical genki fourth grader, until one day she finds a mysterious book in the basement, opens it, and accidentally releases the Clow Cards, which promptly scatter in all directions. The Beast of the Seal, Kereberos (better known as Kero-chan) tells her since she let them all out, she has to become a Cardcaptor to go bring them all the hell back before a disaster befalls the world. The cards were created by a powerful magician, Clow Reed, years ago, and they each have a particular magic property and can act independently. The more cards she gets, the more powers Sakura can draw from her arsenal to catch the remaining cards--but it's not always easy picking the right card, since for example, the Wood card can create branches of wood that would work for ensnaring a slow-moving card, but it won't be able to catch Water, which would flow right through. The Clow Cards aren't evil, but they love causing trouble and don't love being captured--they're kind of like a bunch of escaped animals from the zoo. The first two seasons are Sakura struggling to gather all the cards, and then the third and final season she faces a different challenge and again has to use the cards to help her.
If you haven't seen it, you're probably thinking this sounds like Pokemon or something with the card-catching angle, but what makes Cardcaptor Sakura great isn't the storyline as much as it's the cast. Sakura, the heroine, is determined, energetic, but has her struggles with being a cardcaptor too, having the very normal reaction of feeling overwhelmed and not wanting to do it at all at first. Over the course of the series you see her gain a lot more confidence as her character develops--it's just really hard not to like her and root for her to succeed. Her best friend, Tomoyo, is more than a little obsessed with Sakura, but she's helpful in her own way and although she's obscenely rich she doesn't fall into the usual anime ojou-sama stereotype of looking down on everyone else. Sakura's older brother Toya is pretty funny, there's a very realistic brother-sister vibe between them with lots of little fights, etc., and he has to have the world record for working the most different part-time jobs ever. Sakura's crush is Toya's best friend, Yukito, who is generally your nice guy character, with an inhuman appetite. And Sakura's mascot, Kero-chan, is hilarious--instead of your standard cute mahou shoujo mascot, Kero-chan speaks in Osaka-ben, is a snack food/cake addict, and loves to pose for the camera while commenting on how cool he looks. Not long after the series starts Shaoran appears, and he becomes Sakura's rival for getting the Clow Cards for his own purposes, and with him comes his childhood friend Meilin, who also generally gets in Sakura's way although she can't use magic herself.
The interactions between the cast are definitely what I like the most about CCS--from Kero-chan's selfish snack-hogging, to Sakura and Yukito's arguments, to Sharoan's relationship with Sakura, to Meilin's slow conversion from antagonist to good friend, it all just really comes across as well-done and realistic. There are too many memorable scenes to list, and with 78 episodes and two movies to work with, there's a lot of time to develop even the more minor characters and really let you see the cast grow over the course of a year and a half of their adventures.
The animation is cel-based since it aired in '98 (my wife bought me the cel above for my birthday one year) and it's really, really good--the animation quality holds up well throughout the whole 78-episode run and doesn't degrade at any point that I can tell. I liked the character designs too, although newer anime fans may think they're a little old school.
The relationship chart for this series would probably give the Taliban or Moral Majority conniptions--first there's Sakura herself, who has a crush on Yukito, who's almost double her age. Then there's Shaoran having a crush on Yukito, although they're both guys--and Yukito and Toya almost acting like a couple at times. Not to mention Tomoyo's obsession with Sakura can seem to border on yuri. Even among Sakura's classmates, while Chiharu and Yamazaki act like a future couple and are in the same class and of different genders, there's also Sakura's classmate Rika, who has a crush on their teacher. The third season changes things around by focusing more on Sakura and Shaoran's relationship, and they make that into a solid, more conventional romantic story. But given the yaoi/yuri undertones, it's no wonder that land of the free or no, this just got butchered when it was put on US TV--they edited Cardcaptor Sakura into a show called "Cardcaptors" and tried to turn it into a shonen series. In the end, I don't think unless you're really close-minded any of this detracts from the show--and it's not like you even see Yukito and Toya kiss or anything like that, it's more implied they're really close.
For a mahou shoujo series in particular, the action is a strongpoint--compared to Pretty Cure, where "Precure Marble Screw" is the solution to every problem, every week, Sakura actually has to think to defeat the various cards she encounters, and she doesn't always pick the best card, or combination of cards, to fight with on the first try. It's not like Detective Conan or anything, but for a fourth-grader, Sakura has to be pretty resourceful to win, even with some pointers from Kero-chan in the end it's a battle of wits between her and the cards. Some of them are harder to catch than others, but it helps keep the series from getting repetitive. Another departure from the usual mahou shojou is while she has a costume, it changes every week thanks to Tomoyo--and to the disappointment of lolicons everywhere, there's no Nanoha-style henshin sequences or panchira.
There's nothing about the series that really bothers me, but the biggest flaw I can come up with is how some of the crushes seem over the top--in the third season in particular Tomoyo comes across as so Sakura-obsessed it's kind of ridiculous. It reminds me of Shuffle, and the whole doormat-like "Rin-kun's happiness is my happiness" thing. Although I hesitate to say it's a crush because it's not like Tomoyo asks Sakura out--on the contrary she plays an active role trying to get her set up with someone else. The explanation that resolves Shaoran's feelings for Yukito also seems a little tacked on, like the writers didn't want to get into yaoi and were grasping for straws to kill off that possibility. Don't get me wrong though, I'm glad they went the way they did in the third season, it just seems like it could have been written better. In the third season, they also put a "song playing over panning still shots" interlude into each episode, which might save frames and sell CDs but just felt like an intrusion into the story to me. On the other hand, I'm a sucker for more romance-themed series so the third season in particular stands out as a good one in spite of that.
It's a pity Tsubasa didn't make Sakura as interesting a character as she was in CCS, or that we don't get to see a "ten years later" CCS with the cast in high school (like the last couple minutes of Nanoha As), but CCS has a good, solid ending to it at the end of the second movie (which came out after the TV series finished) so I really can't complain. This turned into more of a ramble than a review, but if you haven't seen Cardcaptor Sakura, even if you're not a mahou shoujo fan, I'd highly recommend renting it to see for yourself. It's a good mix of comedy, action, drama, and even a little romance, and it's a series well worth rewatching. And if you're looking to get your girlfriend/fiancee/wife a little into anime, this is an excellent choice too.