(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.)