In the animated movie Nimona — based on ND Stevenson‘s web comic of the same name — Chloe Grace Moretz brings a force-of-nature energy to the title role. It’s reminiscent of her breakthrough turn as Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass.
Initially presenting as a punk-rock shapeshifter with demonic wings and fangs, Nimona is a revved-up engine of mischief and rebellion. She’s a wiseass fantastical motormouth to rival Michael Keaton‘s Beetlejuice/Betelgeuse. Robin Williams would tell her to tone it down a bit.
Maybe if she were the lead character, she’d need to. But she’s the sidekick — by choice — in the story of Ballister Blackheart (Riz Ahmed). In a future-medieval chic society, Blackheart is set to become the first common-born knight at the same ceremony as his boyfriend Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang).
The Queen (Lorraine Toussaint), delighted to diversify, knows the crowds will eventually embrace Blackheart…until the ceremony goes horribly wrong. Blackheart is framed for murder and becomes public enemy #1. Figuring Blackheart’s name and reputation are correctly earned, the anarchic Nimona seeks him out in the hope that they can do villainy together.
Robert L. Baird and Lloyd Taylor’s script shape-shifts the comic into a more classic fairy-tale format. It helps for clarity — Stevenson (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power) initially wrote the comic as a very last-minute class assignment in art school, and has endorsed the movie’s changes.
The way the film casually treats Ballister and Ambrosius’ relationship contrasts with the way society shuns Nimona because it can’t clearly define her/them. Asked what she is, Nimona only responds, “I’m Nimona,” demanding acceptance without having to fit into someone’s easily checked box. She describes her shapeshifting as like scratching an itch — it’s possible to just not do it, but more comfortable to do it, and why should she not?
Stevenson wrote Nimona before transitioning himself, but in hindsight and movie-related rewrites, the allegory is clear. Especially when those in charge use ancient scrolls to justify their logic that Nimona is a monster, and therefore inherently evil and duplicitous.
Whodunnit vs. Who’ll Do Better
The mystery of who framed Ballister is solved quickly, and turns out not be the real point. This — of course — is an allegory for the outsider, and specifically the kind who doesn’t confirm to hegemonic norms. Nimona’s self-selected role of evil sidekick, as opposed to her true self as a shape-shifter, is just a way to try to find someone else to relate to. She tried to be good, we learn. Shunned for not being the right kind of good, she figures baddies will embrace her instead. But while she wants to smash the system altogether, Ballister sees it as fixable once corruption becomes exposed. It’s the classic “leftist versus liberal” dispute that plays out on Twitter daily, but much more artful and articulate.
Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane (Spies in Disguise) use a cel-shading-over-CG animation that looks a bit like an attempt to do The Secret of Kells in 3D. At times it looks unfinished, especially when metallic, shiny knights cluster in chase scenes. It’s possible this look isn’t as final as everyone wanted, given the hurdles Nimona went through. The project began at Blue Sky, which was shut down when Disney acquired Fox. The fact that a big studio animated feature with major LGBT representation was just going to be ditched didn’t sit well with many people for obvious reasons, and Annapurna picked it up for distribution on Netflix. So far, it’s the only orphaned Blue Sky project to be rescued.
Punk’s Not Dead?
As Netflix animated features go, Nimona’s look isn’t the sort of mind-blower that Entergalactic or Del Toro’s Pinocchio were. Its sci-fi meets medieval feudalism is creative and pointed — science progresses, superstitions remain — but the visuals never quite measure up to the rest of it.
The voice cast is uniformly excellent; Moretz sets a very high standard, but it’s met by the likes of Ahmed as the put-upon Ballister, Beck Bennett as the knightly frat-boy Todd, and cameos from the likes of Sarah Sherman and RuPaul in smaller roles. There are some odd pop-culture references which suggest this world developed parallel to our own (Wham’s “Careless Whisper,” Pizza Rat). Thankfully these aren’t overplayed, and the punk-rock soundtrack feels curated rather than drowning in the obvious.
Is it maybe fitting that something aspiring to punk-rock energy looks a little raw and unpolished? Across the Spider-Verse spent millions more to deliberately create the look of unfinished and misprinted comics, and that’s as big a movie as they come. Nimona, though, is the little animated flick that could. While it may not smash the state, it may open a few minds — or at least endear viewers to a different sort of anti-hero.
A climactic moment jerks tears as well as any Pixar manipulation. Here, however, they feel more real. It especially plays for those who have experienced real-life versions of Nimona’s inner turmoil, or seen them in loved ones. This movie sees you.
Nimona opens in limited theatrical release June 23 and drops on Netflix June 30.