The best animated movie of the year (so far) is a heady mix of Blade Runner-esque steampunk and Arthurian fantasy, not to mention a soulful rumination on identity.
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Netflix has been quietly building an impressive catalogue of original animated films in recent years, from the Oscar-nominated “Klaus” to last year’s “The Sea Beast” and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” which for my money was the best animated flick of 2021.
“Nimona,” a heady mix of Blade Runner-esque steampunk and Arthurian fantasy, is another feather in the streaming giant’s cap. It’s got plenty of amazing imagery and lively action, and it’s also a soulful rumination on the tenuous nature of identity. Indeed, its very theme is that our concept of good guys vs. bad guys is a faulty one.
That’s not say that heroism is devalued or villainy defended — anything but. In our fractious age of black-and-white tribalism, though, it’s a subtle reminder not to follow the mob but trust our own instincts and values.
Chloë Grace Moretz voices the title character, a shape-shifting imp of a girl who blurs the line between good and evil. She’s always itching for a fight and humorously embraces her devilish tendencies, even as she battles on the side of truth and justice. She can switch in an instant into all sorts of animal shapes, from bear to bird to gorilla, though they all retain her fiery red coloration. She can also keep her human form while sprouting some bat-like wings, and her teeth have a bit of a pointed canine snarl.
Nimona appears to be about 10 years old, but her magical nature and sense of bravado — built to obscure a crushing sense of loneliness — suggest she’s much older.
Her partner and foil is Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed), a newly christened knight in a kingdom based on self-mythologizing. One thousand years ago their founding icon, Gloreth, vanquished a fearsome monster threatening their very existence. A millennia later, they now having flying cars and computers and other cool tech, but are still protected by an order of knights operating under the noble Institute, which keeps the populace protected behind high walls.
Bal, as he’s known, is an exception as the first commoner invited to join the knighthood at the behest of the forward-thinking Queen Valerin (Lorraine Toussaint). Notably, the nobles who comprise the knights are mostly Caucasian types while Bal and most folks like him are dusky-skinned. He gets a lot of taunting from his more entrenched fellows, including one bro-dude type kept around as antagonist and comic relief.
His one true friend is Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang), a direct descendant of Gloreth himself and the captain of the knights. They are best pals and also lovers, as the movie chastely but un-squeamishly makes clear in the opening minutes, though the seem to keep it a secret from others.
Yes, this movie features futuristic gay knights. If you’re tempted to titter at this, go ahead. Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, and screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Lloyd Taylor, in adapting the graphic novel by ND Stevenson, do not back away from the nature of their relationship but also don’t make it the centerpiece of the story. It’s just there, part of their intrinsic nature, in the same way Ambrosius projects a bright, uplifting image while Val favors dark armor and a brooding mien.
(Alright, it’s OK to laugh at the name Goldenloin… I did.)
“Nimona” was originally a production of Fox’s animation wing, Blue Sky Studios, which was folded when Disney acquired Fox and the movie shut down despite being mostly finished. It was picked up and completed by Annapurna Pictures for release on Netflix. There has been some suggestion the film’s gentle LGBTQ theme caused it to be caught up in the ‘Disney vs. Florida’ silliness, though if I read the timeline right that claim is debatable.
Bal’s triumphant moment of being knighted goes horribly wrong: a terrible deed occurs and he finds himself framed for it. There is much chatter from the commonfolk about never belonging in the first place, as Abrosius is compelled to order the rest of the knights to hunt him down under the supervision of the imperious Director (Frances Conroy). Bal also loses an arm in the fracas and must build himself a robotic one.
Nimona seeks him out and offers — insists, really — to be his sidekick, which is something of a misnomer given the yawning disparity in sheer power between them. She busts Bal out of jail and together they begin hunting for clues to find the real perpetrator of the queen’s regicide.
Bal goes along with it, putting up with Nimona’s devilish streak and penchant for seeking out scrapes. He’s also feeling very betrayed that Ambrosius won’t take him at his word that he’s innocent. As things go on, their investigation reveals that much of the lore that forms the underpinning of their culture may be embellished or even twisted around.
I really liked the style of the animation, which has a little bit of a manga exaggeration to it while staying in the representational sphere. The action scenes are crisp and well-staged, and you get a strong sense of spatial and kinetic integrity — a mix of wondrous and grounded elements.
The relationship between Bal and Nimona gains texture and colors over time. In a lot of ways, they are two people with chips on their shoulders and a fatalistic sense of their own shortcomings. Their sense of identity is tenuous and threatened by both external forces and self-doubt. They need each other to find the light inside themselves.
“Nimona” is an original and daring piece of animation that’s a good fit for kids craving entertainment and adults who appreciate a more realistic, mature approach to storytelling — even when it’s set against a fantastical background. It’s easily the best animated movie in the first half of 2023.