If you're a Negima fan and you haven't watched the Negima OVA preview yet, I'd highly recommend downloading it and checking it out, for the skydiving intro sequence alone (or check out Kurogane's megabytes of screencaps.) The background music, direction, everything from the preview was just all kinds of awesome. I think the last time I was this awestruck after watching just a couple minutes of anime was the start of Futakoi Alternative, when it was rapidly made clear I was in for a series about as different from its predecessor as it could possibly be.
Shaft has clearly understood what Xebec never seemed to--Negima is all about bishoujo, and to paraphrase Vidal, if they don't look good, the whole series doesn't look good. After all, Akamatsu-sensei KNOWS bishoujo. He wrote the book, or at least a lengthy interview, on moe. Shaft realizes this is a big part of Negima's appeal, and they make Akamatsu's bishoujo look as good in anime form as they ever did in the manga. There's a lot more to Negima, of course, which is also why it's popular--there's drama, there's action, there's magic and mystery, there's characters that it's hard not to root for. How Shaft does with all this the jury is still out on--but from the preview video I can at least say the animation quality, the character designs, and what I can see of their direction, they have nailed.
In the first season of Negima, Xebec seemed to be thinking Negima was so popular they could spend a buck fifty an episode on animation and the otaku masses would still eat that shit up--they just cranked out shoddy animation and listless character designs and hoped the seiyuu would still be able to pull off bringing them to life, with some angst/drama thrown in for spice. That's like making fried rice with bat guano instead of rice, and counting on the rest of the ingredients to save the day. They also changed elements of the story, notably mangling the Kyoto arc and with the last few episodes. I'm not a "purist" who expects the anime to slavishly follow the manga, to the point every line of dialogue is the same--if the animators can improve on the manga storyline, more power to them. Xebec's telling of Sayo's story, to me anyway, was far better than Akamatsu's mediocre treatment of Sayo in the manga. But the rest of Xebec's changes WEREN'T improvements on the manga storyline, to the point where it sometimes felt like they were moving things around just to be different.
Shaft seems, as much as I can tell from a couple minutes of preview, to have done a good job bringing the characters to life with far better animation. The character designs are different from the manga, that's very true, but they don't feel like a downgrade to me, maybe because I'm already used to the style from Shaft's Tsukuyomi and Pani Poni Dash. The limited interactions between characters you see in the preview, like Asuna hugging Negi in the water, and Asuna fighting Ayaka in mid-air, all immediately remind me of their manga counterparts, even without dialogue or context for them. It makes me hope when the OVA comes out in October and Shaft's full season of Negima starts this fall, we'll see a more faithful representation of the spirit/heart of Negima than we got from Xebec. Heterochromia fans will be depressed both Asuna's eyes are the same color, but I thought Xebec's Asuna looked freaky that way, so I have to admit I'm all in favor of the change.
This turned into more of a ramble than I meant it to--but today is just another day I have to thank Haruhi/God/Budda/your-deity-of-choice that I'm an anime fan. Two more months to go before the second season and the OVA...