Premiering during a Pride Month where LGBTQ+ rights are under attack across the United States and elsewhere, Nimona is a funny, beautiful, and powerful tale of the fight for acceptance in a world dominated by fear. The tale of a shapeshifter viewed as a monster teaming up with a would-be hero everyone thinks is a villain cleverly critiques traditional fairytale concepts to build a rich world and story where whimsical action and goofy jokes pave the way for heavier emotional themes.
The story (adapted from ND Stevenson’s Eisner Award-winning webcomic) takes place in a science-fantasy realm where knights in shining armor train to fight monsters and protect their people using flying cars and wall-mounted laser cannons. Fusing genres provides room for both creative visuals with the same tongue-in-cheek sensibility as Shrek while also making a sharp political point about questioning hierarchy and the motives of those in power. The futuristic medieval setting feels so rich that even though this film covers all of the events in Stevenson’s comics it wouldn’t be surprising if Netflix pushed for an entirely original sequel.
This is a twisted fairy tale, sharply taking aim at the post-9/11 surveillance state. A scene where a “monster alert” broadcasts across every screen while fully armored knights march through the streets assuring everyone they should just go about their business and remain calm cleverly uses the novel setting to evoke the paranoia of the early 2000s, specifically the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System George W. Bush’s administration launched to tell the country exactly how afraid to be at any given time.
This is a twisted fairy tale, sharply taking aim at the post-9/11 surveillance state.
The defenders of the realm, known as the Institute, had traditionally been descendants of the noble bloodlines that date back to the kingdom’s founding – until the queen (Lorraine Toussaint) made an exception for enthusiastic street kid Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed). The film embraces the humor of Stevenson’s comics while still laying out the stakes immediately, depicting the knighting ceremony as a media spectacle meant to demonstrate the kingdom’s progress while also revealing just how deep its divides remain. The level of pageantry and betrayal is reminiscent of if a King’s Landing tournament was somehow fused with the Oscars, but everything was kept kid-friendly.
Ballister’s moment to shine goes predictably wrong and he winds up being painted as a villain. When Nimona, a mysterious shapeshifter with a penchant for mayhem, approaches asking to be his sidekick, they form a highly entertaining odd couple whose adventures shake the kingdom to its core and question the very concept of the fantasy genre’s devotion to protecting the status quo from external threats.
They form a highly entertaining odd couple whose adventures shake the kingdom to its core.
The film version of Nimona is more explicit than the comics when it comes to its portrayal of the sweet and complicated romantic relationship between Ballister and Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang), a descendant of the kingdom’s founding hero who everyone assumes is destined for greatness. (Nimona was canceled by Disney after it acquired 20th Century Fox, reportedly over concerns about its same-sex kiss, before it was picked up by Netflix.) Ambrosious’ easy charm provides a great foil for Ballister’s anxious brooding, though the film cleverly depicts Ambrosius’ own inner turmoil compared to the heroic facade he presents to the world. It’s easy to want more depth to their story, but they’re not the title characters.
Stephenson came out as trans in 2020, five years after publishing the webcomic, and perhaps as a result Nimona’s own transness is also more directly presented in the adaption. Through her relationship with Ballister, the film meticulously lays out the best way to be an ally in a way that’s both emotionally sincere and so funny that it never seems preachy. A scene where Ballister and Nimona play a riff on Monopoly together was mostly taken directly from the comics, but here it’s more closely woven into the film’s theme of how wonderful it feels to be accepted as your authentic self.
From cereal commercials to VR games, Nimona is constantly confronted with messages about how terrible monsters are and how much the knights who fight them should be idolized. She confronts most of this media with plucky charm as she maniacally wrecks just about everything in her path, but that humor and confidence makes the scenes when the psychological blows truly hit home even more emotionally devastating.
In an echo of Mystique’s point in X2: X-Men United, where she says that she doesn’t use her shapeshifting to pass as human because she shouldn’t have to, Nimona explains that if she didn’t shapeshift she wouldn’t die but she “sure wouldn’t be living.” Nimona is certainly living life to the fullest in the many running action sequences where she rapidly changes forms between gorilla, rhino, and even whale, setting up a great mix of sight gags and jokes. But a particularly heartbreaking sequence where Nimona tries to make friends with another young girl, the movie draws attention to the fact that the line between magical and monstrous really depends on who’s telling the story.
Nimona makes excellent use of music throughout, from a triumphant version of Metric’s “Gold Guns Girls” that plays as Ballister tries to sway public opinion with a social media campaign, to the haunting orchestral music found in the final battle. It’s also gorgeously animated both in and out of action scenes, filled with little details that build on the fantasy police state setting and striking flourishes like the way Nimona’s eyes glow to reveal her too-fangy smile.
There have been plenty of kids’ movies about the importance of tolerance and the challenge of getting authority figures to confront their prejudices, from How to Train Your Dragon to Zootopia, and their ability to actually change the minds of viewers and make the world more inclusive is admittedly limited. But Nimona’s message is that sometimes all it takes to make a difference is for one person to stop thinking of you as a monster, and hopefully that will help at least a few queer kids and their friends navigate some very scary times.
In adapting ND Stephenson’s revered webcomic to animation, Netflix makes Nimona’s queer content more overt as it tells a tender and bold tale about challenging institutions, being a good ally, and the need to live as your true self. It’s a beautifully animated film that never loses sight of its goals as it seamlessly blends goofy humor and action, an imaginative setting, and powerful emotional moments to produce a memorable and highly relevant family film.