Nimona Has a Familiar Shape
Shouldn’t embracing diversity be less predictable?
I enjoyed ND Stevenson’s comic Nimona way back in the 2010s, so I was looking forward to the Netflix animated adaptation. And some of the charm of the original does comes through. Ultimately, though, the need for narrative cohesion undermines the comic’s whimsical goofiness. Directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno seem to instinctively steer towards the staid and expected, which somewhat undermines the supposed themes of inclusion, diversity, and imagination.
The movie is set in a cyber Arthurian future world in which the Institute of Elite Knights guards the kingdom against a Great Black Monster vanquished by the heroine Gloreth some thousand years ago. Ballister Boldheart is the first non noble taken into the ranks of the knights, but when he is about to accept the honor from the Queen, his sword shoots out a laser ray and kills her. Hated and on the run, he goes underground, where he is adopted by shape-shifting sprite Nimona. The two of them work together to try to restore Ballister’s good name…and also to restore Nimona’s, as it becomes clear that she’s the Gret Black Monster herself.
The queer allegory here isn’t especially subtle, and isn’t meant to be. Nimona is somewhat gender indeterminate (she can turn into a boy if she wants) and her initial relationship with Gloreth, shown in flashback, may be more than friendship. Gloreth’s town turns on Nimona because she’s a shapeshifter, but also maybe, not that subliminally, because the relationship between Gloreth and Nimona is seen as violating gender boundaries in a monstrous way. The scene where Gloreth casts Nimona into outer darkness is not (as we’re initially told) a triumph of good over evil, but is instead a triumph of homophobia, as Gloreth rejects her own queerness and her love.
It's true that the movie doesn’t make the Gloreth/Nimona relationship explicit, but (unlike Across the Spiderverse) it does acknowledge queer possibilities in other ways; Ballister is in love with the amusingly named Ambrosius Goldenloin, heir of Gloreth, and their star-crossed but not verboten love serves as a tolerant foil or alternative to the quasi-Christofascist loathing of Nimona.
Which all seems admirable enough. The problem isn’t really with the politics so much as with the aesthetics; there’s just not a lot vividly or originally imagined here. The “hunt the monster” as queer allegory goes all the way back to James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein at least, and even giving Nimona huge neotenous eyes doesn’t adequately capture the pathos of that 90-year-old film.
The constant hip snarky patter also feels helplessly default—as does the limited pallet of shape changing. Nimona has a stock repertoire of transformations—ape, ostrich, whale, rhino, armadillo and finally kaiju—none of which would really have been out of place in a Wonder Twins Superfriends episode. There’s no comparison with Rebecca Sugar’s genuinely odd Steven Universe, where in one glorious episode Steven’s fingers turn into cats, in another one character disovers an interstellar portal in his hair, and in general identities morph throughout the series identities morph and merge into one another in a bizarre, vertiginous, giggly dance.
Nimona in contrast feels like it takes every option to be as conventional as possible. The potentially intriguing future past setting is never really explored or exploited; the plot twists are telegraphed (the person who you think is the secret villain? That’s the secret villain.) The more painful edges of the comic’s Ballister/Ambrosius relationship are sanded down; their conflict is, in this version, all just a misunderstanding.
Given the current terrifying assault on LGBT people and LGBT stories, I do appreciate a queer parable which has the grace and courage to feature actual queer characters. I just wish a story about embracing difference and accepting the many shapes of monstrosity didn’t have such familiar and uninspiring outlines.
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