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REVIEW – “Nimona”: Medieval Animated Adventure, as Metal as the Sword

NIMONA – A Knight (Riz Ahmed) is framed for a crime he didn’t commit and the only person who can help him prove his innocence is Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz), a shape-shifting teen who might also be a monster he’s sworn to kill. Set in a techno-medieval world unlike anything animation has tackled before, this is a story about the labels we assign to people and the shapeshifter who refuses to be defined by anyone. Cr: Netflix © 2023

It won’t come as a huge shock how the year’s two biggest animated films at the box office had a built-in public awareness. So much so, that traditional marketing only played the role of necessity versus priority. Both Mario and Spider-Verse proved that in predictable spades. However, when an animated film sees its awareness grow as the result of a troubled history, all bets fall amid something infamous or legendary. Be it Disney’s merger of Fox, or the subsequent shutter of the latter’s Blue Sky Studios, or the fact that Netflix had the bravery to co-acquire and help to complete their last leftover project. The last of these three was the least expected, but the most crucial in growing everyone’s curiosity about Nimona. It helps that the story, albeit a tad hurried for time, packs in a valid wallop to keep anyone well invested. 

Having started life as a graphic novel by author ND Stevenson, Nimona (Chloe Grace Moretz) is best described as the embodiment of sub-humanoid teenage trickster energy. With her, it’s endless, showing off her shapeshifting abilities in many an appropriate situation, A gift she took pride in, if not also personal fear toward in a past life, back in the reign of mighty hero Gloreth. When paired with valiant knight Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed), she sees a chance to use her abilities for a greater good. He is a valiant knight about to be crowned into Queen Valerin’s (Loraine Toussaint) royal guard, despite not having a linear connection to Gloreth. However, it all turns into an outright calamity when a surprise mishap kills the queen, and Ballister is framed for murder. Both outcasts make for an initially hesitant pairing, attempting to clear Ballister’s name, dodging the pursuits of boyfriend and fellow knight Ambrosius (Eugene Lee Yang), and their training director (Frances Conroy). 

That description doesn’t even scratch the surface of how deeply these characters connect. A friendship that goes through every test of trust and appreciation, in a society where severe skepticism and scorn is masked by unfiltered machismo. One is seen blindly as a monster, discredited for their presumed abnormality; the other, a noble person climbing up the ranks by virtue of their work ethic, but shunned by the public due to their non-royal upbringing. Both share the same strain of misunderstanding, linked by a love for debauchery, pulled in different directions by multiple reiterations of historical deception and false manipulation. Whatever the relationship is, work, life, or casual acquaintance, there’s a practical application with this story transcending the norm. And in the case of its LGBTQ+ representation, here worn with unchallenged jubilation, that guise never sticks out, never implied. It all just exists, it belongs, like in real life. In one later example, it’s a little more open to interpretation, and interpolation.

While not leaning heavily on any sort of true-life event or consequence, Nimona sees no fault in conveying an illusory aesthetic prone to immense worldbuilding. Directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno (Spies in Disguise), working off a script helmed by Robert L. Baird (Ferdinand) and Lloyd Taylor (The Wild), need only the faintest thematic brushstrokes to open a bold, striking realm blending medieval times, steampunk, and 90s girl-band alt-rock. The combination of which, anchored visually by Aidan Sugano and Jeff Turley, is nothing short of explosive, gritty, often drab with a vibrant watercolor palette. Talk about your anarchic palisades that don’t conform to any sort of time, era, or architectural standard. It’s a crossroads of its own universe, conveying the boundaries of reality, while simultaneously escaping them, and never looking back as chaos reigns nonstop. 

That punk rock attitude carries itself well, with Moretz embodying Nimona’s carefree spirit and cautious frustration in equal stride. It’s quite easily her best performance to date, playing slyness and weariness like they’re cut from the same cloth. Ahmed finds himself in welcome company, cutting back and relishing that comical joy, something he desperately needed in his filmography. And both Yang and Conroy provide necessary opposing perspectives to the conflict at hand, the former sparking immediate chemistry with his on-screen beau. However, it all still comes at a small price, with Quane and Bruno gradually increasing the bpm before composer Christophe Beck (Free Guy) can allow for a moment to catch up with his impassioned underscore. 

The more prolonged their running about, the faster the drumbeat. Such hurried pace reaches a small point of contention by the third act, as the most significant reveal in Baird & Taylor’s script punches the gut with a tender fist. The last half hour goes by in a needless flash, all too short, but lasting enough to shed a few tears, and fully understand Nimona’s insecurity. It’s the kind of character arc that sneaks up on a viewer, only to have the killing move stop them dead in their tracks, eyes unable to look away. This substantial combination leaves absolutely nothing to chance, much like the rest of the film, diving in on all its thematic moves without a second thought. Even a handful that step back into existing animated feature territory, in those fleeting cases whenever a zippy joke or one-liner struggles to find its footing. Thankfully, it’s a rare thing, an occasional beat going discordant; all of them echo with succinct harmony. 

For any film to survive a changing of corporate hands, creative minds, and public perception, it takes a steadfast force to keep the momentum working in their favor. I feel like that was achieved to no end on the shoulders of those Blue Sky animators who allowed their work to land in the right hands and conclude the story where many of them had to leave off. Nimona is at times a testament to a can-do spirit rarely seen in filmmaking the way it’s expressed here. At other times, it’s an all-corners question of character building, confronting personal differences, administrational overreach, self-identity, and mythological recklessness. It runs a wide gamut, and the title character tackles every idea with the same wry headbanger attitude. It goes loud, fast, and very heartfelt. No classic studio could tame her, so it only made sense for her to fly on her own. And the animated art form might be all the better for it. (A-; 4/5) 

Nimona streams on Netflix beginning June 30; rated PG for violence and action, thematic elements, some language, and rude humor; 98 minutes.