After six years of surviving two delays and one cancellation, Nimona has finally been let loose upon the world thanks to Netflix, and it does its excellent source material justice. I say this having not read ND Stevenson’s graphic novel since it came out in 2015 and gleaning from a quick glance at the Wikipedia synopsis that the film adaptation has a completely different plot, but this is a case where an adaptation can shine in its new form when it still retains the spirit of its old one.
One thing that remains defiantly unchanged, however, is an explicit, canonical relationship between two male characters in this animated movie for children, one that includes hands romantically touching within the first five minutes, an “I love you,” and a kiss. Disney was purportedly antsy about this queer content, so the fact that after they shut down Blue Sky Studios, Annapurna Pictures came in and rescued the film was a big win.
So is the positive reception to this film at all bolstered by its being released on the last day of Pride Month following a pretty terrible Supreme Court decision that opens up the floodgates for increased discrimination against LGBTQ+ people? Yes. Is it one of the most purely entertaining and viscerally emotional films of the year? Also yes.
Nimona takes place in your typical medieval fantasy world with knights and queens and dragons except for the fact that it also takes place in a futuristic world with cell phones and laser sights and news reporters. Just go with it! One of the film’s many charms is its complete comfort in its sense of place without feeling the need to explain how or why this world could possibly exist like this. It resists the binary, if you will.
Appropriate for a story about a shapeshifter who initially presents as a teenage girl but takes on many forms over the course of the film. Nimona seeks out Ballister Boldheart, the most hated man in the kingdom, and declares her intention to be this villain’s sidekick.
Ballister, however, declares himself not to be a villain at all, his murder wall notwithstanding. And so kicks off a mystery plot that pits them against Ballister’s nemesis/lover, Ambrosius Goldenloin, and the Director of the Institute that rules this kingdom that has walled itself away to keep the monsters out.
Monsters like…Nimona herself. Nimona practically leaps off the screen, a hyperactive chaos goblin who could be insufferable were it not for Chloë Grace Moretz’s pitch-perfect performance. She has all the energy of Robin Williams’s frenetic improvisations as the Genie but finely tuned for scripted lines. Nimona is such a vibrant character with her fiery red hair and vampiric teeth, and although she likes to throw up the horns and intone, “Metal,” her personality leans more punk, with the soundtrack to match.
But lest you think she’s just a motormouth burst of comedy in film that appears to revel in gleefully subverting fantasy storytelling tropes, she soon reveals an incredibly vulnerable side that pierced my heart repeatedly simply from facial expressions. Because like Ballister, she’s not a villain at all, deemed a monster by people who don’t understand and accept her truth, unwilling to challenge their own preconceptions. While her character hits a few very relatable traits for me like feeling like you don’t belong and a desire to do good even if people think you’re bad, I know she must resonate even more for queer and especially trans people. When we finally get her backstory in a gorgeous, largely wordless sequence set to a haunting choral piece by composer Christophe Beck, it utterly destroyed me with the power of its visual storytelling.
Um, I should also mention that this film is a goddamn delight with the best scene of a shapeshifter escaping a castle by changing into multiple different animals since Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.
I’ll admit I wasn’t completely sold on the animation style initially, as it looked like the CG characters were in front of an environment rather than in an environment, but as the film progressed, I appreciated the animation much more, especially in the fluidity of Nimona’s shapeshifting into various pink animals.
I should also note that while she’s not quite as curvy as her comic counterpart, Nimona’s not your usual ultrathin female character (that design goes to the Director). She’s got thighs!
Spies in Disguise directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane match their titular character’s vibrancy with a visual panache that takes the animated camera zooming throughout this fantasy world, and their action scenes really have a sense of fun. Even though this is hardly Spider-Verse, it’s refreshing to see a mainstream animated film with more of a distinctive personality compared to the looks popularized by Pixar and Illumination.
Moretz could certainly carry the film on her own, but she has a great partner in Riz Ahmed as Ballister. While Ahmed has done a couple English-language dubs, this is his first time voice acting a main character in an animated film, and I’ve never heard this side of him! I would like to hear this side of him more! He rarely gets a chance to be this light, and even though he’s the straight man—so to speak—his growing rapport with Nimona allows him to be more and more amusing, especially as he begins to reference her lines. And to be clear, it is only a rapport! Not a romance! I fucking love that the film allows their relationship to be completely platonic and makes its emotional core the strong FRIENDSHIP between a male character and a female character.
Of course, even newer to voice acting is Try Guy Eugene Lee Yang, whom I wasn’t familiar with, but who I never would have guessed was a YouTuber with little acting experience based on his performance as Ambrosius, who has to sort out his loyalties when he believes the man he loves is a murderer.
He kind of has the opposite problem Nimona has, as he’s trying to live up to expectations set by his being a direct descendant of the hero of the kingdom. As in the book, he’s a much more interesting character than he initially appears to be, and he plays a crucial role in the climax.
And oh, what a climax! Screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Lloyd Taylor craft a remarkably efficient script that blazes through what amounts to a fairly simple plot that’s largely in service of illuminating Nimona’s struggles and her relationship with Ballister. And thus the various twists and turns, predictable though they may be, get us to the point where that relationship can be tested.
It’s a testament to how invested the script makes us in Nimona and Ballister that the villain plot itself doesn’t stand out as underdeveloped, partly because it speaks to the themes of prejudice and control that plague both those characters. Baird and Taylor go to a darker, rawer place than I’d expect for a children’s movie, but it’s always darkest before the dawn. Nimona isn’t necessarily saying anything that hasn’t been said before in many other children’s movies, but my God, the execution makes it something beautiful and special.
Overall, Nimona won my heart much in the same way the original graphic novel did. It’s wacky and playful and fun, but also heart-wrenching and devastating and affecting. And even though it tells a lovely stand-alone story, I still yearn to spend more time with these characters.