Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts

(Disclaimer: As of this writing, I have only seen up through season 2, and the show is still ongoing.)

This is Extruded Cartoon Product. Its blurb sounds like a blender of modern cartoon cliches: Post-apocalyptic! Female protagonist! “Journey home” plot! Power of friendship! Giant talking animals! Secret tragic villain backstory! But it doesn’t actually do anything with it. The whole thing has a very design-by-committee feel to it — it’s just woke enough to make the Tumblr crowd spread it like wildfire, without being truly transgressive or subversive.

As with most post-apocalyptic fiction, the worldbuilding doesn’t hold up for longer than five seconds. The premise is that after an unspecified disaster (but with a specified time range: 200 years ago), animals gained super intelligence, strength, size, and other abilities, forcing the surviving humans to retreat into underground bunker cities to survive. (These super-animals are called “mutes” for some reason I still do not understand, because they can talk and therefore seem like they should be the opposite of mute.) …Except we also see several humans who claim to have lived their whole lives on the surface and who are somehow not dead. Where are their parents? What are they eating? (We see them scavenging food from old supermarkets, but uh, nothing is still going to be edible after 200 years, not even the preserved stuff.) How do they know language or writing or socialization of any kind? We just don’t know. They appear to have sprung from the world fully-formed just so they can join our spunky kid protagonist’s merry band.

The moment that really broke me is when, during a very cliche romantic sequence, the girl protagonist (who is from the underground cities) confesses love to the supporting boy character (who is a surfacer), only for him to tell her he’s gay, in those exact words. Even allowing for suspension of disbelief that there are no language barriers after 200 years of divergent evolution, how does he even know that word? How can he possibly even know he’s gay? We see no trace of any family or society of his and he does not appear to have interacted with any humans prior to this. Yet he doesn’t mention anything about dead parents or growing up alone, and he doesn’t act at all traumatized, in fact acting as the chill, responsible member of the group. Where did he come from? How does he exist? How has he survived this long in Death World with no weapon and seemingly no survival skills? We just don’t know.

(And yes, Tumblr lost its mind over what ~groundbreaking representation~ that scene was. Yes, being able to actually say the word in children’s programming is a pretty big deal, I’ll acknowledge… but a single supporting character being gay is not actually impressive. It is, in fact, almost calculated in how carefully it keeps the gayness contained. Can we set the bar higher, please?)

And the worldbuilding continues to be similarly patchy throughout. The surface humans insist that all mutes are bloodthirsty killers who cannot be negotiated with, yet every single obstacle is resolved by Kipo making friends with them. So why is everyone so certain peace is impossible? If you can apparently flip mutes from wanting to eat you to pledging undying loyalty (yes, really, they don’t just give Kipo a single favor, they become best friends forever) with just a single gesture of goodwill, how has no one ever accomplished that before?

Even leaving the humans aside, the ecosystem makes no sense. Some mutes are intelligent, some are not; this is not explained. Some mutes are kaiju-sized, some are only human-sized; this is not explained. Most mutes have extra limbs and eyes but some don’t; this is not explained. We never see any agriculture or producers, only giant predators who hunt each other, and how on Earth is that sustainable? One group of mutes inexplicably loves humans and advocates for peace between the races; why? Why only them? Why do other mutes put up with this when they supposedly want to kill all humans? Why are mutes apparently okay with living in decrepit ruins and not even bothering to fix anything up or build anything new? None of it makes sense.

Also, why did Dave and Dave alone win the superpower lottery? He implies he is not just ageless but truly immortal on all fronts. Just, how? The show has pretty consistently insisted there are no outright supernatural elements, so how can Dave survive getting blown up by a tactical nuke? Why have no other mutes developed this incredibly favorable mutation? We just don’t know.

The plot itself is incredibly formulaic. Kipo is forced to the surface by a catastrophe, makes friends with some surfacers, and has to journey home. The first season is episodic: The Gang encounters a tribe of human-hating animals, the surfacers tell Kipo friendship will never work, Kipo tries friendship and it works, over and over and over again. There is an incredibly contrived betrayal midway through done for extremely stupid reasons (Wolf thinks that Kipo returning home will mean they’ll part ways forever even though Kipo explicitly invited her to live with them, because…?) that is immediately forgiven because ~friendship~, followed by another incredibly contrived freakout at Kipo’s magic powers that is again almost immediately resolved by ~friendship~, then there’s a big climactic battle where Kipo awakens her latent magic powers through ~friendship~ before ending on a cliffhanger because delivering complete products is for suckers.

The second season is a lot better in that it has an actual plot, but that plot is still incredibly color-by-numbers. The kill-all-humans villain turns out to have a tragic backstory (of course) which actually makes me feel he’s completely right. He was a normal animal who was uplifted by Kipo’s parents in an attempt to discover what turned animals into mutes so that they could reverse-engineer it to turn them back into animals, but upon giving him intelligence, they decided he was a person and couldn’t bear to keep experimenting on him. So they promised to break him out of the evil science lab as soon as Kipo was born… but when the evil scientists show up to take Kipo and force an early retreat, Kipo’s dad does not even hesitate before saying “screw him, all that matters is saving Kipo,” followed by the dad never once trying to find him again — so when they reunite, after the villain was horribly traumatized by being forced to survive all on his own, of course he snaps and goes evil and proceeds to preach that humans will always betray you and put their own kind before others, because… that is objectively what his only human friend did.

Having successfully woobiefied him, the plot then introduces a new villain: a white lady, the most acceptable of targets. She is his counterpart in that she wants to exterminate all mutes… except she kind of has a point too, because mutes clearly have done a terrible job of shepherding the Earth if it’s still in ruins 200 years later, and everything we see of their society is incredibly stagnant and tribal.

So out of this interesting premise, what we end up with is a bland centrist narrative, carefully calibrated to avoid rocking the boat too much. Scientists can maybe be good sometimes but are still evil by default. We can have some sympathy for the Other, but abuse still makes you evil. The advocate for the oppressed class is sympathetic, but still evil (and crazy), and only the privileged protagonist’s mushy nonviolent methods will work. (Although, at least he’s still alive as of this writing, unlike in Star vs. The Forces of Evil — the bar really is at the Earth’s core.) And it’s gay but not too gay — don’t think I don’t notice how we’ve gotten zero hints of Kipo/Wolf, despite them having way more compelling chemistry than Benson and Boring Dude Who Appears In Like Three Episodes.

There’s just something very manufactured about all of this. It feels like it’s trying to take the aesthetics of Adventure Time (perky post-apocalyptic with weird creatures) and also soullessly cash in on the queer market after seeing Steven Universe and She-Ra show that was viable, without any understanding of what made those shows work and without any true passion behind it. It is Extruded Cartoon Product.

(For interested parties, I have sketched out a potential rewrite on Tumblr.)

27 Comments

  1. Actislazyandwontlogin says:
    wow that is some truly hideous cheap animation

    The amount of shows just blatantly copying SU and AT’s art style is super obnoxious and boring but at least when they do that they get a functioning aesthetic, this is like how I would draw Avatar fanart at age 12.

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    1. Really? I actually thought the art was one of the better aspects.

    2. CrazyEd says:

      All I’ve seen of this show is from a google image search, and even that was a lot of looking at that artstyle for my taste. I can’t imagine watching a whole episode of it moving.

      1. I’m really baffled by what’s so objectionable about the art. It looks no different than most other animated shows to me.

  2. A Wild Birb Appears says:

    You make some good points! I’d been accepting that it’s made for children and unfortunately that means the worldbuilding would be a bit lacking and just enjoying a story where friendship always wins no matter what and they usually don’t even have to fight first (I know it’s unrealistic, but I do think it’s cute and I enjoy that it’s different) but a lot of the plot does seem to be a carrier for the Cool Mutes and Friendship Moments, and it’s true that Benson’s whole thing is good but… really not all that big. I still can’t remember his love interest’s name. From my limited look into the Kipo fandom I understand that there’s some discomfort with Wolf/Kipo because Wolf’s a bit younger, but they do have a lot of chemistry. 

    Also, Dave is the worst character both from an “I don’t like him” standpoint and a writing standpoint, and I wish they could have filled his narrative role with anyone who is not him. 

    Thank you for the review, it made me think about some things I had not considered! 

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    1. From my limited look into the Kipo fandom I understand that there’s some discomfort with Wolf/Kipo because Wolf’s a bit younger

      That’s their concern? Kipo is thirteen. Also, good grief, how young is Wolf, then? Her being 12 or whatever would explain some of her stupider decisions, but I still find that hard to swallow.

      This is entirely because Kipo is tall and Wolf is short, isn’t it. It’s Lapidot all over again.

      I actually don’t mind Dave that much. He’s a bit weird, but weird is the name of the game here, and I actually think that aesthetic of an immortal bug cycling through growth stages is pretty cool. He’s good support and he doesn’t get in the way of the other characters too much.

      Now, Benson, I do not understand why he exists. He contributes literally nothing to the plot that couldn’t be handled by Wolf or Dave, and feels like a third wheel in every scene.

      1. A Wild Birb Appears says:

        good grief, how young is Wolf, then?

        Apparently she’s 10, although I’m not sure if that’s in the show, something the creators said, or just a common fandom idea. I’m not entirely sure how the timeline would work, for that, but it’s not like the timelines for any other thing make sense if you think about them for more than a minute. 

        I don’t mind Dave’s concept – an immortal bug cycling through life stages is neat – my problem with Dave is that he does nothing to help any of the other characters and frequently gets in the way. It’s a joke (especially in season 1) that he can’t do anything helpful with his “ultra” stage, he’s antagonized mute groups and formed an obstacle for the others in multiple episodes (the science wolf one comes to mind), he was behind the completely-unbound-from-reality fear Wolf had that Kipo’d leave her behind, and a lot of his form of comic relief just bothers me (I’m aware that’s a personal complaint). He’s also overshadowed other characters (especially Benson) during scenes that could have built their relationships with other characters. 

        Benson, admittedly, doesn’t do much (although he is sweet). I suspect he and Dave were added as a counterpoint to Wolf’s “mutes and humans can never get along and living on the surface is an endless struggle” view, but he could use some more things to do and literally any backstory at all. Or the story could have just been about Wolf and Kipo, I’d also be happy with that option. 

        1. Apparently she’s 10

          Nope. Nope. Nope. I refuse to accept this. 10-year-olds do not act that way.

          I feel Dave does provide a useful role as a friendly mute, which is important if the theme is supposed to be that mutes and humans should get along. He also says at one point he’s as old as the apocalypse, which implies he could give exposition if they ever care enough to ask him. I think he could work if you folded Benson’s character into his — give him the nice Benson moments like taking Kipo to the park, etc.

          1. A Wild Birb Appears says:

            10 year olds don’t act that way! But to be fair, a lot of entertainment for both adults and children has an… iffy portrayal of how children of that age act. 

            I agree Dave would probably work if you folded Benson’s character into his, because then he’d also get Benson’s being a mostly nice person and helping out and wouldn’t have the reasons I think his character was done poorly. His role is important, I just feel he’s a poor character for that role because of the things I already said. I think Benson’s role as a relatively well-adjusted human who basically acts his age and enjoys the surface is important too, although Benson really needed something more than that. Maybe he’ll get it in season 3! For season 1 especially he and Dave were more of a unit than separate characters to the point that they apparently share the exact same dream in the dream episode, and the show seemed to be moving towards Benson and Dave being characters apart from each other, but. 

  3. CrazyEd says:

    This is Extruded Cartoon Product. The whole thing has a very design-by-committee feel to it — it’s just woke enough to make the Tumblr crowd spread it like wildfire, without being truly transgressive or subversive.

    Considering I’ve never heard of this show until right now, I googled it just for a look at the art style and stuff. It’s apparently based on a 2015 webcomic by the creator, and half the images returned by a google image search are from articles about how groundbreaking the coming out moment are from places like Polygon.

    These super-animals are called “mutes” for some reason I still do not understand, because they can talk and therefore seem like they should be the opposite of mute.

    … They’re not called “wonderbeasts”? Even though it’s in the title?

    The moment that really broke me is when, during a very cliche romantic sequence, the girl protagonist (who is from the underground cities) confesses love to the supporting boy character (who is a surfacer), only for him to tell her he’s gay, in those exact words.

    Coming from someone who is largely outside this specific subculture looking in, this is probably the single most telling thing in this entire review, and perhaps the most scathing criticism in it. I can recognize queerbaiting, and understand the criticism against it (though this definitely doesn’t seem to be that), but when the way legitimate and positive (if minor) representation was done was the final straw for you? That’s… not something I ever expected to see.

    I can understand not celebrating it like those Polygon articles did, if it was pretty much “sidekick had a throwaway romance subplot with a rando who clearly exists to be the Gay Love Interest”, but to say it “broke you”? Damn. Just how the hell did they mess up that bad?

    Yes, being able to actually say the word in children’s programming is a pretty big deal, I’ll acknowledge…

    Is it, though? Is this show really children’s programming? Everything about it looks like it was made for adults who are really into children’s programming. And it’s on Netflix, which is a bit more mercenary in its acceptance, and produced by Dreamworks Animation Television, which also did Voltron: Legendary Defender (which got most of its popularity from gay shippers) and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (and who seemingly selected its head writer based on how queer the themes of her previous work s were, to the point where I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a quote from her outright using the phrase “the gay agenda” to describe her writing on She-Ra). She-Ra wrapped up last May. I wouldn’t be surprised if some executive at Dreamworks said “we need another gay show for twenty-somethings to throw on Netflix”.

    Can we set the bar higher, please?

    Speaking of which, Disney recently explicitly announced its first bisexual lead character in an animated television show, and she’s pretty well written.

    (The girl who has a crush on her… was, until she got a crush on her, unfortunately.)

    1. I can understand not celebrating it like those Polygon articles did, if it was pretty much “sidekick had a throwaway romance subplot with a rando who clearly exists to be the Gay Love Interest”, but to say it “broke you”? Damn. Just how the hell did they mess up that bad?

      It broke me in the worldbuilding sense, because as I said it’s nonsensical for him to phrase it in those terms.

      The show is rated Y7 and the plot is, as I’ve said, very childish, so yes, it’s for kids.

      Speaking of which, Disney recently explicitly announced its first bisexual lead character in an animated television show, and she’s pretty well written.

      Which show?

      1. CrazyEd says:

        The show is rated Y7 and the plot is, as I’ve said, very childish, so yes, it’s for kids.

        The rating just means it’s appropriate for kids. The plot of a show aimed at adults obsessed with kid’s shows would still probably tend to be quite childish.

        Which show?

        The Owl House.

      2. Spoony Viking says:
        There’s something to be said for using language your actual viewers will understand, though, particularly if representation is at least a part of the goal.
        1. Then they either shouldn’t have used a post-apocalyptic setting, or they shouldn’t have made the gay character a dude with no human contact.

          1. A Wild Birb Appears says:

            Do we actually know he had no human contact? (This is a genuine question, I can’t remember if he was surprised to see Wolf and Kipo being alive). Also, it’s possible that the “mutes” use most of the same language, I believe it was implied that they got a lot of their idea of Everything from human stuff (or Dave could have lived long enough to know “old” human words for things, possibly). None of these options is watertight, world building wise, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the showrunners didn’t think through the implications of their world beyond “colorful kid-friendly apocalypse with cool talking animals” (I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but I’m willing to accept it is), but there are options.

            The thing I got more stuck on, personally, was that Kipo was noticeably lavender, no other humans are, and no one thought there was anything a little weird about that. In episode one I thought she was pale lavender because she lived in an underground burrow and it was something clever, but no, it’s just that no one questioned a purple girl running around. 

            1. Do we actually know he had no human contact?

              No, and I figure he must have, but we haven’t seen his origin in two seasons. The distinction between burrowers and surfacers and the general death world nature of the surface implies very strongly that there are no permanent human settlements on the surface, which again raises the question of where he comes from and how he learned… well, anything, really. Possibly he’s the survivor of a destroyed burrow? But he seems weirdly chipper for such a tragic backstory.

              In episode one I thought she was pale lavender because she lived in an underground burrow and it was something clever, but no, it’s just that no one questioned a purple girl running around.

              UGH YES. They even had someone examine her and take note that her skin marked her as a burrower! And then nope burrowers look completely normal. WHY ARE YOU SO SURPRISED YOU’RE A MUTANT, KIPO.

              (It’s also pretty sketchy that they chose to give a mixed-race kid such a light and alien skintone.)

              Reply
          2. Spoony Viking says:
            That seems unnecessarily restrictive.

            By the way, it seems I can’t post a reply using my account, only as a guest?

            1. I disagree. Form follows function. If you have a core idea you don’t want to compromise, you need to make the rest of the story support that. (Also, again, this could be solved by making Kipo the gay character, if they weren’t such cowards.)

              Comments are glitchy sometimes. Try contacting Act.

              Reply
            2. SpoonyViking says:

              “Form follows function” is a good principle for architecture, not necessarily for Literature or Dramaturgy. Do we need the Star Wars movies to be entirely spoken in some made-up language, too?

              I reiterate: if the point of the scene is to show a character saying “Sorry, I don’t want to date you, I’m gay”, him saying “Sorry, I don’t want to klaatu-barada-nikto you, I’m klatchian” instead would have just been a terrible decision.

              Reply
            3. Yes, exactly. So change the context instead of the character. Give him a backstory that doesn’t make us question how he knows vocabulary understandable to us.

              There’s lots of forms you can tweak to fit your function.

              Reply
            4. A Wild Birb Appears says:

              A question? Benson (and Dave and Wolf except for when it’s a joke that she doesn’t and Kipo and several “mutes”) use a lot of vocabulary understandable to us that could have feasably changed in 200 or so years, what makes “gay” so different? I support fiction including language changes and not pretending like a language could stay exactly the same for centuries, but I also understand a children’s show ignoring that in favor of being simpler/easier to understand. (It would be cool to have a children’s tv show where linguistic drift was a plot point or just a piece of worldbuilding, but I understand why a lot of them don’t)

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            5. Yes, it’s part of a larger plot hole.

              Like I said, I’m willing to suspend disbelief that they share language, but the idea that Benson would even understand the concept, let alone that it applies to him, just makes no sense.

              Reply
            6. SpoonyViking says:

              Hold on, now, it almost seems like you are arguing queerness is a modern phenomenon.

              Reply
            7. No, I’m arguing it makes no sense for someone who has never met another human in his life to understand what sexual orientation is.

              Reply
            8. A Wild Birb Appears says:

              Oh, I misunderstood what you were arguing in that case! I do disagree, though: for the general concept of attraction/queerness he could very well have seen “mutes” in straight or queer relationships, and for him in particular, even if he’s never seen any humans before there’s still (most likely) things like books and magazines and posters. I don’t recall any reason to assume that mutes don’t have sexual/romantic orrientation. Is there something else that I’m missing that’d make it unbelievable for Benson to have figured things out? 

              Reply
            9. My point is, how would Benson know he’s exclusively attracted to male humans if he’s never met a male human? Even if he figured some things out by observation and scraps of remnants from human civilization, he’d be coming at it from such a different and more fragmented perspective than Kipo. It’s baffling that two people of such radically different backgrounds can immediately understand what the other is communicating.

              Reply
            10. A Wild Birb Appears says:

              Oh, that makes more sense. I still disagree, but I think at this point it’s a matter of opinion and how far we’re willing to suspend disbelief rather than a difference in how we see the scene. 

              Reply

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