They always say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when I first signed up to see Nimona only a couple of days in advance of a special screening event at TIFF Bell Lightbox, I had only a cute looking poster and a pair of YouTube trailers to go by. Skimming over the content to get the gist without spoiling anything, I quickly concluded that I would be in for a standard, 1 ½ hour animated adventure in the DreamWorks How to Train Your Dragon wheelhouse of kids movies. I don’t regret making that assumption either because I can’t recall a time when it felt so good to be proven SO WRONG about a movie.
Based on the ND Stevenson webcomic and graphic novel of the same name, Nimona is set in a medieval-kingdom-meets-Blade Runner-esque city (simply referred to as The Kingdom) where its citizens are protected from the outside world by a massive, seemingly impregnable wall a-la Attack on Titan, a ridiculously large laser cannon that appears as if it’s compensating for something, and an “Institute” of knights known as The Heroes of the Realm.
While The Kingdom’s inhabitants live a life of relative peace behind the safety of The Wall in exchange for limited freedoms and Big Brother-levels of surveillance and control on behalf of the Institute, little is known about the lands that lie beyond the wall, aside from legends of bloodthirsty monsters that once terrorized humanity over a millennia ago.
Centuries of prosperity and peace have transformed the Institution’s knights into little more than swaggering, sword-swinging pro-athletes, but they still command the respect of their subjects because they are the direct bloodline descendants of Gloreth, the warrior who fought back the monster threat 1000 years prior. Hence Nimona’s story begins at the inflection point where all that seems destined to change. Ballister Blackheart (voiced by Venom’s Riz Ahmed), the first commoner with no bloodline connection to Gloreth and who has trained all his life to join the Institute, is appointed to the order by Queen Valerin, only to be framed for murdering her shortly thereafter during his televised Knighting Ceremony, immediately becoming Public Enemy Number One.
“Nimona is a talkative, energetic dynamo of unbridled chaos that audiences won’t be able to help falling in love with.”
Determined to clear his name, Ballister goes into hiding, but not before losing both his sword and the arm attached to it to his boyfriend, Ambrosius Goldenloin (yes, you read that correctly), during the latter knight’s failed arrest attempt. Ballister’s new reputation as the most-hated villain in the realm brings him to the attention of Nimona, a spunky, mayhem-seeking teenage shape-shifter who finds Ballister’s hideout and offers to strike a deal with him to help clear his name in exchange for becoming his “official evil sidekick,” supposedly to relieve her boredom.
Requiring all the help he can get, Ballister reluctantly accepts, kickstarting the duo’s campaign to flip the script against both the Institute and the public that have labelled them as monsters and uncover the true villain behind The Queen’s murder. It’s at this exact point where much like the titular shape-shifter herself, the film fully bares its mischievous, shark-toothy grin and sets in motion a rollercoaster of laughs, dark humour, shock, and the heartfelt drama begins that refuses to take its foot off the ignition until the very end of the ride.
The character of Nimona, voiced by a nearly unrecognizable Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) and masterfully written and animated by what must be a team of real-life wizards at DNEG Animation, is a talkative, energetic dynamo of unbridled chaos that audiences won’t be able to help falling in love with. The zany, pink menagerie of animals great and small that she can effortlessly morph into with perfect comic timing is reminiscent of the late, great Robin William’s performance as The Genie in Walt Disney’s Aladdin, just with a lot more punk attitude and a healthy dash of unfulfilled bloodlust.
“Nimona also sets itself far apart from other animated films of its ilk by proudly wearing its LGBTQ2S+ heart on its sleeve.”
Unlike Genie, however, Nimona serves no one, generally taking Ballister’s pleas for stealth and low collateral damage as polite suggestions at best. Brandishing a chip on her shoulder against all humanity, she liberally subscribes to the bull-in-a-china-shop school of fighting, where, similar to Marvel’s Ant-Man she uses her momentum and ever-changing mass as she shape-shifts to gleefully wreak havoc and “break stuff.” This dynamism makes for memorable and highly creative action scenes that constantly keep viewers guessing what Nimona will transform into next, especially the kids.
While as a film, Nimona feels very much like a Disney, Pixar, or Illumination contemporary in terms of its structure and story beats, the unconventional ways in which it actually hits those beats are bound to take many a filmgoer completely off guard. Without spoiling anything, the writing and animation team at DNEG are undisputed masters of the modern head-fake, meaning that they’re unafraid to toy with established genre conventions and/or audience expectations only to overturn them completely. This applies not only to gags but also minor and major story elements, leading to some priceless and unexpected outcomes in the film.
Now to address the decidedly pink 500-pound gorilla in the room; if it weren’t already obvious, Nimona also sets itself far apart from other animated films of its ilk by proudly wearing its LGBTQ2S+ heart on its sleeve. More importantly, it does so without having to club anyone over the head to communicate it. Much like the 2015 webcomic, the film is an allegory for several topics such as homophobia, race, acceptance and gender non-conformity, and there’s no doubt that the movie would be greatly diminished without these themes.
Nimona, who resembles a female teenager but never clearly defines herself as female, male, cis or otherwise, sets the tone early on from the moment that she and Ballister agree to team up. When Nimona playfully transforms into an anthropomorphic shark right before engaging in a handshake with Ballister, Ballister asks in an already exhausted voice: “Can you just be…you [i.e. a girl]?” to which Nimona casually responds, “I don’t follow.”
Similarly, in a later, more intimate scene when Ballister inquires if the act of transforming is painful, Nimona confides that the feeling of not transforming is what actually hurts. The film is filled with these symbolic, seemingly throwaway moments, subtly couched in gags, catchphrases, and brief conversations, but they collect, build, and gain emotional strength below the surface like a growing undercurrent over the course of the story, transforming into a raging river by the film’s climax. It all pays off beautifully.
Also worthy of note is the “complicated” relationship between Ballister and his ex, Ambrosius (played by Eugene Lee Lang). Had Nimona remained a Disney film Ambrosius likely would likely have become mere diversity window-dressing in a typical animated production, but in Nimona he is a beautifully conflicted character, volunteering to hunt down his former lover to bring him to justice while simultaneously being racked with guilt over maiming him and struggling to understand how the man he loved could commit regicide. It’s dark stuff indeed, but viewers will also be amazed at how the writers still manage to play the whole situation for laughs when appropriate.
I’m happy to say that I was being preached to not once during Nimona’s 100-minute runtime. Rather, Nimona feels like the kind of family-friendly, animated film that we’ll be watching in theatres 5-10 years from now, where open expressions of LGBTQ2S+ relationships will likely be far more commonplace, but thanks to the courage of Annapurna Pictures, Netflix and DNEG Animation picking up the torch where Disney allegedly fumbled it we are able to enjoy this future classic here in the present. Open-minded filmgoers, especially those who have kids of their own, shouldn’t feel any hesitation to take their tweens (kids 9 and up) to see this film.