“Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.”
– German proverb.
In the stories we tell, if there’s a hero, there’s a villain, someone for the bold and courageous to conquer; otherwise, how are they to be bold and courageous? In the story of Nimona, Disney is the villain and Netflix the hero, the latter shuttering Blue Sky Studios after the purchase of 20th Century Fox and the former picking up the film adaptation of ND Stevenson’s (Lumberjanes; She-Ra and the Princesses of Power) webcomic-turned-bestselling graphic novel. The truth, however, is far more complicated as Disney could never, and I mean *never*, release Nimona as it exists. For all of their public-facing inclusivity, their cinematic and television entertainment division is still too shackled by global and puritan perspectives to release a film that not only centers members of the LGBTQIA+ community, it does so as commonplace as heteronormative storylines in other productions. So, instead, we turn to look to Netflix as the momentary hero, distributing an action/adventure family fantasy tale that’s as hilarious as it is dashing as it is heartbreaking as it is healing in the way that it reminds us that the monsters we fear are entirely of our own making and not of blood, bone, or magic.
A thousand years ago, the mighty warrior Gloreth prevented a monster from attacking the realm and established a protective organization built from the gentry. Now, just as a new set of knights are to be officially added to the collective, a terrible tragedy interrupts the proceedings, resulting in one such potential knight, Ballister (voiced by Riz Ahmed), being blamed for the event. While trying to clear his name, Ballister meets Nimona (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz), a shape-shifting girl looking to become his squire and cause a little mayhem. Though her talents come in handy at just the right time, questions regarding his truth and her own swirl together in an unlikely combination that threatens the stability of the entire realm.
Before we get into the beauty of the technical side of Nimona, we need to explore the film’s narrative and themes. In the first 19-minutes of a 98-minute film, the script from Robert L. Baird (Ice Age: Scrat Tales) and Lloyd Taylor (Spies in Disguise) introduces the world of the film, establishes the central characters, kicks off the dramatic action, and gives us a satisfying set piece that catapults the audience at every opportunity. This is not a film one relaxes with in the traditional sense, as everything pulses with energy and palatable urgency. We sense Ballister’s tension before the knighting ceremony, we believe in his romantic partner’s support (Ambrosius Goldenloin voiced by Eugene Lee Yung), we recognize the dichotomy of the medieval with the futuristic that makes up their home, and we acknowledge that Nimona is leagues apart from it all, even if she exists within it. Brisk in execution and edited for a wonderful comedic effect, these 19-minutes give us everything we need and, yet, we recognize that there is still plenty more to come, immediately making us curious as to how this film could possibly surprise us. The answer is that it follows the expected path just enough so that we think we know where the narrative is going before it transforms itself into something unexpected and, in that moment, we find ourselves slackjawed by the unanticipated. That we could, in one moment, be giggling to ourselves and then, in another, find our eyes leaking is a testament to the balance and execution of the narrative.
However, it’s the themes of the film and the various ways it explores them, both bold and subtle, that demonstrate Nimona’s emotional power. One can look at the world in which the film is set and think of it as a beautiful steampunk creation, when, really, it’s a manifestation of the ways in which society refuses to move forward. They are so stuck in their perception of the days of Gloreth that all the technology for lasers, the complex metals used for a knight’s armor, and every piece of architecture and costume screams of an inability to let go of conservative notions and look to the future. According to the film, Gloreth wanted to push monsters back to the shadows, thereby necessitating the creation of her knights, but with all the advancements over a thousand years, why is everything still designed in the artistic form of Gloreth’s era? My presumption is to create a physical manifestation of the film’s overall view of the dangers of holding too tightly to tradition without regard for why they became traditions in the first place. What makes this particularly fascinating as an idea is how otherwise progressive the community appears to be (there is no persecution subplot for Ballister and Ambrosius, there’s what I think is a prominently displayed transgendered man, and there’re small cameos by members of the real life LGBTQIA+ community) despite the ways it clings to notions of class and species. It may look futuristic, but it’s all set dressing to mask an ingrown fear of moving past a comfort zone. In this case, that manifests in a steampunk world wherein their fear of monsters keeps them locked in.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Nimona is that is asks a powerful question through the visual representation of the world: what is fear of a monster if not xenophobia? Ballister and Nimona make for quick allies because both are not “of” the community which doesn’t welcome them. He for not being well-born and her for her ability to shape-shift. Each one has a great reason to go off on the society that rejects them and, through some beautiful little moments that may go overlooked in the moment, Nimona makes it clear that all either of them want is acceptance. Ballister wants to be a hero and being a knight allows him to walk that possible path, whereas one might think that Nimona comes to Ballister so that she can have a partner in crime, but it’s that she’s hoping to find someone to connect with. In their first meeting, we get the first hint of this when, out of a slew of possible things they could do together, she includes “talk.” Moretz’s performance often feels like a magic trick in the way she makes Nimona at once a force of nature, Puck manifest, and also a fragile being. The two are positioned in the advertising as an odd couple, a dynamic we see many times in stories (including Nimona directing duo Nick Bruno and Troy Quane’s 2019 Spies in Disguise), but what separates itself is that these two aren’t at odds with each other, they just don’t realize what they are “against” is actually society and they are each other’s allies. In this light, the whole of Nimona is a celebration of those rejected by society, declaring them bastions of a new world in which the only thing to dread are those who would harm others for no reason beyond fear.
Going back a moment to Moretz’s portrayal, though the film utilizes Ballister’s story as the catalyst for narrative action, it’s Moretz as Nimona who introduces the world and it’s her character that drives change in the other characters. Don’t mistake this for punk rock, kick ass all the time, unless you count being open with the hurt of isolation as defying social norms. This film does, making it clear that Nimona is the most hurt of all the characters, the reasoning explored as equally as Ballister’s, but the execution via the narrative and her vocal performance disquiets due to its ingenuity of craftsmanship and the depths of pain it explores. If one considers that much of Nimona includes characters and actors who are, within the U.S. most recently, under threat of law for existing, there’s real trauma from societal shunning. Moretz gives Nimona spirit in the highs and soul in the lows, never presenting her as anything less than Nimona’s authentic self. One doesn’t expect a family film to so profoundly explore that pain, but it does without coming across as disingenuous or self-aggrandizing. Rather, Nimona shares a common feeling amongst marginalized peoples where existence suddenly stops feeling like an act of defiance, giving space for this to be explored within the safety of fantasy.
Of the films of recent memory, Nimona feels like a combination of the beautiful Wolfwalkers (2020) and adventurous The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021). The animation style is a mixture of traditional 2D and computer-generated 3D, there are resonate themes of acceptance and magic, the score (in this case by Frozen II‘s Christophe Beck) is positively bangin’ as it navigates the sounds of the past with the promise of the future, and each scene possesses some new thing to discover. In a rewatch of the opening 19-minutes, for instance, the way the light reflects off of Ballister’s singular metallic black-grey armor, we start to see shades of navy and silver, as though being in the light helps him transform into something more like that of his fellow knights. Or when the alarms go off in a building and red lights blink in the hallway and the whites and pupils of Nimona’s eyes turn red in rhythm with the alarm. These little touches demonstrate a depth of ideas within the film where the visual elements are married to the significance of the narrative. In other words, animation is the perfect medium for telling a story in a fantastical way and, like the two examples, one can choose to watch Nimona for the story it is or they can find an abundance of significance and meaning.
Take heart, rejects — you may feel alone, but we see you, we accept you.
If you find yourself in a headspace where you could use someone to talk with, Netflix provides the following web address well-past the credits: https://www.wannatalkaboutit.com/. Considering the tendency of all streamers to shrink the screen when these start, it feels even more important to include it here.
In select theaters June 23rd, 2023.
Available on Netflix June 30th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Netflix Nimona webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.