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Nimona is the Stylish, Radically Queer Subversion of the Fairy Tale We Need

Resident film critic Nicholas Chang reviews a beautiful queer film that challenges the traditional fairy tale genre with its distinctive and rebellious plot. 

It’s hard to imagine a world without Nimona.

That’s what Disney seemed to think, even though ND Stevenson’s graphic novel existed. Disney forced the closure of Blue Sky Studios, the production company of Nimona, and cancelled the film. Given its unapologetically queer nature, this didn’t fit under Disney’s library, which has always struggled with its representation of LGBTQ themes and characters. It was a decision that disrespected the creative and artistic freedom of Blue Sky’s animators and broke the hearts of fans, but there was this slight hope that, one day, this Nimona would come back to life.

Cut to April 2022: Netflix and Annapurna Pictures revived the project, and DNEG Animation continued but retained Blue Sky’s passionate, dedicated work. It was a triumphant moment that paid off spectacularly since Nimona delivers a rad, subversive take on the traditional fairy tale by blending genres, mashing colourful animation styles, and revitalising potentially familiar themes with an energetic yet emotional heart. Even its presence of conventions, doesn’t deter how Nimona feels like a refreshing antidote to the generic fairytales we’ve grown accustomed to.

The story follows as one thousand years ago, a kingdom was saved by a legendary heroine known as Gloreth, who conquered a great black monster and enclosed it from the world. Today, that same kingdom embraces technological advancements but maintains mediaeval societal traditions, with the Institute for Elite Knights sworn to protect its citizens. Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed) is about to be the first commoner knighted by the Queen, whose belief is that anyone can be a hero. However, a tragic crime occurs, and Ballister is framed, forcing him on the run from the Institute. While he tries to prove his innocence, a teenage shapeshifter, Nimona, visits him, relating to his apparently villainous nature and wants to be his sidekick. Nimona is the very monster that Ballister has been taught to fear and slay by previous generations, but without her, he won’t get far with his plan. Although her rebellious personality and impulsive desire to create chaos contrast with Ballister’s moral code, they team up, and their partnership reveals they share more in common, the corruption running through the Institute that Ballister believed in, and how that has preyed upon generations’ anxieties and prejudices.

Amongst Nimona’s interesting creative decisions, it contrasts the mediaeval social traditions of its setting against a futuristic, evolved look. Despite the promises of the future, the world continues to live backwards, serving as a timely reflection of the culture war in America and how its increasing introduction of anti-LGBTQ+ bills threatens the rights we’ve fought for. Whereas it would be easy to tell Nimona’s story with a classical style, it instead opts for a more electric, vibrant and punk rock style, rebelling against the traditions of storytelling to reflect its angry and energetic heart.

Following Ballister and Nimona’s characterisations, Nimona doesn’t hide its allegories of class division and queerness. As Nimona constantly shifts forms to help in situations, her abilities reflect her fluid identity, refusing to conform to any established norm, yet it’s what causes people to fear and discriminate against her. They don’t understand or accept what is outside their close-minded beliefs, only that “it’s a monster.” Not only does it isolate Nimona, but it builds an inherent self-loathing that is heart-wrenching to watch.

Even when Nimona seems to embrace her villainy, it begins setting her up as a different type of heroine that most fairytales are not used to. As her dynamic with Ballister evolves, she grows into a sympathetic, relatable character, where her backstory demonstrates Nimona’s willingness to tap into an emotionally dark area when it’s asking for it. It’s not told for the sake of relishing in emotional trauma but to provide catharsis to its younger, queer audience watching at home and to tell them they’re not alone in their struggles, making the eventual pay-off of her arc emotionally rewarding.

As narratively satisfying as Nimona is, it’s also visually stunning. By utilising fluid, colourful 2D designs and smooth character models, its animation simultaneously feels old-school yet innovative. It’s fitting in how it fully renders its world and its intricate details and backgrounds, and its combination of styles works without ever feeling messy, making Nimona a visual delight to watch.

Nimona is wonderfully crafted and emotionally rich from start to finish. It wears its heart proudly, willing to shake up its familiar narrative with clever allegories, loveable characters, brilliant world-building that reflects our society, and vibrant animation that reveals itself as a much-needed, hopeful upgrade to the traditional fairytale. It’s disheartening to think of a time when Nimona wouldn’t exist on our screens, but I’m glad it’s here for a generation to enjoy.


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