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The new animated film premiering on Netflix starts out exactly how you’d think a fairy tale should be. The first words we hear, after all, are: “Long, long ago, a kingdom lived in peace.”
But don’t be fooled. Nimona, based on the acclaimed graphic novel by ND Stevenson, is about as far away from an ordinary fairy tale as animated films. Unabashedly irreverent and hilarious and subversive, it’s a constant delight.
A sequel, please.
Release date: Friday 30 June
Launch: Chloe Grace Moretz, Riz Ahmed, Eugene Lee Yang, Frances Conroy, Lorraine Toussaint, Beck Bennett, Indya Moore, RuPaul Charles, Julio Torres, Sarah Sherman
directors: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Screenwriters: Robert L Baird, Lloyd Taylor
Rated PG, 1 hour 41 minutes
After that lulling introduction, the action moves forward a thousand years, with the story set in a futuristic medieval kingdom that boasts skyscrapers alongside its ancient fortresses. The story begins with a cheesy newscast hosted by two over-enthusiastic anchors (Indya Moore, RuPaul) covering the kingdom’s “Night to the Knights Knights,” a reality show-style competition. Among the contestants is the insecure, one-armed Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed), who is encouraged in his efforts by her boyfriend and training partner, the delightful Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang).
To his surprise, Ballister wins the tournament. But just as he’s being knighted by Queen Valerin (Lorraine Toussaint, who could make a weather report look regal), the sword handed to him emits a death ray that kills her. Accused of murder, he is suddenly forced to go on the run, finding an unlikely ally in the form of Nimona (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenager who has been ostracized by the kingdom due to her shape-shifting abilities.
Nimona — the kind of uninhibited fellow who, upon seeing Ballister’s prosthetic limb, snidely comments, “Sick arm! Did they let you keep the old one? -she proves an unlikely partner, especially since Ballister was once tasked with killing her. But his abilities to transform into creatures including a shark, a cat, a gorilla, a dragon and even a seemingly innocent little boy prove to be very useful. As is her ferocious fighting spirit, demonstrated when she engages in battle with a pursuing group of Ballisters shouting, “The one-armed club is about to get new members!”
It’s fun to quote the title character because, thanks to Robert L. Baird and Lloyd Taylor’s witty script, he’s eminently quotable and one of the most delightful animated anti-heroes of recent years. Despite her badass qualities, she is very recognizable in her victimization for being misunderstood by the kingdom. When asked by Ballister why she is helping him, she replies, “Because I’m bored and everyone hates me too.”
The character’s effectiveness is greatly enhanced by the superb design which brings all of his volatile emotions to life, and in particular by the excellent work of Moretz which ranks as one of the best and most dazzling vocal performances in a long time. Ahmed, working in a necessarily more understated vein, is just as strong, projecting real pathos as the falsely accused knight. All of the voice performances in the film are excellent, including Frances Conroy as the imperious “Headmistress” of the Knight Training Institute and former SNL cast member Beck Bennett as an obnoxious knight.
Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, who previously collaborated on the entertaining Spies in disguise, give the action a consistently lively and frenetic quality, and the gorgeous computer animation looks dazzling throughout. Christophe Beck’s orchestral score, enlivened by various other musical styles – including some fitting punk rock interludes for Nimona (with none other than the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones providing guitar riffs) – is another strong contribution.
One of the most notable aspects of the film is its touching handling of Ballister and Ambrosius’ tender romantic relationship, including holding hands and a kiss. These elements reportedly spooked Disney when they inherited the project after acquiring Fox and shutting down the film’s original production company, Blue Sky Studios. Annapurna Animation later picked up the film, which has now ended up on Netflix. Disney’s loss is their gain.