The animated fantasy sci-fi movie Nimona takes a sledgehammer to fairy tale hallmarks: a kingdom, knights, and a dragon. Released on Netflix, Nimona is a tale about outsiders who do not fit heroic norms, focusing on a partnership between outcast knight Ballister Boldheart (actor and rapper Riz Ahmed) and the mysterious shapeshifter Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz with Gremlin energy). It also has a twist rare for a family oriented animated film: a queer love story between two male knights. Another twist? Those two lovers-in-arms weren’t both Asian in the source material.
Nimona was born as American cartoonist ND Stevenson’s webcomic college thesis, which was then collected in a 2015 graphic novel. It had a rocky odyssey toward a feature film adaptation. After Disney bought out 20th Century Fox Animation in 2021, the Big Mouse canceled the project that was already 75 percent finished. Netflix and Annapurna subsequently swooped in to rescue the project for its 2023 release on streaming.
Now in cell-shaded CGI (directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane), the fantasy-tech steampunked kingdom of Nimona has transformed its narrative since its comic publication. This fairy tale deconstruction, both movie and graphic novel, posits these questions: Are knights-in-shining-armor actually doing good or are they serving a corrupt institution? Who is the real monster: The magical feral shapeshifter or the institution?
The film adaptation also updates the story in multitudes for the comic’s two leading knights: Ballister Boldheart and Ambrosius Goldenloin (voiced hilariously by Eugene Lee Yang of Try Guys). Boldheart is a far cry from the morally gray supervillain of the pages (whose surname is Blackheart), just as Goldenloin is now less vain about his knighthood position. Also, despite being diametrically opposed foes, the pair act like romantic exes in lovers-to-enemies fashion. In fact, Blackheart refers to Goldenloin as “someone I love…”
Even before their onscreen kiss...their cuddling and endearment make it clear that the two knights are Boyfriends with a capital rainbow "B."
So along with switching up their personalities, the film amplifies Boldheart’s and Goldenloin’s romantic bond. Even before their onscreen kiss (that ruffled Disney’s feathers), their cuddling and endearment make it clear that the two knights are Boyfriends with a capital rainbow "B." It’s also a key scene that demonstrates Boldheart’s imposter syndrome over his prospects, with Goldenloin assuring that he will fit in.
Although their original iterations were pale-skinned, race-neutral characters in the comic pages, both animated knights now bear Asian profiles. Their animated avatars more closely resemble their voice actors than the comic iterations, so now real-world racial subtext froth beneath their troubles.
From there, it’s tough not to flip on the colorist lens. Here is Pakistani British Ahmed voicing his avatar, Boldheart, whose brown complexion could box him into orientalist villainization. His complexion wouldn’t automatically “pass” him as a “good guy” in animated films, like say, how the Huns in Mulan have dark skin tones to symbolize obvious villainy. Boldheart also carries the stakes of his representation in knighthood. At his ceremony, look at Boldheart’s glances at orphans, separated from the upper echelons. He knows the pressures that marginalized commoners know. Although the noble-born knights bear racially diverse profiles, the voices of light-skinned players like Goldenloin or the jock-like Sir Thoddeus Sureblade (Beck Bennett) are shown to take charge.
Ballister Boldheart represents a quintessential bootstrap narrative in the kingdom. A street kid, he scrounged to rise as an equal to the noble-born society. His knighthood education was granted by the queen herself, though society and fellow knights bristled that he got a handout instead of a fair shot.
But lo-and-behold, Boldheart’s shot at upward mobility is thwarted and he’s forced into hiding. At the ceremony, his sabotaged sword goes haywire and murders the queen in a frame-up job. In the heat of the carnage, Boldheart’s aghast boyfriend makes an impossible choice to chop off Boldheart’s arm to disarm the weapon. This amputational act—an expression of their knight’s training and conditioning—gets reckoned with throughout their respective arcs. (It also leads to this darkly comedic line, “Arm-chopping is not a love language!”)
Amplifying this racial commentary, the futuristic medieval-style kingdom underlines its authority with aggressive monitoring, with allusions to the Sept. 11 panicked surveillance state that victimized brown and Black persons.
Amplifying this racial commentary, the futuristic medieval-style kingdom underlines its authority with aggressive monitoring, with allusions to the Sept. 11 panicked surveillance state that victimized brown and Black persons (something the real Ahmed is no stranger to, as he wrote in “Typecast as a Terrorist”). This world-building also includes a subway station modeled after the MTA of the Big Apple (“If you see something, SLAY something,” a poster reads).
But for all of Boldheart’s struggles, noble-born knights like his fair-skinned boyfriend Goldenloin, experience success and upward mobility as the default. Stevenson envisioned the original Goldenloin as a walking conceited armor of white privilege: “It’s convenient to cast him in the role of the hero because he’s a white man with blond hair and classic good looks.” So the film provides a nuance with Goldenloin, here adapted to match Yang’s lighter-skinned East Asian profile, against Boldheart’s brown complexion. Although he is less of a punchable, conceited Adonis than his comic counterpart, he still clings to his loyalty to the corrupt knighthood system even as he pines for his lover. He sticks to the safety of knighthood even as his conscience and sanity fray by the day. Despite their diverging paths, the two knights are also bound to one virtue: fidelity to their knighthood system. They feel too grateful to let go of it, even when it betrays them and severs them from their wholesome romance. But possessing a wealth of privilege, Goldenloin is much slower than Boldheart to challenge his Kingdom.
As Boldheart seeks to clear his name in hiding, he also doesn’t realize that his fugitive status attracts him a chaotic ally: the titular Nimona, a pink-skinned feral shapeshifter, whose mischief-making rivals the likes of Bart Simpson and Loki. Seeing that society saddled Boldheart with a villain label, she declares herself his sidekick and new best friend, much to his chagrin. She proposes something that offends Boldheart’s heart: If the institution sucked for you, just break some stuff. Boldheart feels too indebted to the hegemony to reject what rejected him. But the more the system disappoints him, Nimona’s “fuck-it-all” perspective grows more attractive to him.
I understand if the comic readers might bristle at the personality overhauls. Blackheart of the comic had interesting complications with his supervillain lot in life. I can understand if criticism arises that these revisions, and others, dilute the potential edge. But to this also I say: Both the source material and adaptation can exist and complement the other. Softening Boldheart from a long-term anti-hero/villain into a wronged everyman makes it more cathartic for his onscreen arc when he lashes out at the institution.
Both comic and movie, Nimona is an ode to those who are othered, the queer commoner-knight and the queer-coded shapeshifter rebel (Stevenson’s outlet for his transgender identity). While the film does not explore the Asian identity in an explicit sense, the Asian-ification supplies these dimensions to Ballister Boldheart’s struggles, how hard he’s worked to not be an outsider in his homeland, and his ensuing distress when the world still rules him as such. It also draws a richer dynamic in his star-crossed love story with Goldenloin, who feels like he has to play a role in his privileged status at the expense of his boyfriend. Riding the waves of queer BIPOC representation in American cartoons, Nimona feels more pertinent by reimagining the race of its two leads.
Both knights undergo their most important trials: dissemble their teachings and deconstruct their knighthood myths. It’s pivotal that Boldheart and Goldenloin end their story without their armor and sword. To move on to happily ever after, they have to shed the burden of the sword to have a chance to grow, love one another, and be true to themselves.
Update: It doesn't necessarily change that I initially read the character comic designs as pale-skinned and race-neutral (though a brown-skinned supporting character did exist in the comic) and that the pair's Asian profiles are more pronounced in 3-D animation. But it turned out that Stevenson's 2014 Tumblr Q&A affirmed that Stevenson had seen Ballister as "Asian or mixed" and Stevenson dreamcast Ballister with light-skinned Asians like John Cho and Lucy Liu. At least one fan seemed to have read Ballister as Asian-coded for a long time.
Published on June 30, 2023