Developed: Noelle Stevenson
Produced: DreamWorks Animation Television, Mattel Creations, NE4U
Distributed: Netflix Steaming Service, NBCUniversal Television Distribution
Released: November 13, 2018
The initial plan was to address some of the hate surrounding the She-Ra reboot. There is something to say about how reasonable apprehension toward the cynicism of nostalgia often gets drowned out by vicious teeth-gnashing from far less reasonable pundits and their audiences. Plans changed when it turned out that She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was just a really good show; one that deserves to stand on its own numerous merits. I’ll only say that those who claimed the new She-Ra was not feminine enough seemed to fixate on her looks. There were virtually no remarks about her speech, mannerisms, movements, interests, reactions, emotional processes, relational styles, sense of responsibility, or any of the other qualities that adolescent girls develop before their breasts.
It’s a shame how reductive people can be about femininity, since She-Ra and the Princesses of Power drew an engaging story from its unabashedly feminine themes. Specifically, it shines a recognizable framework for fantasy adventure through the prism of hopeful girlhood, creating a rainbow of hope, ambition, opportunity, and trepidation for girls in the story and in the audience. Rainbow is an apt descriptor, since the show prides itself on a bursting color palette, a diverse range of characters, and myriad interpersonal challenges. It’s always refreshing how striking children’s animation can be (something bright in between seasons of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt).
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power tells the story of Adora, a promising cadet in the evil Horde army, who defects to Rebellion after learning that the Horde are basically war criminals looking to destroy the planet Etheria. Despite the effort to bring her back made by her childhood friend Catra, Adora becomes determined to stop the Horde on their quest for domination. While deserting, she finds a mysterious sword in an enchanted forest, a weapon that grants her the power of the legendary warrior She-Ra. Having attained this newfound cosmic responsibility, Adora must unite the princesses of power in Etheria, forming an alliance that can stop the Horde from waging their seemingly uncontrolled campaign of destruction.
The design of She-Ra’s world is truly remarkable, reflecting a strong desire for vibrancy, uniqueness, and thematic consistency. The colors of Etheria are vivid and full of energy, growing darker as the land gets closer to Horde violence and more obscure as it begins reveals the previously covered First One’s technology. Crystal cities and flowery forests at the center of the Rebellion are wild and delicate, evoking the natural peace of a land the princesses wish to protect from disturbances. The ice and water kingdoms take on the shapes of military bulwarks due to their proximity to the Horde, yet their interiors still demonstrate Etherian pride in aesthetics.
The Horde is designed brilliantly as well. Far from simply washing out the color palette with blacks and grays, the evil army is characterized by a host of alarming hues. Rusted browns, toxic greens, and unsettling glows properly communicate a sense of hazard. Red pipes decorate the harsh, angular industrialization, so as to create the feeling of being surrounded by living machinery. Hateful blood runs through the terrifying steel organism that is the Horde, and this forceful mutation of the organic and inorganic ends up symbolizing the way in which they intend to distort and abuse the world they’re conquering.
Despite the inspired design, the animation can be a little rough. Broad, full body motions like running and swimming can look awkward (poor sense of movement and scale) in a way that isn’t exaggerated for comedy. It tends not to bother me if the rest of the content is good (which it is), but some people are sticklers for that particular interpretation of animation quality. I actually prefer how most of the attention went toward action and dialogue. Of course, the show wants its fights and magic to be spectacular, like a hybrid of Sailor Moon and Totally Spies, but the real majesty comes from rectifying the hilarious lip syncing of the original production.
Speaking of which, I love how the dialogue is bursting with energy — different from being noisy. Many children’s cartoons have abrasively high volume and speed, designed to keep their attention over and above giving them quality entertainment. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is good at managing tone, with quiet moments that let characters be introspective, contemplative, empathetic, and even frightened. This is not to downplay how infectious the enthusiasm is, especially when it comes to reminding young girls that it’s fun to be passionate and driven. I aim to emphasize that the deliberately paced contrast of tone ends up amplifying the emotions without just being loud.
That enthusiasm ends up reinforcing the naturalistic dialogue. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power focuses in on the lives of teenagers, in all their awkward, dorky, and overly-excitable glory. There’s a freedom to the dialogue that perfectly captures this development stage, casually joking with each other about the importance of their responsibilities without being as morose as their adult counterparts. It’s hard not to get swept up in how they struggle with smiles, laughing as they try to comprehend the magnitude of their obligations to the Rebellion. All the better is watching the prominent male characters ham it up. While most of the serious character development goes to the women, the Bow, Seahawk, and Swiftwind are here to bring the campy bombast with their over-the-top personalities.
In many cases, they help Adora and Glimmer achieve their goal to reunite the Princess Alliance and create a strong opposition to the Horde. While the story itself is dressed in the pretense of political intrigue, the central conflict hinges on the drama around making friends. She-Ra is basically One Punch Man, in that she is so powerful, her presence on the battlefield trivializes most of the enemy opposition. Consequently, the real tension comes from resolving the interpersonal differences that drove the Alliance apart the first time, while reconciling Adora’s intrapersonal doubt. She-Ra means many things to those who idolize her, and the former Horde solider does not believe that her existence has ever been good for anyone.
In each Kingdom, Adora learns that her greatest power comes from her influence over other rather than any magic or might, often subverting the magnanimity of She-Ra’s ordained heroism and showing the other Princesses how they can draw willpower from friends and allies. Even after disappointment and loss, anyone can handle defeat when they have someone to remind them that they are always worth trying again. Of course, this isn’t a novel lesson, and driving that theme home for seven episodes might bother some people. In shows like The Walking Dead or Jessica Jones, many fans will complain about long stretches of dialogue-heavy episodes, but I think they are always worthwhile, especially when they lead to payoffs as strong as this one.
The central relationship in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is the friendship and soft rivalry between Adora and Catra. The two girls were friends, growing up together in the Horde. When Adora left the Horde to join the Rebellion, Catra did not take this well. Her commanding officer, Shadow Weaver, held her responsible for Adora’s desertion and accused her of being a corrupting influence on the clearly superior cadet. Bearing the responsibility for her friend’s actions caused some underlying resentment to rise to the surface again. Catra hated feeling so inferior, but Adora’s kindness always helped her manage. In seeing her friend share that kindness so easily with others, Catra’s attitude toward Adora darkened.
In this twist of affection and lingering contempt, Catra found motivation to win Adora back, through the kinds of twisted methods befitting her character. In looking to restore the normalcy of their former relationship, she sought to foil Adora’s plans by rising through the ranks in the Horde. Catra wanted to impose upon her friend the futility of helping the Rebellion, and win back Adora’s appreciation by proving how determined she was to bring her back. Her motivations were self-interested but ultimately understandable; it made sense for her character that she would act in such a way that reminded Adora of how much fun they used to have in the Horde. It was almost like a cry for help.
Unfortunately, Catra’s former friend could not let go of that hatred. Instead, she embraced her anger for Adora, and learned to draw confidence from the betrayal. In one of the most sinister character turns I have ever seen from any television show, Catra convinces herself that Adora’s kindness was a way to keep her weak, a way to prevent her from feeling the power that hatred has given her. In a stunning demonstration of respect for children’s intelligence, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power teaches children (particularly young girls) that some relationship dynamics are too broken to fix with just affection; that upbringings built on resentment are doomed to turn dangerous. Episode 11 still gives me chills.
While I have so much praise for the relationship between Adora and Catra, the same cannot be said for the other princesses. The initial formation of the Alliance is interesting, since we get to see each of the unique princesses and get a sense of their leadership styles (Perfuma is the benevolent collectivist, while Frosta is a fearsome, militaristic monarch). However, once they break away from the Alliance, we don’t see much of them until they return for the final battle. I would have loved to see each of the princesses contemplate their actions leading up to rejoining the Alliance, ruminating on the benefits of uniting against the Horde vs. the cost of dying to their might. Now that Catra has shown me what this show is capable of, I would like to see greater depths from everyone else.
Overall, I think She-Ra and the Princesses of Power gave an incredible first showing. There’s a team of exceptional creatives behind this story, and I love their dedication to making something new out of an old property. Anyone can just do a shot-for-shot update and just take the cash home, but I applaud the work they put into creating a heroine who could uniquely inspire the generation she is aimed at. This admirable goal is made all the better upon realizing that anyone can enjoy her story. I can’t wait to see what new heights She-Ra and the Princesses of Power attains in its second season.