The animated film Nimona, directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, pops with triumphant queer representation, a carnivalesque style, and a bangin’ soundtrack. Based on the similarly titled, award-winning webcomic by N. D. Stevenson, Nimona focuses on Ballister Boldheart (voiced by Riz Ahmed), who lives in a walled kingdom with modern technology and a medieval monarchy. The first commoner to become a knight of the Institute, he joins an elite group of nobles, including his boyfriend Ambrosius Goldenloin (voiced by Eugene Lee Yang), who are sworn to protect the kingdom from monsters. Then Ballister is framed for the queen’s murder, for which Ambrosius cuts off his arm. Now a fugitive, Ballister gains a self-appointed sidekick, the shapeshifting teenager of the title, Nimona (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz). The two become friends, expose the Institute’s corruption, clear Ballister’s name, repair his relationship with Ambrosius, and explore themes of fluid identity, prejudice, and self-acceptance.
The adaptation has much to commend it. I love its character animation: both Ballister and Ambrosius, though symmetrical and handsome, exhibit exaggerated expressions rarely seen in idealized male leads. Their saucer-size eyes, jumpy eyebrows, and stretchy mouths expand to comic proportions. Ballister never changes form, but his physical elasticity as he slinks secretively, leaps decisively, and literally bounces off Nimona proves that he’s flexible enough to be her match. For her part, Nimona’s physical quirks when she is human—red eyes when she’s excited, pointy teeth when bloodthirsty—give us playful reminders of her multifarious potential.
I love the soundtrack too, scored by Christophe Beck and featuring an explosive mix of pop, rap, and metal. The stuttering “I’m a girl like, like, like—” from Dope Saint Jude’s “Grrrl Like” opens the film, introducing us to Nimona, a person so incomparable that your similes seize up when you try to describe her. Two-thirds of the way through, Ballister and Nimona dance, celebrating their viral exposé of the Institute’s wrongdoing; “Gold Guns Girls” by Metric plays. Even though the driving beat emulates the characters’ enthusiasm, the refrain—“Is it ever gonna be enough?”—reminds you how exhausting and difficult changing the world can be. Drawing power from the rebellious history of metal and punk, Nimona’s music in this way underlines and advances the movie’s themes.
Most of all, though, I love Ballister. He’s villain-coded—that is, loaded with signifiers of difference that are often included in portrayals of bad guys. He’s brown-skinned (like his British-Pakistani voice actor), with a prominent nose, backswept black hair, a goatee, and an all-black wardrobe. He looks like the Master, a long-running Doctor Who antagonist, as played by Roger Delgado, whose craggy face and pointy beard mark him as the bad guy. Ballister also wears a black hood or cape and has a mechanical arm. These two traits recall Darth Vader, who’s memorable, of course, as the villain of Star Wars: A New Hope for his dramatically swirling cape and his wearable life-support system. Additionally, Ballister is gay, which is immaterial in his apparently homophobia-free kingdom, but which, through queer-coding, can signal extra weirdness or wrongness for villains (especially in Disney animated films).
In other words, even without the accusation of regicide, a character like Ballister would probably be demonized for his race, his disability, and his sexuality. But he’s not! He survives. He thrives. The film uses Ballister’s villain-coding to prime viewers for an unhappy story of pain, misery, and rejection. By subverting our expectations in so constructive a fashion, Nimona invites us to reconsider notions of monstrosity, kindness, and trust along with the characters. Plus I simply feel an irrepressible internal squee over the fact that a brown-skinned, disabled, gay guy stars as the hero of a major animated movie.
Because, even though the film is titled Nimona, I consider Ballister the main protagonist. Nimona does have protagonist-like traits, including a rich backstory, complex emotions, and an arc in which she drops her defensive, vengeful tendencies and accepts Ballister’s love. Nevertheless, the film focuses more on how she changes the world. In fact, after she turns into a phoenix and takes down the corrupt Institute during the climax, she disappears from sight. (She does return at the very end, but we only hear her voice.) Subsequent scenes linger on Ballister and Ambrosius, both in civilian outfits and casually sharing affection. Their confident partnership indicates how their experience with Nimona has altered them, just as shrines to Ballister and Nimona as heroes indicate how the entire kingdom has gained hope and strength because of Nimona’s deed. Nimona’s absence highlights her primary narrative role as a motivation for the plot and an agent of revolution. Like Mary Poppins, Nimona gives her name to a movie because she is a powerful force of nature who turns the lives of mundane characters upside-down. The true protagonists of Mary Poppins and Nimona, however, are Mr. Banks and Ballister, respectively—the ones whose enlightenment is enabled by the titular characters’ chaos magic.
Nimona brings me joy for many reasons, but the movie zooms around so quickly that it limits its own emotional heft. Characters have negligible backstory—except for Nimona, who gets two flashbacks. In contrast, we don’t know what drives Ballister’s unique ambition to be the first commoner to attain knighthood. He has no interests outside of his duties, no family or friends from his childhood, and no past. Ambrosius suffers similar problems: he’s a noble with a tendency to follow orders, so what prompts him to rebel by supporting Ballister? I care for Ballister and Ambrosius because they’re witty, idealistic, and on the side of freedom. I would care even more, however, if I knew about their previous struggles.
Ballister and Ambrosius’s hollowness frustrates me because they could easily be fleshed out. For example, imagine a quick montage of the two meeting as boys, being parted by their class-conscious families, and vowing to become knights to be together again. After such scenes, we’d know where they were coming from socially and emotionally. They’d be even more sympathetic because star-crossed.
Instead, the movie spends one of its flashbacks on Nimona’s tall tale to Ballister that she gained her shapeshifting powers from a wishing well. Don’t get me wrong: I love this first flashback of hers. Presented as if on a tiled subway wall, the blocky figures resemble 8-bit sprites, suggesting that Nimona thinks of her child self as outmoded and irrelevant. She talks about flying with birds in the wishing-well story, and we see her doing just this in her second flashback (realistically animated and presented as a memory) about how she met Gloreth, the supposed monster-killer who founded the kingdom. Nimona’s 8-bit tale may falsify her origins, but it truly evokes her loneliness and desire for community. Nevertheless, her second flashback establishes the same wishes more efficiently. The writers could have given the duration of Nimona’s tall tale to Ballister and Ambrosius instead and made their yearnings as specific and poignant as hers.
Nimona’s frenetic pace diminishes a major plot point—Ambrosius amputating Ballister’s arm—that could have offered robust representation of a disabled person. Instead, the film completely ignores the trauma of dismemberment. Shortly after losing his arm, Ballister somehow acquires a nifty robotic prothesis that does everything his original did. The limb’s detachability serves for a few gags, but Ballister’s new disability otherwise has no bearing on the plot. Does Ballister procure his arm through some back-alley black market that he was familiar with as a kid? Does he experience physical and mental challenges adjusting to his prosthesis? Does Ambrosius’s attack on him complicate his feelings toward Ambrosius? Does the populace, who witnessed Ballister’s amputation on TV, later notice a guy with a conspicuous robotic arm? Apparently not. Nimona and Ambrosius both remark that “arm-chopping is not a love language,” but no characters consider what amputation is: a life-changing event with significant consequences.
The same superficiality extends to Nimona’s treatment of race. With a Black queen, a British-Pakistani hero, an Asian-American love interest, and characters of all ethnicities, the movie’s events occur in a multicultural metropolis. However, no culturally specific practices or linguistic differences appear beyond Ballister’s unexplained British accent. Furthermore, no one pays attention in-universe to the racial diversity around them. Well, Ambrosius does say that Ballister “hates freestyle jazz.” But that quip only leaves me wondering how jazz, developed by American Black people with a specific historical experience of enslavement, enfranchisement, and struggle, popped up in this generic kingdom. The movie’s assiduous avoidance of race exposes the writers’ lack of confidence in depicting racial identities with the same complexity as queer identities.
Nimona celebrates queer self-definition and found family. The animation, stylized for maximum hilarity, encourages viewers to smile, boogie, and even transform along with the appealing characters. Ballister himself, a villain-coded hero who achieves unexpected fulfillment, embodies the film’s argument for breaking down cliched preconceptions. The score amps up the story’s inspirational, activist ebullience. Unfortunately, the film also skimps on the lead couple’s past, Ballister’s acquired disability, and its examination of race. A willingness to slow down, shift the spotlight away from Nimona, and fill in those plot holes would have turned this zippy, feel-good film into something more intersectional and, to quote Nimona, “metal.”