Once again, we have an unfortunate casualty of the Fox/Disney merger.
More specifically, we have a work from Blue Sky Studios, once a Fox subsidiary, gone defunct in April 2021 under a dogpile of corporate fuckery. It certainly didn’t help that even after Nimona had gone down with the studio, the film became a flashpoint in the “Don’t Say Gay” dustup between Disney and the state of Florida. The alleged story goes that Disney took issue with the film’s LGBTQ+ themes and the pivotal same-sex romantic coupling, so the C-suite decided to can the film entirely instead of handing it off to a different animation studio.
That story came out in March 2022. I can only assume that publicity caught the attention of Annapurna Pictures, because they picked up the film — gay couple and all — in April 2022. It might be worth adding that Bob Chapek was fired from his CEO job at Disney in November 2022.
Oh, and as I’ve discussed before, this is yet another incomprehensibly grievous misstep in the recent history of Disney animation, but I digress.
Anyway, Nimona kicks off with a bog-standard fairy tale about a heroic young woman named Gloreth who saved her village from some great monstrous evil. Under Gloreth’s reign, the village grew into a massive walled city protected by an army of knights. The city continued to prosper under the descendants of Gloreth and her knights, with the understanding that no heroes or leaders would ever come from outside these noble lineages.
Flash forward to 1,000 years later. The walls are higher than ever, the city is a bustling metropolis, Gloreth’s hereditary system of power is still in place, but science and technology kept going. They’ve got cell phones, social media, subway trains, and luxury cars… and the luxury cars fly. In fact, flying vehicles are remarkably common. This is also a society with laser guns and force fields used by knights in shining medieval-style armor. This whole setting is a science fantasy sort of deal where the past, present, and future are all mixed together into something beautifully unique. I love the style and the sensibility.
Anyway, we’re introduced to Ballister Boldheart (voiced by Riz Ahmed), who worked hard enough to accomplish the Herculean task of becoming the first Elite Knight without a noble lineage. The queen (voiced by Lorraine Toussaint) seeks to upend a millennium of tradition by opening up the Elite Knight ranks to any commoner willing and able to work hard enough to earn the privilege, using Ballister as a proof of concept.
Then comes the graduation ceremony, in which the recently-knighted Ballister is framed for the queen’s murder. And then Ballister’s right arm gets cut off for good measure. Which means that Ballister has to run from the authorities, find a suitable hideout, and fashion himself a new prosthetic arm out of whatever scraps he can find.
Enter the eponymous shapeshifter Nimona (voiced by Chloe Grace Moretz), an unstoppable force of chaos and mischief, looking for someone to help her tear the city apart. For obvious reasons, Ballister proves himself to be a uniquely suitable candidate… except that he’s more interested in clearing his name. But hey, if that could potentially mean busting skulls and breaking shit while Ballister looks for answers, that’s enough for Nimona to be getting on with.
In the supporting cast, we’ve got the unnamed Director (Frances Conroy), head of the Elite Knights and de facto interrim monarch of the city. There’s also Thoddeus Sureblade (Beck Bennett) the thick-headed entitled bully who’s outrageously unqualified to be an Elite Knight, but he’s got the noble lineage and he doesn’t want any commoner to get the same privilege. But then there’s Ambrosius Goldenloin (voiced by Eugene Lee Yang).
Ambrosius has a lot going on, and that stupid fucking name isn’t even the start of it. For one thing, he’s the direct descendant of Gloreth herself, so everyone expects him to be the absolute best. I might add that between his heritage and his excellence as a knight-in-training, Ambrosius is already a beloved superstar, which only compounds the unrealistic expectations he’s under. Most importantly, Ambrosius and Ballister are already a romantic item by the time they graduate together. Which means that Ambrosius is stuck trying to arrest the love of his life even as Ballister desperately pleads his innocence to his only real friend, and it’s a terrible situation for the both of them.
And then we have Nimona. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed by now, the bright pink shapeshifter with a vendetta against the city government is a monster from beyond the city walls. I might add that none of the citizens really know anything about the monsters because the city government has kept them cooped up inside the city walls for their own security and everybody’s paralyzed with fear of what’s outside and you see where this is going.
This is indeed a story in which two sides — each personified by Nimona and the Director — are so prejudiced and so afraid in their ignorance of each other that they drive each other to more destructive extremes. With a whole city’s worth of innocent lives caught in between them, I might add. This is a story we’ve seen so many times in recent kids’ media — the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy is still probably the definitive genre work on the topic — but there’s a lot more going on here.
First of all, while there’s a very clear line drawn with regard to who the good guys and bad guys are, we do get some neatly different shades in the finer strokes. The Director has her virtues as well as her faults, ditto for Nimona, and the both of them are products of a thousand years of trauma. There are much larger systemic forces at play here, deeply rooted in the foundations of this setting, and the film makes it clear that these forces are far more responsible for the conflict than the choices of any one individual.
Additionally, it bears remembering that Nimona is a shape-shifter. While she prefers turning into animals and she tends to keep her distinctive pink color scheme, she’s perfectly capable of turning into exact copies of other people. Which means that she could theoretically make anyone see or hear whatever falsehoods she wants. Sure, we the audience know that Nimona never abuses her power to such an extent, but it’d be hard to blame anyone who didn’t know better.
Lies and secrets are another factor. Granted, the Director tends to fall back on outright lies while Nimona is more secretive in her outright refusal to talk about who and what she is. Either way, there are legitimate reasons not to trust either one. So it’s easy to understand Ballister and Ambrosius in their confusion over who’s trying to use them as pawns to some unknown end.
Nimona is well-justified in her fear and anger for the citizens and Elite Knights in their overzealous obsession with killing her. On the other hand, when Nimona takes such all-consuming joy at the mere thought of killing people and burning down houses, it’s easy to see where the citizens are coming from as well. It all comes down to Nimona’s philosophy that when all the world sees you as a villain, it’s better to simply become a villain. Don’t bother wasting your time trying to convince everyone’s mind, just put all that energy into saying “fuck you” right back.
I might add that every time — and I do mean EVERY SINGLE TIME — that Nimona predicts the worst possible outcome with regards to what the citizens will do and how they’ll act, she’s proven quickly and consistently right.
Trouble is, this is how generational conflict deepens and fear becomes paranoia and people get hurt. That’s how people get to be more and more isolated. Hell, so much of this whole clusterfuck got started because Nimona was so tired and scared of being alone, and it’s all too easy to understand why nobody else ever wanted anything to do with her.
There’s even more to unpack here with regards to the LGTBQ+ angle. From the city’s obsession with noble lineage to the main character who constantly feels compelled to change her form, there are so many layers here to the general theme of identity. And in any conflict between two sides locked in conflict fueled by ignorant paranoia, love and acceptance will inevitably be huge central themes. And when this greater society is outright obsessed with protecting their way of life by hunting down someone by virtue of their irrevocable native-born nature… really, the allegory writes itself.
Chloe Grace Moretz is easily the highlight of the voice cast. She sounds like she’s having the time of her life voicing such a dynamic and energetic character, and the animators do a fine job keeping Nimona sympathetic and fun to watch. All the supporting voice actors do serviceably well, and Riz Ahmed… well, he did the best he could with what he had. It’s regrettable that Ballister spends most of the film running into brick walls, repeatedly and inevitably failing with every attempt to set things right. But at least our protagonist comes through at the end when it matters most, and he develops nicely in keeping with the film’s overall theme of change, so there’s that.
The best compliment I can give to Nimona is that it deserved a big-screen run. The characters are dynamic, the themes are passionately delivered with novelty and nuance, the science fantasy setting is ingenious, the soundtrack fucking slaps, and Chloe Grace Moretz turns in a spirited performance that’s a huge part of what makes this film so much fun.
By the standards of the animated films we’ve gotten this year — most especially by the mediocre standards of most Netflix films — this one is more than worth your time. Definitely check it out.