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Directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane
Produced by Roy Lee, Karen Ryan, and Julie Zackary
With: the voices of Chloë Grace Moretz, Riz Ahmed, Eugene Lee Yang, Frances Conroy, Lorraine Toussaint, Beck Bennett, RuPaul, Indya Moore, Julio Torres, and Sarah Sherman
Editing: Randy Trager and Erin Crackel
Music: Christophe Beck
Runtime: 101 min
Release Date: 30 June 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color: Color

The latest Netflix animated offering to score an Oscar nomination is this adaptation of ND Stevenson's episodic webcomic, which ran from June 2012 to September 2014 and became a graphic novel published in 2015. Set in one of the most uncreatively imagined fantasy kingdoms I've yet seen in an animated picture—a blend of medieval realm and contemporary city with futuristic modes of transport (just transport, literally nothing else that feels remotely futuristic) and Gen-X Easter eggs—the story centers on a commoner knight (Riz Ahmed) framed for a murder he didn't commit who reluctantly teams up with a scrappy, shape-shifting teenage girl to try and prove his innocence. The semi-2D character design of the picture is original, but the style of animation is the same high octane, hyperkinetic, everything flying at you at a million miles an hour style that makes so many modern animated films tedious and exhausting. At least this movie understands that sometimes characters need to take a few quiet moments to recharge, get to know each other, and strategize, but those moments are too few and far between.

The picture's grating, jokey, and relentless tone turns us against its characters early on. From the indestructible, constantly yelling, obnoxiously confident young heroine to its put-upon, in-over-his-head hero to the paper-thin villains who never feel like any kind of threat because they (like everyone else) are constantly making stupid, audience-winking puns and wisecracks. It's beyond me how the writers of movies like this expect viewers to suddenly start caring about the supposed danger the protagonists are in when they go out of their way to demonstrate that everything about the world is a big joke.

In terms of premise, setting, and themes, Nimona is practically identical to the prior year's Netflix Best Animated Feature nominee, The Sea Beast, except that that movie enabled its audience to discover the subtext and message of the story along with the characters. With subtlety, nuance, and patience, the brave warriors of The Sea Beast's kingdom, with their proud tradition of killing the dangerous monsters that lurk outside their protective wall, slowly discovered that perhaps the great legends, conventions, and laws they've held close for generations might be all wrong. In Nimona, this message is telegraphed, shouted, spraypainted, dictated, signaled, and crammed down the viewer's throats. It's as if the filmmakers believe they will score extra points if they make their film as didactic and preachy as possible so that even people who don't actually watch it will champion it. But sitting through it is a slog.

I've certainly seen worse animated features in the past few years—The Boss BabyThe Mitchells vs. The Machines, and Turning Red all come quickly to mind—so I wanted to at least give this picture two stars for effort and for trying to do something different with its heroine. But everything in Nimona is recycled from other, far better movies, and the potential for a different kind of teen hero is only there in concept, not execution. The obvious analogy for this shape-shifting teen makes less and less sense as we learn about her. Once her full backstory is revealed, how she chooses to present herself in the world makes little sense unless the film's central metaphor is really about adolescents so stunted by trauma that they can never grow up. It's odd for a film with such overt, on-the-nose messaging to seem so muddled regarding its central character.

Twitter Capsule:

ND Stevenson's acclaimed webcomic and graphic novel gets the relentless, insufferable, audience-winky treatment of far too many contemporary animated features, burying what it's trying to do and say under exhausted cliches with empty virtue-signaling in place of meaningful subtext.