Sunday, December 17, 2023

Beastly mode


Directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane
Written by Pamela Ribon, Mark Haimes, Keith Bunin, Robert L. Baird, Lloyd Taylor, Nick Bruno, and Troy Quane (based on the comic book by ND Stephenson)

Spoilers: moderate

There are reasons to like Nimona more than it deserves, and not just the obvious ones; there is, I find, something legitimately "smile and nod" pleasant about how it's managed to find a place in a crowded neighborhood, even if, having been released on Netflix, it's not very easy to determine if the space it carved out is actually significant, or if it's just one of those things that gets people to talking in a way disproportionate even to the size of its viewership, let alone to its objective impact on the culture.  But it's hard to begrudge its success, whatever that success means, unless we get a lot of movies that decide it's okay to look like this.  Then I might begrudge it.

But as for that success, it's easy to have generous feelings about Nimona because of how it struggled its way into existence over the course of a great many years.  Netflix released it, and Annapurna financed it, and DNEG Animation finished it, but what we have in truth is the final picture of Blue Sky Animation, swallowed up by the greater Disney leviathan when they bought 20th Century Fox, and, having been found by the monopolist to be redundant with all the other animation studios it already owned, Blue Sky was fated to eventually be dissolved in Disney's belly, its constituent employees and its half-finished last project alike to be vomited back out into the toilet bowl of life.  And while we probably shouldn't trick ourselves into thinking any of this involves genuine malicemalice would be a human quality, after allNimona's status as a fundamentally gay project (as well as a project in resonance with other, aligned queer concerns), and the pathetic diffidence that Disney has uniformly displayed as regards queer issues, despite hypothetically being "for" them, undoubtedly didn't help its chances.  A happy ending, however, came when directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, themselves as formerly of Blue Sky as Nimona, and who had already spent months or years working on it, got the chance to complete it anywayI rather hope with more personnel overlap than just those two guys, too.  Toiling alongside DNEG to integrate the reams of work that had already been done by Blue Sky without needing to start from zero, they tackled the incompatibilities of the Blue Sky material that wasn't already completely-finished animation, and, with somewhat heroic efforts, they integrated the unfinished stuff into DNEG's own workflow pipeline.  At the end, the film takes the extraordinary step of crediting everyone who worked at Blue Sky at the time of its dissolution; and to Bruno and Quane and DNEG's credit, I don't think there's one second where you would guess an entirely different animation studio and two new directors took it over, either in terms of its aesthetic (we'll get to it...), or of its story (and we'll get to that), or of its tone (and that).  There's a part in Nimona where its heroine invokes the imagery of a phoenix first rising from the ashes, then dashing itself to pieces against the evil empire, and while I don't know if that was already locked in, that's certainly fitting, isn't it?

And so that's all pretty heartwarming, no doubt about that, and the story Nimona tells... well, at least it isn't devoid of any heartwarming qualities, though it wants to, like, turn every heart that bears witness to it into a pool of liquefied muscle, and I kind of don't think that's too likely without forcing it.  To disclose my own prejudice about it, I am not very fond of "techno-knights"Star Wars and things more like Star Wars don't count, shut upbut Nimona is all about techno-knights, in a way that gets on the bad side of that prejudice, all gleaming swords and suits of armor in a futuristic world where none of that shit ought to work.  Nevertheless, let's meet our techno-knight hero, Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed), though he won't be keeping that job for very long.  So: in a medieval city-state of the future, that I guess never gets a name, there exists the Institute for Elite Knights, which I desperately wish had never gotten a name, because that is a terrible name, this being an ancient order consecrated a thousand years ago by the semi-legendary heroine Gloreth as the foundation for a civilization that extends a few miles in any given direction before it stops at a great wall.  Both the knights and the wall stand to protect the people from what lies beyond, a land of monstersor, at least (are you ready for this twist?), that's what the Institute says is out there.

The kingdom has stagnated into oligarchy since Gloreth's time, though Ballister indicates a change could be in the offing, for he is the first low-born candidate for knighthood in the order's history; unfortunately, no more than a few seconds pass between his knighting by Queen Valerin (Lorraine Touissant) and her assassination by way of Ballister's sword, which turns into a crazy laser.  Ballister swears he has nothing to do with it, declaring a conspiracy to frame him, but that doesn't stop his erstwhile comrades and the Institute's matron (Frances Conroy) from falling back on their bigotry and blaming him for the crime anyway.  Ballister runs, but the first person to track him down isn't a knight, but Nimona (Chloe Grace Moretz), who also blames Ballister for the assassination, but as an anti-establishment punk anarchist, she thinks killing the queen is totally rad, and so she applies to be Ballister's villainous sidekick.  He gracelessly extricates himself from this unwanted alliance by turning himself in, which, as Nimona predicted, doesn't go his way at all; she rescues him, and she reluctantly agrees to help him prove his innocence since it'll at least provide an opportunity to rough up the authority figures she doesn't like.  Nimona, incidentally, is a shapeshifterthe implication is that she is of some relation to the "monsters" of yoreand it isn't so great for Ballister's public image that he's begun a campaign of retaliation against his former associates in league with what appears to be a resurgent form of his race's mortal enemy, and thus are Ballister and Nimona, and the Institute and its greatest champion, Ballister's own lover, Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang), thrust into painful conflict for the future of the city.

And yeah, I should save it, because this, depending on your temperament, is the thing that's completely fatal to Nimona, but it's right there and it can't go uncommented on: a main character in this story, the hero's boyfriend, established efficiently but with some elegance as his true love, and who therefore arguably serves as the single most interesting figure in the entire narrative on the basis of his inner conflict, is named mother fucking "Goldenloin."  Goldenloin.  Part of the discordant weirdness of this is that this is also the only character who has an idiotically juvenile joke name.  But the point is that we are supposed to take this story, at turns, dead seriously, and we are very much invited to invest in Ballister and Ambrosius's relationship.  And that is an impossible mission when one of them has a surname referring to the nobility of an ancestor's genitalia.  It may be the only really terrible joke name, but it is representative of an irresistible current in Nimona's construction: it is unbelievably bad at managing tone, and outside of the very climax, might not be able to go a full minute without a joke subverting the illusion that this has stakes or concerns people.  (The climax dials this back but not even all the way; somehow the scenes most immune to it otherwise are the ones focusing on the one named freaking "Goldenloin.")  It becomes, and remains, a slurry of contradictory impulses, with a lot that should "work" on either side of the drama/comedy divide: Ballister and Ambrosius have a solid dynamic (source author ND Stephenson has a fondness for would-be lovers separated by fascism and enmity, see, particularly, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and while this isn't even half as good as how that show's edgy "what if Darth Vader were an evil lesbian who wanted to fuck Luke Skywalker instead?" story engine got started, at 99 minutes it also doesn't have the chance to peter out into something quite so lame and pants-wettingly terrified of its own fanbase as Catra and Adora's relationship did, so that's nice); as for the quippy sarcasm that keeps scraping across your ears, in a precisely Marvelesque fashion if not moreso, I'll admit that it at least has its moments, benefiting from the straight-man/agent-of-chaos dynamic between Ahmed and Moretz, as well as a propensity for full-on cartoonishness that I honestly kind of admire, even if it's never laugh-out-loud great.  The way drama and comedy mix here, thoughquips for days, reality-breaking gags plunged into the middle of dramatic beatsjust tends to have them cancel one another out, and it's all pretty catastrophic.

It probably only emphasizes how much the story is shaped like a wound that won't close.  This is some extremely shaky world-building, some of which is more acceptable before adjacent pieces of the plot start to crumble into the holes that have already been established.  The big deal made about social hierarchy in this feudal (or whatever) society doesn't even matter after the first fifteen minutes, which is a pretty minor objection, though the insistence that the wall and the knights are believed in without hesitation is kind of hard to square with both the modernist depiction of the city and the apparent fact that a thousand years have gone by with no monster attacks and with no one curious enough, apparently even the leadership, to question that threat until this very day, when a couple of unlikely heroes pose this question to the masses.  This isn't that bad, really; it's supposed to be a fable (with techno-knights) and we have to accept a certain gauziness to any fable.  (How this place "works" is, therefore, perhaps not a wholly valid question.)  So what's bad, in a deep and destabilizing sense, is how Nimona is fitted into this hazy mythology; originally posited as a vaguely-defined remnant of whatever monsters originally were out there menacing humankind, she ultimately arrives a third act twist (which is, actually, a twist) that is very "cool," for all of the two or three seconds before you realize how incompatible it is with her character and how it completely empties out what had previously been implied to be a proper fantasy legendarium that, even if it no longer remains this way, was at least once full of stuff.

Which is a pity, because harmonizing her with that twist would've been something.  As it stands she would be better off without it, and it basically wrecks her conceptually: she's a thousand year old who acts like a fifteen year old, and the touchstone, in more than just this one way, is probably Adventure Time's Marceline, except once Adventure Time figured out its backstory, Marceline was written as a thousand year old who acts like a fifteen year old who knows she acts like a fifteen year old, with enough melancholy wisdom won by a millennium of existence for this to be a major factor in her self-loathing; this amounts to an enormous difference, even if it seems like I could be splitting hairs.  This does not mean Nimona is an especially good deuteragonist before we learn her secret history: she's a very prefabricated-feeling figure, a pose of punk (and a complete pose, at that; she acts in no way consistent with her introduction, which remember involves celebrating the assassination of a head of state, yet the film acknowledges no dissonance in her amusingly-bloodthirsty rhetoric and the extremely-domesticated kid's movie violence she's actually capable of committingto bring Luke Skywalker back into it, imagine Luke but he was artificially non-lethal throughout the entire trilogy), and this is a sensation that suffuses pretty much the entire project, this phony-feeling evocation of "revolution," all of it pitched as something dangerous, but ever-so-carefully childproofed, all the way down to the soundtrack choices and the way very little action ever escapes the gravity of the comedy.  Nimona has her stronger points, mostly involving how much of a trans allegory she is, though on the Elemental scale of "problematic allegory for a given difference" Nimona winds up, like, an eleven, at least once we get to the part where they openly rip off major story beats and even individual shots from Moana.  And that's fine; steal from the best.  (It also helps that her final form is the most visually engaging idea in the whole film.)  But there's not much illusion that she's dangerous, even when she is being explicitly presented as dangerous, which is much worse than mere "failing to keep your emotional allegory invulnerable to tendentious literalism."

I'm describing something that's almost functional, though.  (I mean, it is "a kid's movie," though it's the kind of kid's movie that is so blatantly targeting cartoon adults as its ideal audience that it makes me more annoyed, both with the project and that demographic, than I would be if it actually were first and foremost for children.)  What that leaves is what Blue Sky and DNEG brought to it, and... I've been sitting on this for a week, and I still really do not know.  My initial impression was entirely negative, and I've not been moved so much that I think my initial impression was entirely wrong: like much these days, Nimona is a fellow traveler in the 2-D-in-3-D movement kicked off in earnest by Spider-Verse, though I think its (very long) production timeline suggests that it was an independent divergence from the mainstream style, Blue Sky themselves having made some strides down that road years before with 2015's The Peanuts Movie, though other than "not being a prisoner to mainstream CGI animation" I'm not sure you could find one aesthetic commonality between that movie and this one.  Most 2-D-in-3-D movies go for "moving illustration." The boldest thing about Nimona is just how recklessly it commits to being 2-D CGI, its cel-shaded lumps of rigging points presumably deliberately reminiscent of a 20 year old video game being played on a system with a failing GPU.  It works on a character design level, most of the time: the simplified shapes of all the characters, but especially our three leads (but, for that matter, also the Institute director) are pretty endearing, right up until they start to move.  The more slowly they move, the more it's with shuddering awkwardness, which is what takes some getting used to.  Compare, for example (and be aghast), Belle from Belle, another production that embraced looking like it was inside a computer, because it is inside a computer, but in many respects relating to its character animation it wouldn't have needed to be, to have remained successful.

Still, one does get used to itit isn't completely repulsive all the timein part because they're usually moving quickly, and while this doesn't always rise to the level of "good," at least it's not immensely ugly.  And Nimona does often take recourse to what 2-Dness is better-suited for than fully-rendered CGI, which is full-bore cartoonishness in service of both comedy and expressivity.  Hence most any shot tighter than medium-long has a quality to it that I did wind up liking, since it's never too far away from a deformation gag or corny flourish or a neat "snap" to the movement.  Any shot scale longer than that, though, and we get to see these backgrounds, and, for starters, it should embarrass them to obliquely compare themselves to Sleeping Beauty (they cite Eyvind Earle), which is just hubris.  (Sleeping Beauty is also more genuinely metal.)  But these backgrounds are so abstract and minimalist that when displayed with an untethered "camera" that moves heedlessly through them, they look straight-up unfinished, more akin to experimental CGI animation from the 1990s, or some sort of CGI meditation on liminal space horror, than any sort of proper release in 2023, and they throw everything out of whack.  There is, likewise, the special case of how this CGI interacts with Nimona, the shapeshifter, who gets initially established as having Beast Boy powerslimited to the form of animals, and likewise limited to a single color (it's borderline actionable, baby)which gets dropped, and since they make a joke about it, I guess we can accept that the egregiousness of Nimona's chosen pink is simply a preference well in line with the general abrasiveness of Nimona's personality.  Her various animal forms have the same "unfinished" quality as the backgrounds, though, flat (sometimes speckled with polygons that mean "fur"), and if this weren't such a salient aspect of so much of the rest of this film's visual implementation, I could possibly consider it an artistic choice rather than sort of an eyesore.  And a movie this muddled in the execution of its narrative isn't going to withstand being this frequently an eyesore.

Score: 5/10

No comments:

Post a Comment