How Disney Almost Killed ‘Nimona’

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Nimona‘s journey to the screen was filled with ups and downs, but it was finally released on Netflix this year, bringing positive queer representation to the animation industry.
  • The cancellation of Nimona by Disney was devastating, as the film would have been the first feature-length Disney movie to openly feature a same-sex love story.
  • The queer elements of the film made Disney executives uncomfortable and faced pushback, but the project was eventually picked up by Annapurna Pictures for a Netflix release.


When Nimona debuted on Netflix earlier this year, fans likely released a sigh of long-suffering relief. The animated production, an adaptation based on the award-winning graphic novel of the same name, saw a sadly egregious amount of ups and downs. At one point, following Walt Disney Studios’ purchase of 20th Century Fox and its subsidiary studios, Nimona was shelved à la Warner Bros.’ Batgirl, never to see the light of day. The loss was a wrenching blow to fans, the animation industry, and positive queer representation. Thankfully, this tale has a happy ending. Let’s examine Nimona‘s turbulent production history and why this film’s difficult journey should never have been difficult to begin with.

Nimona

When a knight in a futuristic medieval world is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, the only one who can help him prove his innocence is Nimona — a mischievous teen who happens to be a shapeshifting creature he’s sworn to destroy.

Release Date
June 30, 2023

Director
Nick Bruno , Troy Quane

Rating
PG

Runtime
101 minutes


What Is ‘Nimona’ About?

Nimona is the brainchild of cartoonist ND Stevenson, the showrunner behind Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and the Eisner Award-winning co-creator of the Lumberjanes graphic novels. Stevenson had bounced around a story about a shapeshifting main character and developed the concept as his college thesis for the Maryland Institute College of Art. Simultaneously, Nimona migrated to Tumblr as a successful web-comic, and HarperCollins picked up the series for official publication in 2015.

Set in a futuristic medical fantasy world, the titular Nimona is the villainous Ballister Blackheart’s teenage sidekick. Ballister seeks revenge against a powerful organization called the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics as well as its best knight, the dashing Ambrosius Goldenloin. Although Nimona and her bad guy boss swap some nefarious cackles during their attempts to defeat the Institution, Ballister is actually a soft boy at heart. He detests killing and constantly restrains Nimona’s eager, bloodthirsty instincts. “You can’t just go around murdering people, Nimona,” he remonstrates. “There are rules.” A statement to which Nimona replies, “Isn’t that the point of being a villain? That you don’t follow the rules?” (Points were made on both sides.)

Related

‘Nimona’: Eugene Lee Yang on Telling an Inherently Queer Story and Rebelling From the Inside

“Turn into your version of a whale!”

In between the duo’s snippy banter and growing father-daughter bond, both characters harbor dark, painful histories. Ballister and Ambrosius were lovers before Ambrosius took Ballister’s arm off during a joust. After the Institution expelled Ballister, deeming a knight with one arm not “good enough,” he took up the only mantle left to him: the villain. Nimona snarks about her backstory and keeps the truth close to her chest while being an adorable menace who merrily causes havoc. However, she’s also crossed paths with the inhumane Institution. The graphic novel (and Stevenson) hit the New York Times bestsellers list and won many prestigious awards.

In addition to the same-sex romance between former lovers-turned-enemies Ballister and Ambrosius, the character of Nimona embraces gender fluidity and gender nonconformity. Moreover, the corrupt, cruel, and exclusionary Institution deeming Nimona an “abomination” and a “monster” because of her shapeshifting ability can be interpreted as a metaphor for structural oppression and systematic violence against the LGBTQIA+ community. In an interview with NPR, Stevenson said he wanted to change the mold for female characters:

“I want to break down all the stereotypes that say, this woman is this way, these are her flaws and that’s why she’ll never be as good…I want to figure out…why a male character could be celebrated for negative traits while a [female character] is crucified for those same traits, and how that reflects back on real women, living their lives in the world day to day.”

Why Was ‘Nimona’ Canceled?

In 2015, the same year Nimona hit bookshelves, 20th Century Fox bought the rights for an animated adaptation. Blue Sky Studios, a subsidiary of Fox responsible for the mega-hit Ice Age franchise, jumped into production on the film. After Disney acquired Fox in 2019, Nimona‘s release date was delayed several times: from 2020, to 2021, and to 2022. Then, in February 2021, Disney effectively canceled Nimona when it shut down Blue Sky Studios, citing “current economic realities” brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stevenson and Nimona director Patrick Osbourne were “heartbroken” over the studio’s closing. An anonymous Blue Sky employee stated, “[That] is heartbreaking because we are not only losing our jobs, we’re losing our family, our workplace, we’re losing the closure of being able to send Nimona out into the world, where it could change kids’ lives.” Nimona was reportedly 75% complete before the cancelation and would have been the first feature-length Disney movie to openly feature a same-sex love story.

‘Nimona’s Queer Romance Made Disney Executives Uncomfortable

Eugene Lee Yang as Ambrosius Goldenlion in Nimona
Image via Netflix

These queer elements, primarily a kiss and love declaration between Ballister and Ambrosius, reportedly attracted pushback from Disney executives before Blue Sky’s shuttering. According to three former Blue Sky staff members, “Blue Sky leadership felt enough pressure in this meeting to leave the kiss out of future presentations to Disney, despite hoping to ultimately include it in the film.” One of the former employees cited, in his words, “a weird atmosphere at the studio that diverged from his experience up to that point, especially among LGBTQ+ staffers.”

The anonymous employees shared their experiences during the backlash against former Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s response to Florida’s repugnant “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Unfortunately, these backwards, oppressive, and repressive attitudes align with alleged statements from Pixar, a long-time Disney subsidiary. The open letter from employees includes statements such as: “We at Pixar have personally witnessed beautiful stories, full of diverse characters, come back from Disney corporate reviews shaved down to crumbs of what they once were…we are being barred from creating [LGBTQIA+ content].”

‘Nimona’s Creative Survival Is a Win We Needed

Roughly one year after Disney closed Blue Sky studios and all but ensured Nimona‘s end, Annapurna Pictures picked up the project for a Netflix release. Nick Bruno and Troy Quane took over directing duties from Patrick Osbourne, and the finished product stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Nimona, Riz Ahmed as Ballister, and Eugene Lee Yang as Ambrosius. Nimona finally made its Netflix debut on June 30 following a June 14 premiere at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. (Not too shabby!)

Nimona‘s phoenix-like resurrection from the ashes is a situation that deserves celebration from the LGBTQIA+ community, fans, and the animation industry. A massive studio tossing out original projects from diverse voices is devastating to queer creators and not too dissimilar from streaming services purging shows in the name of capitalism. For ND Stevenson and the Blue Sky employees working on Nimona, the film was both their passion and their livelihood. Taking away positive queer representation, especially in a story aimed at young adults, is incredibly dangerous — as equally dangerous as removing LGBTQIA+ creators’ jobs and limiting their ability to distribute non-IP material. If Nimona‘s glowing success as a graphic novel wasn’t enough to keep faith in the project, Stevenson already had a celebrated Netflix hit with She-Ra — and his work was still shuttered.

In a perfect world, stories like Nimona would be the standard. As one of the Blue Sky staffers shared with Business Insider, “When the biggest entertainment company in the world creates content for children and systematically censors queer content, they are pushing queer children to dark places.” This kind of inexcusable erasure must always be addressed, no matter the size of the studio responsible. Nimona reaching the finish line despite adversity might seem small in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a triumphant and desperately necessary win.

Nimona is available to stream on Netflix.

Watch on Netflix





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