In the world of animation, it’s relatively rare that something new and fresh comes along that makes you really sit up and pay attention. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is such a rarity.
The series follows a young girl named Kipo (Karen Fukuhara) who emerges from her life underground only to be thrust into an adventure on the surface of a fantastical post-apocalyptic Earth. She joins a ragtag group of survivors as they embark on a journey through a vibrant wonderland where everything that’s trying to kill them also happens to be downright adorable.
Hailing from creator and executive producer Radford Sechrist (How to Train Your Dragon 2) and executive produced and developed for television by Bill Wolkoff (The Man Who Fell To Earth), Kipo (or KatAoW, if you prefer) began its weird, wild, and wonderful life as a web comic written and drawn by Sechrist. Fast forward a few years, factor in a writers room that included Sechrist, Wolkoff, and Joanna Lewis and Kristine Songco (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic); art direction by Angela Sung (The Legend of Korra); incredible animation work from Studio Mir; and out-of-this-world tunes from music supervisor Kier Lehman (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Insecure) and composer Daniel Rojas (Downsizing), and you have the latest Netflix animated sensation from DreamWorks. You should add it to your watchlist ASAP, but my review follows below if you need more encouragement.
There have been a few “human girl finds herself flung into a magical fantasy world” series of late, as seen in Amphibia and the 2020 debut of The Owl House just to name the most recent. They’re both great in their own way, and all three stories are similar, but there’s something about the way Kipo hits you in the eyes and ears that makes it stand apart. The series absolutely explodes onto the screen with color, strange-yet-familiar locations and settings, and a super-fun sense of scale that stretches the imagination. Highlighting those visual delights are pitch-perfect musical cues that play up the tension of a stand-off, the frenetic energy of a daring escape, or the clashing of wills between warring factions in a savage land.
Except this isn’t the dreary, drab, and color-drained post-apocalyptic wasteland that we’ve seen in shows like The Walking Dead. The world of Kipo is alive, vibrantly so; it’s just different and far beyond what we know in contemporary times thanks to 200 years of evolution and a worldwide epidemic that forced accelerated mutations. That means that while humans have stayed more or less the same, plants and animals (and even microscopic creatures) have bounded forward. Yeah, humans are no longer the top of the food chain, and we’re not even the top of the intellectual chain either. That makes things doubly tough for young Kipo and her new allies Wolf, Dave, and Benson as they make their way through the dangerous surface world in the hopes of finding Kipo’s family and community.
While Kipo & Co.’s adventures are genetically designed for binge-watching (I kept pushing play on each and every episode, anxious to see what happened next), it’s worth pausing to take stock every once in a while. You can better appreciate the outlandish characters, take in the scenery–which will be very familiar to Los Angeles folks, even with 200 years’ worth of wear and tear–or try to guess what Kipo is about to do next, almost in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” sort of way. The plotting will likely keep you guessing because Kipo is a non-traditional hero. It’s her allies who tend to play by the rules of strategy, stealth, and combat while Kipo prefers diplomacy, making friends, and, should it come to it, absolute chaos. And it’s a blast when that’s the option they end up taking.
There’s a lot to love in Kipo. For me, the creatures–like the Mod Frogs, Timbercats, rocking Umlaut Snakes, EDM Wasps (which are like a combo of a raver, a disco ball, a lightning bug, and a yellow jacket), MegaBunnies, Humming Bombers, Beak Beak, and whatever Tad Mulholland is supposed to be (okay, I know what Mulholland is, but it’s more fun for you to find out for yoursef)–are the most imaginative aspect of Kipo. They’re complemented by the fantastic cast which includes Fukuhara, Sydney Mikayla, Coy Stewart, Deon Cole, Dee Bradley Baker, Sterling K. Brown, Lea Delaria, Joan Jett, and John Hodgman and GZA. For my money, the stand-out performance goes to Dan Stevens (Legion) as the power-hungry “Scarlemagne”, a villainous Machiavellian mandrill; get a glimpse of Scarlemagne’s mania here. And when Kipo allows those imaginative characters to let loose in the wild frontier landscape, backed by bumping tunes that make for one banger of a playlist, everything gels together wonderfully well.
The things that didn’t quite work for me in Kipo are few and far between, but they’re important. Representation is a necessity, especially as media comes under the social microscope more and more in contemporary times, but the “reveals” (if these things have to be “revealed” at all) need to make sense within the narrative. When it works, such as when a character’s multiracial parentage is passively revealed, it’s great. When it doesn’t, such as when a character’s sexuality is delivered via exposition dump without the necessary social, cultural, or community groundwork to back it up, it just comes across as being shoehorned in, a box checked rather than a character developed. (It’s difficult to write around these spoilers, so I’ll just say that this character’s sexuality is portrayed in a much better way later on, after the “reveal.”) This is a future when human civilization has been drastically reduced and fractured; without establishing that existing community groups have kept hold of some vestiges of our contemporary society, it’s a little jarring when they come out of nowhere while the rest of the world has changed so much.
The only other downside? The 10 half-hour episodes fly by too quickly, and while they end with a satisfying resolution to the conflict so far, it’s more of a cliffhanger than not. Season 2 has yet to be officially announced, but you can bank on it showing up sooner than later, and that’s good news.
Why? Because we’ll get to see the fantastic relationships established in Season 1 bear fruit in future seasons to come; that’s as much a draw for this series as everything else I mentioned, maybe more so. (Oh, and did I mention it’s laugh-out-loud funny? Yeah, it’s that, too!) Part coming-of-age story, part futuristic fantasy fest, with the DNA of Fallout, The Warriors, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland and more cultural touchstones, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a classic in the making. Get on board now!
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent