Review: Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts

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Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts is an animated show on Netflix, released in January 2020.  Created by Radford Sechrist, the show is an outgrowth of his 2015 webcomic “Kipo.”  It takes place in a post-apocalyptic wonderland populated by a colorful cast of anthropomorphic animals, and follows the titular character, a young human girl, as she searches for her father.  In personal conversations, I’ve described Kipo as “She-Ra meets The Boondocks,” and I’m not just saying that because it was produced by Dreamworks and stars She-Ra’s Karen Fukuhara.  Like She-Ra and the Princess of Power, the show features bright colors, exciting action and well-developed female protagonist.  Fukuhara is joined by an array of Hollywood stars including Dion Cole (Blackish), Sterling K. Brown (Black Panther, Frozen II), and Dan Stevens (Legion, Beauty and the Beast 2017).  Furthermore, Kipo features a banging hip-hop soundtrack as well as a number of original musical numbers representing a variety of genres.  Did you know that John Hodgeman can (sort of) rap?  Because I sure didn’t…before I watched Kipo.

Kipo herself is a teenage ‘burrow girl’ with pink skin and hair and multiracial heritage.  Her father (Brown) is Black; her mother is eventually revealed to have been East-Asian.  In the first episode, Kipo’s ‘burrow’ –a city of human survivors hidden underground to protect it from mutant animals, or ‘mutes’—is destroyed, and Kipo is separated from her father.  We watch her discover the surface world, see the sky for the first time, and interact with mutes of all types.  She makes friends with the surface humans.  Wolf is a young girl with a sharp stick and a tragic backstory.  Benson is a cheerful music-lover whose best friend is a talking bug named Dave (Cole) who continually cycles through various insect life-stages.  As the season progresses, Kipo and her friends slowly uncover the mystery of what happened to her father and her people, and in doing so interact with enclaves of mutant animals, each embodying a different human subculture.

The dynamic animation style will be familiar to those who watched The Boondocks: it is anime with a twist, full of curving lines and complex forms.  However, Kipo’s animation is infused with explosive color and whimsy, creating a unique visual language unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere.  The color palate is practically fluorescent, dominated by magenta, chartreuse and cyan.  The frames are crowded with details.  We, the audience, are dazzled by the preponderance of light and color, much as Kipo is when she first beholds the surface world.

Also, you should watch it because one of the core characters is gay.  Benson, a human teenager, says, in these exact words: “I’m gay.”  This is, as far as I’m aware, is unique among children’s cartoons.  While other shows, notably Steven Universe and Adventure Time have made strides for queer representation by depicting same-sex relationships, they fall short of making that representation explicit.  Marcelline and Bubblegum’s relationship was mostly subtext, and while Ruby and Sapphire wed on screen, some conservative viewers have said it doesn’t count as a gay wedding because both spouses are aliens whose relationship with gender is not analogous to ours.  That logic won’t work on Benson.  He is human, he is gay, he is, not for nothing, a person of color, and his queer identity is far from his only personality trait.  It doesn’t even come up until halfway through the season.  He is a fully-developed character who just happens to be explicitly gay.

Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts is one of the most innovative and creative animated shows on television, while staying accessible and highly entertaining.  Dreamworks and Netflix knock it out of the park with this one.  I highly recommend checking it out.  Now streaming on Netflix.

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