REVIEW: Nimona (2023, dirs. Nick Bruno and Troy Quane)

Certificate: PG

Running Time: 99 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

WHO’S IN NIMONA?

Chloë Grace Moretz, Riz Ahmed, Eugene Lee Yang, Frances Conroy, Lorraine Toussaint, Beck Bennett, RuPaul, Indya Moore, Julio Torres, Sarah Sherman

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Nick Bruno and Troy Quane (directors), Robert L. Baird and Lloyd Taylor (writers), Roy Lee, Karen Ryan and Julie Zackary (producers), Christophe Beck (composer), Erin Crackel and Randy Trager (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In a futuristic medieval kingdom, a disgraced knight (Ahmed) turns to a shapeshifting creature (Moretz) for help…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON NIMONA?

Between the innovation of Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the box-office intake of Illumination’s The Super Mario Bros Movie, and new offerings from Aardman, Disney, DreamWorks and even Hayao Miyazaki yet to come, 2023 is already a pretty strong year for animation. The long-championed artform – which is NOT a genre, as some would like to unfairly label it as – appears to be on the precipice of a new era, where bolder creative and visual ambition is driving general interest just as much, if not more so, as whichever A-list voice talents they get for it.

It’s a shame, then, that Blue Sky Studios isn’t around to see it happen. The studio behind Ice Age, Rio and The Peanuts Movie was shuttered after its parent company 20th Century Fox was bought by Disney, and say what you want about the quality of some of its movies (particularly the later Ice Age sequels), but no company of hard-working animators deserves to suddenly be out of a job like that, especially when deep into working on a radical new film that, had it been released as planned by Blue Sky, might just have ended up being one of their very best features.

Luckily, production company Annapurna Pictures eventually picked up Nimona with distribution set at Netflix, ensuring that what would turn out to be Blue Sky’s final production had the strength to see the light of day after all, and thank goodness that they did because it’s a fast, funny and endearing treat that moves in all the right directions.

Based on the popular graphic novel by ND Stevenson, the film takes place in a futuristic medieval kingdom where a knight-in-training named Ballister Blackheart (Riz Ahmed) is about to be anointed by the Queen (Lorraine Toussaint), but he is suddenly framed for her murder, and is left both armless – it’s chopped off by fellow knight and secret lover Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang) – and resented by society. Soon after fashioning a robotic arm for himself, Ballister encounters an anarchic shapeshifting being who calls herself Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz) and desires to do evil bidding as his sidekick, even though Ballister insists he’s not really a villain and instead wants to bring the true culprit to justice. Together, Ballister and Nimona bring chaos to the kingdom as they set out to clear their names and maybe, just maybe, prove to everyone that they’re not the monsters that they think they are.

In some aspects, you can tell that Nimona was originally a Blue Sky movie, given that sometimes characters will drop some modern slang or moments of awkward comedy, while certain soundtrack choices feel like they were taken straight from the current or nostalgic zeitgeist (The Dickies’ cover of the Banana Splits theme song plays during one action sequence, which oddly marks the second such one to involve Chloë Grace Moretz after Kick-Ass). However, they are much more sparingly used in comparison to other films by the now-defunct studio – lest we forget, in that terrible fifth Ice Age film, characters living in that titular period dropped references to profile pictures and hashtags for no reason – and when they inevitably do pop up from time to time, they rarely linger to be much of an annoyance, or even worth complaining too hard about.

There isn’t much room to complain anyway, because Nimona moves at such a hyperactive pace that it almost threatens to give one a headache. Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane – who, funnily enough, also directed what turned out to be the final film from Blue Sky, Spies in Disguise – zip through one big action set-piece to the next, throwing plenty of dazzling colours and wacky, highly exaggerated character reactions onto the screen at once. Often, though, it works, as their pacing does allow the film a good breather every now and then, enough at least to take in the wild and humorous forms that Nimona herself transforms into, from a giant whale to a ferocious gorilla to a dancing shark. As a bonus, the stylised CG animation is eye-catching and smoothly executed to make it all a very pleasing visual experience. Here, characters and backgrounds are designed to look like they were originally hand-drawn for an older animated feature by Disney or DreamWorks, but are of course given an unmistakable CG filter that adds greater textures and sharper outlines to their distinctive features.

Nimona’s biggest triumph, though, is its script. While some aspects of the plot are somewhat predictable (you know as soon as when one character is introduced that they are the secret villainous mastermind), credited writers Robert L. Baird and Lloyd Taylor tackle some rather deep themes such as prejudice, misinformation, gender non-conformity and even suicidal thoughts in extraordinarily mature fashion, while its central characters are well fleshed-out and three-dimensional enough to where you are completely engrossed with their plight, and have fun when they have fun, feel conflicted when they are, and so on. Having great actors like Chloë Grace Moretz and Riz Ahmed voice them certainly helps, but the characters in and of themselves would work even if they hadn’t been cast, because both Nimona and Ballister are deeply compelling and engaging to watch as they tackle their own serious issues in meaningful and positive ways. The script allows them to be exactly who they need them to be without judgement or reservation; for example, one of them is openly gay and it is never made an issue that he happens to be in love with another man, while the other is resentful of being labelled as a binary gender and simply refers to themselves by their own name when prompted.

It is a very well-written movie that takes on mature concepts with a spring in its step, and with characters who are strongly defined by their desire to not be defined. That, on top of some eye-catching animation and zany, anarchic comedy that’s almost in the same spirit as a sophisticated Looney Tunes cartoon, makes Nimona another animated delight in an already delightful year for animation – and a bittersweet coda for a studio that deserved a better fate than what it got.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Nimona is a fun and anarchic animated adventure with a creative setting and zany action sequences, but it is within its script filled with mature themes and complex characters that the film shines brightest, even when parts of the plot are a bit too predictable.

Nimona is streaming exclusively on Netflix from Friday 30th June 2023

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