‘Nimona’ Review: Pink Hair, Punk Spirit and a Formula-Thrashing Story Set This Rebel Toon Apart

Once upon a time, animated movies made it easy to tell the heroes apart from the villains. Now, the trend is for princesses to remain happily unmarried (“Frozen”), for kids to know better than their elders (“Encanto”) and for monsters to be revealed as misunderstood allies (“Luca”). For a while, those twists on the Disney fairy-tale formula felt surprising to audiences, aligning nicely with where the cultural conversation was headed. Through repetition, however, such enlightenment has become its own cliché.

Enter Nimona, who brings a fresh dose of attitude to such inclusive messaging. She’s a monster, but doesn’t like to be called that. (And who can blame her?) Apparently the only one of her kind in a fictional kingdom where medieval customs and flying cars aren’t mutually exclusive, Nimona is capable of shape-shifting into practically any species — be it a shark, a rhinoceros or a ginormous dragon — though her hot pink hair/fur/skin makes it kind of hard to blend in. When she first appears in the rowdy Netflix animated feature that bears her name, Nimona is sporting a pixie-punk haircut, piercings and an insatiable desire to do maximum damage to the society that’s been demonizing her for roughly a millennium. She is not what anyone would call a good girl, and that makes her a far more interesting character than practically any princess.

Not since “Shrek” has an animated feature had such subversive fun with the “happily ever after” formula, although there’s no way the film’s punchy personality would have turned out the same if “Nimona” had remained a studio toon. The project originated with Fox-owned Blue Sky (specifically, the duo behind “Spies in Disguise,” Nick Bruno and Troy Quane), only to be orphaned in the Disney acquisition. Luckily, Annapurna stepped in to see it through, leaning into the antiheroine’s nonconformist personality — the very thing that made ND Stevenson’s graphic novel so original. While the result is hardly subtle in its progressive agenda (cramming in diverse characters, a judgment-free gay couple and someone who asks, “What if we’ve always been wrong?” about the anti-monster matriarchy), the irreverent tone keeps it from feeling sanctimonious. If anything, the movie seems to have sprung from the head of a 21st-century teen.

Voiced with a delicious sense of anarchy by Chloë Grace Moretz — who sounds like a Goth kid scheming to burn down the school — Nimona figures her best shot at inflicting vengeance would be pledging allegiance to someone who wants the same thing. That’s why, 10 long minutes into a movie that could really use her ’tude from the get-go, Nimona bangs on the door of wanted villain Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed), a kinda pathetic would-be hero who was primed for greatness until he killed the queen during his knighting ceremony. Yeah, oops. Ballister insists he’s innocent, which is sort of a bummer for his new sidekick, who thought she’d found a kindred spirit — someone truly evil who might appreciate her capacity for mayhem — when in fact, he’s more of an excommunicated Boy Scout trying to find his way back to the troop.

“Nimona” takes a few minutes to kick in, unsure quite how to treat Ballister. He’s a lower-caste queer kid who was the first person from humble origins to be selected for the conservative-minded Institute’s (co-ed) knight program, which ought to be empowering. Since this isn’t Earth exactly, but a mashup realm where swords and armor coexist with laser cannons and Jumbotrons, it’s not entirely clear whether the humans here have the same hang-ups that American society does. For instance, it looks like no big deal that Ballister and fellow knight Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang) are a couple — at least, they were until the latter lopped off his boyfriend’s arm in the melee surrounding the queen’s assassination.

After the incident, Nimona finds Ballister sulking alone and suggests they team up. The ex-knight (now sporting a bionic limb) wants to clear his name, while Nimona hopes she can convince him to just tear it all down. In a sense — and this is what’s smart about the movie — she sounds the way Generation Alpha must to most adults: Nimona’s hip and impulsive. She doesn’t seem to respect anything about society or its traditions. And while that’s threatening on the surface, she’s not entirely wrong (which is why, back in the real world, there’s so much pushback today against kids who are horrified to learn the hierarchies they’ve inherited). Since Nimona also happens to be a seemingly invincible shape-shifter, she’s the literal embodiment of a bull in a china shop, smashing everything as she morphs between animals. Ballister’s relatively lame by comparison, and while it’s cool that he’s gay, the movie doesn’t know how to deal with his ex being top soldier to the Institute’s conniving headmistress (Frances Conroy).

The rest is surprisingly (even distressingly) predictable, but the film’s humor and heart are in the right place. Easily the most appealing thing about “Nimona” is the outside-the-box animation style. How often have you flipped through the “art of” book for some big-budget animated feature and wondered why the movie didn’t match the brilliant concept art that went into its making? Well, “Nimona” won’t leave you feeling that way, as it belongs to a new trend of bending computer animation to look more like human drawings. The characters are computer-rendered in 3D, but gone are the lines and photoreal surfaces, rendered like dynamic comic book panels instead. The “camera” work and editing have loosened up, too, combining with Christophe Beck’s thrash-metal score to yield a distinctly teen-friendly toon.

The style blends details from the bare-bones graphic novel with medieval designs that recall former Disney animator Don Bluth’s work on the Dragon’s Lair game and “The Sword and the Stone,” whose charming shape-shifting sequence surely inspired the film’s standout scene: a montage where Nimona’s lonely backstory is revealed. As for the message, “Nimona” isn’t saying that monsters don’t exist. It’s just that if you call someone a monster, they’re liable to wind up behaving like one — a phenomenon that any number of outsiders can identify with. Stevenson’s lightning-bolt breakthrough came in demolishing the fairy-tale tropes, and screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Lloyd Taylor build on that impulse, recognizing that most people find Maleficent far more interesting than Sleeping Beauty. Give her pink hair and piercings, and she’s practically irresistible.

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