Monday, 17 February 2020

TV Review: Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts

Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts


Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a very enjoyable if slightly uneven Young-Adult Sci-Fi cartoon. The basic premise is that sometime in the future (the very near future, judging from the tech level of the ruins) some sort of unknown apocalypse happens that has two major effects. (1) It mutates most animals in such a way that they grow much larger than regular size (some ridiculously so) and become sentient. (2) It forces all (remaining) humans into isolated, underground communities called “Burrows.”

The story starts with Kipo, a 12-year old girl, ending up on the surface after being flushed out of her community’s burrow when some sort of attack befalls it. She’s separated from the community (and more importantly to her, her dad) and sets out through the ruins of a huge city that’s infested with mutated animals (“mutes”) to find out where her people escaped to.

In premise it’s a post-apocalyptic tale, but in practice the story has much more in common with the “Portal” subgenre of fantasy, wherein the main character, who is from a normal, regular world, finds a portal to another (and usually very strange) world. This “Portal” subgenre has really exploded in YA cartoons in recent years. See the recent: Owl House, Amphibia, Infinity Train, etc. Kipo finds herself thrust from her normal, humdrum world (even if it is underground, flashbacks and the way she talks about her old life show it to be a very normal existence), into a fantastical world of giant talking animals!

Thankfully, it’s a very enjoyable fantastical world. The various animals who inhabit the ruined city have segregated themselves into many different, themed gangs. There are the Mod Frogs who dress in black suits with skinny ties right out of the 60s; there are the Timbercats, who theme themselves like lumberjacks and even have a guitar made out of an axe (see also: Marceline’s bass in Adventure Time); there are the Umlaut Snakes, who fashion themselves like 80s rockers; etc., etc. Yes, that’s right: it’s a YA adventure that molds itself heavily after cult classic film The Warriors!

In can see the elevator pitch now: “It’s The Wizard of Oz meets The Warriors!” And you know what? It really works!

The overworld is a lively, vibrant, colorful place with some interesting different locations. I just with the show had a slightly larger scope; the protagonists never stray far from the ruined city that makes up the bulk of their adventures. It would have been nice to have seen more of the world. The various animal gangs are each entertaining their own way and stand out nicely from each other so that each episode that deals with a new gang has a different aesthetic and vibe than other episodes. The character designs and animation style a fun to look at and distinctive.

Kipo is a naively optimistic protagonist. She is dangerously overconfident (in a charming way) that even the worst villains can just be reasoned with if you talk things out with them. In the first half of the season it seems like she has a specific superpower to create peace and harmony through music. She does this several times: with the Timbercats, with the Snakes, and even with an enormous monkey-like “mega mute.” But then this plot thread is just kinda dropped, and Kipo discovers some… different abilities. It’s a shame, too, because it made for some excellent musical numbers interspersed into the show.

Kipo is tempered by the first other human she meets on the surface, a mysterious, kickass little girl whom Kipo names “Wolf” because she wears a dead wolf skin as a cloak. She also carries a giant scorpion stinger (still somehow full of venom) as a fighting staff/spear. Wolf is the opposite of Kipo: cold, suspicious, and full of anger.

The cast is rounded out by Benson, a happy-go-lucky but pragmatic surface-dwelling human who loves scavenging old music tapes from the ruins; and Dave, an insect mute who frequently molts into older versions of himself at inopportune moments, until he gets so old that he actually molts back into a baby (therefore implying that he’s functionally immortal). There’s also a multi-eyed and muli-limbed pig mute named Mandu who is pretty intelligent but can’t talk.

I really appreciate that as the show goes on the bright, happy adventure vibe of the first few episodes starts to get interspersed more and more with some real darkness. Especially dark are a series of flashbacks that reveal Wolf’s backstory, and you realize just how much trauma this poor little girl is dealing with (and why the fact that she wears the skin of a dead sentient wolf is even more horrifying than you probably think it is).

The two main characters, Kipo and Wolf, each have nicely-done character arcs that are mirror images of each other. Trusting, optimistic Kipo finds herself doubting her abilities and becoming more fearful and despondent of this frankly crazy situation she finds herself in. Cold, distant Wolf begins to see the value in caring for and being surrounded by other people, and hoping for the best.

The overarching story has mostly-good structure (see the music superpower point above), and even seemingly throwaway episodes (like the Tardigrade colony and the amusement park) further the stories being told. The music is quite good as well. Unfortunately the first season ends on a massive cliffhanger. But I am invested in this world and these characters, and I would really enjoy watching another season of this show.

Categories: Cartoons, Reviews, TV Reviews.

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