Random good luck like finding a twenty in your pocket, or accidentally taking an amazing photo has to be a top 10 feeling. It’s like you just won a prize for doing nothing. I’ve gotten that feeling most recently when Netflix automatically redirected me to a 10-episode series called Kipo and the age of Wonderbeasts. First airing on January 14th of this year, the Dreamworks Animation production is a vibrant, charming dive into teenage heroine Kipo Oak’s fantastic journey through a surprisingly lush post-apocalyptic Earth.
We immediately start the story just as confused as she was, when she spills out through a storm drain away from the safety of her underground bunker (or as the locals call it, “burrow”). What starts as a dreamy exploration of this long-avoided surface world quickly picks up the pace as Kipo encounters both passionate friends and relentless enemies on her quest to reunite with her father and burrow friends. Of course, nothing can be normal, so these enemies take the form of mutated, anthropomorphic versions of common animals bluntly deemed “mutes.” There always seems to be tuxedo-clad frogs, annoyingly sophisticated wolves, heavy-metal worshipping snakes, or a cruel, piano-playing mandrill waiting for Kipo at every turn.
Actually, let’s just stop there and I’ll leave the rest for you to find out. The 22-minute episodes are extremely binge-able, and it has never been easier to stream tv, so you have no excuse. Don’t get me wrong, the plot and story arc are good- really good, when you think of how many girl-suddenly-launched-into-fantasy-world plots get remixed every year. The character development, representation, and underlying darker themes make the series unique in that genre. However, it’s the music and art that puts it into must-watch territory.
Starting with the artistic team, the roster is already stacked. We have the producer and original creator, Radford Sechrist to thank in the first place; The idea and visual style hail from his 2015 web-comic, “Kipo.” In her first role as Art Director, Angela Sung brings award-winning vision to the project from previous work like the Legend of Korra. The rest of the art team brings experience with some notable projects including Avatar (the one with the blue people in trees), Steven Universe, and the televised Guardians of the Galaxy collection. The result is Kipo becoming an unlikely, yet super aesthetic juxtaposition of cartoonish and detailed; simple characters somehow still show an amazing range of expression and the scenes that surround the comical action pop with texture and depth.
Color is another element that absolutely makes this show. Every character and setting gets a healthy dose of neon purples, greens, and blues. The background flora and fauna are rendered exactly how you might imagine nature to be thriving if our species suddenly disappeared off the face of the planet. In the end, the art is for everybody. Bright hues and supernatural glows will leave your kids mesmerized, and you’ll find yourself coming back for the subtle Studio Ghibli vibes and stunning layouts.
Animation is mostly handled by a team from Studio Mir, a company steadily gaining respect for work done on projects including League of Legends, The Boondocks, and Legend of Korra. Their work on Kipo is solid too, but one thing stands out as truly above-average: the sense of scale. In design and photography, this is a fundamental of perspective and the goal is to help the viewer get a clear idea of how objects and subjects relate to each other in size and spacing. For most people who don’t care about the technicalities, it means that Studio Mir found a way to show off the insane settings in Kipo’s world without making your brain hurt. Thanks to them, we can see just how inconsequentially small humans are in this new era of Earth.
The animation behind all of the action scenes is impressive as well, especially considering that over half of each episode is action scenes. Again, it’s another cool way of contrasting simplicity with details. The artists match an angular drawing style and rather simple character designs with an element of smoothness as we see characters flip, fly, and spin across screen. The art, enhanced by the animation, is reason enough to give this show a chance. It’s an imaginative take on what life after disaster might look like, and nature is celebrated in style.
Possibly the best thing about Kipo is the music, though. This is an example of a show that got everything right in that regard. It features a bright and emotive original score that matches perfectly with how the story unfolds. It boasts an impeccably curated playlist to round out each episode. Additionally, it has some of the most unique and engaging sound design and short-action cues I’ve heard in recent years. Overseeing the project is Music Supervisor Kier Lehman, who is still riding the high of his previous award-winning work for Spiderman- Into the Spiderverse. Right after him, is Music Coordinator James Cartwright, who worked alongside Lehman on Spiderverse and who’s also known for his work on the acclaimed HBO series Insecure. Also lending his expertise is composer Daniel Rojas, bringing an eclectic blend of otherworldly orchestral samples, pounding pop and bold, brassy trap beats to compliment all of Kipo and Co’s adventures. Rad Sechrist and Dreamworks were very conscious of all these choices when recruiting, and it shows. Even with a relatively free-wheeling plot, their team keeps everything grounded through music.
So, I don’t think it’s quite a musical, but music is a central theme- and is written into almost every character. Kipo and her father bond over playing guitar, Benson (another main character picked up along the way) is a hip-hop connoisseur and aspiring DJ, and there’s a whole other host of mutes that can count shredding on the banjo, guitar or piano as part of their considerable talents. It’s made working on the series incredibly fun for the music team, especially Rojas, who stated in a Roarbots interview that, “It’s truly a gift for a composer!” It’s also incredibly fun for the viewer, who is treated to a number of original songs surrounding the action like the folktale-anthem “Yumyan Hammerpaw” or the groovy, psychedelic “Purple Jaguar Eye.”
Kipo is said to be based on the setting and subcultures of Los Angeles, and the music captures that exciting and urban feel. The soundtrack that Lehman helped put together achieves that vibe with some absolute bangers from newer artists like VanessaMichaels, Dope Saint Jude, and Andra Gunter. We’re also treated to guest appearances from legends like GZA and Joan Jett. The coolest bits about the show, however, are the short-action cues and sound design. Essentially, cues are the instrumentals that play in the background during certain scenes like chases or fights. Sound design is all about manipulating audio to create custom noises and effects. It turns out, character entrances and fight scenes are so much more enjoyable with Rojas masterminding them. Hip-hop is super prevalent in this show, and he uses all of the best parts of the genre: stuttering hi-hat patterns, booming 808s, pitched snares, and dark, trapped-out melodies. I can’t imagine a better way to watch giant bunnies ferociously protecting their giant babies than with this track in the background.
As for the sound design, the mixing team does an exceptionally good job creating both human-made and digital audio. Everything sounds spot on, from the impacts during fights, to the crunch of food, or the splash of water. For me, the highlight has to be the sounds used for another kind of mute, the Dubstep Bees. With puffy tuxedos and light-up stingers, these bees pollinate while buzzing sub-sonically at 140 bpm. Oh, and they don’t talk? Instead, their voices sound like something Skrillex made on his first computer. It’s always the little things, you know. Dubstep bees, trap music character entrances- they’re all seemingly weird flexes, but they add up to make Kipo one of the most quirky and cool animated shows in the last few years.
I was lucky to stumble upon it, but the success of Kipo shouldn’t be random. The entire cast and crew has major talent, and the series has the support of the whole Dreamworks empire. It’s strange to see such a well-directed and quality show fly under the radar like this. That being said, the show still received enough attention to come back for a second season. The scheduled release date is June 12th, so there’s plenty of time to get up to speed. Great art and great music should never be taken for granted, so please, please, do yourself a favor and stop sleeping on Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.