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Over the past couple of years, DreamWorks has been putting out thoughtful and ambitious new children's animation, raising the bar for shows that challenge younger audiences with more complex narratives. The studio's 2016 reboot of Voltron and 2018 reboot of She-Ra both took initially simplistic premises designed mostly to sell toys and developed them out into emotionally engaging narratives that captured audiences with their characters' depth of motivations.
Recently, DreamWorks released the first season of a brand-new animated show called Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts on Netflix that feels very much aimed at appealing to that same sort of audience. While only in its first season, what has been released so far suggests a similar level of quality to the studio's adaptations of older properties.
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts follows the story of the titular Kipo, a young girl who has lived her whole life in an underground human settlement. While we don't have firm answers about why this is, we do know that humanity once lived above the surface, but some kind of event caused animals to mutate, gaining more humanoid forms and intelligence levels, and pushing humanity underground. When Kipo is unexpectedly separated from her family, she has to journey across the surface, exploring a world where humanity is on the back foot, and learning about the life that has flourished in our absence.
While topside, Kipo journeys alongside surface dwellers Wolf, a cautious and vicious hunter who has largely survived alone; Benson, a charmingly optimistic human survivor; his best friend Dave, a mutated fly that ages in cycles at an accelerated rate; and Mandu, a cute mutant pig. All of these characters have their own emotionally resonant stories taking place through the show's first season, but I want to zero in on one of my favorite character dynamics the show presents, that between Kipo and Benson.
When Kipo and Benson first meet, their relationship is pretty unanimously one-sided. Kipo is innocent and naive to the goings-on up on the surface, Benson sees an easy meal ticket, and the pair start off their relationship clashing and distrusting each other but staying together primarily out of necessity. As the pair adventure together, their relationship grows gradually, becoming less a matter of convenience and more one built out of enjoyment of each other's company. The two are adventurous, optimistic, hopeful, and share very similar senses of humor. They clearly grow to really care about each other's presence in their lives, and they start to spend more and more time together, away from other members of the team. The two characters clearly feel very deeply about the other being safe and happy.
Now, in most shows aimed at children, this kind of narrative pacing between two characters, particularly a male character and a female character, would be leading up to an eventual romantic subplot. I mean, honestly the same can probably be said for media aimed at adult audiences, too. Maybe it'll be dragged out with tension for a while, but usually, in TV and film, that's where these kinds of signals are heading. In fact, I've been so personally conditioned to expect heterosexual romance to pop up in media, I was totally fooled when an episode of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts sent Benson and Kipo off alone to explore a rat-based theme park on the surface together.
Kipo and Benson take a boat ride together down a quiet river, laughing at jokes and looking at each other for prolonged amounts of time while music plays between them. They continue to explore the park in joyful camaraderie. Finally, they head for a Ferris wheel, riding it up to the top, looking out over a beautiful city of lights. The music gets slow, Kipo keeps wistfully staring at Benson with lovey-dovey eyes. They stop right at the top, under a bright pink moon, as Benson mentions how nice it has been to have some time for the two of them to just be together, alone. The moment is perfect, and Kipo blurts out that she has romantic feelings for Benson.
What surprised me, however, was how the scene played out from that point forward. Benson tactfully explains that he really really likes Kupo, and loves spending time with her, but doesn't see her in that same romantic way. Not because there's anything wrong with her, but because he's gay.
Living in the year 2020, it really shouldn't be a surprise when a show for children has a character who explicitly and simply tells people they are gay, but that is the reality of the world we live in right now. Too many animated children's shows will dance around character sexuality, showing characters in love but being afraid to explicitly use the word "gay." There are shows like Steven Universe, where two female characters get married, but they're technically agender space rocks whose gender can be altered in foreign dubs, and other shows that heavily imply queer pairings but leave them just vague enough to be deniable, like The Legend of Korra ending with two female characters walking off together hand in hand, but for a character to simply say that they are gay is still rare enough to catch me off guard when it happens. Getting to see a young person of color come out as gay in an animated show for kids is an all-too-rare occurrence. A main character, no less, not some background character thrown into a single episode or background shot.
Importantly, however, Benson's moment of coming out isn't made into a huge deal, but it also isn't completely ignored by the characters around him. Kipo gets embarrassed that she misread his friendship as romantic, but makes it clear she's supportive of her friend. She very quickly thanks Benson for being himself, gives him a big hug, and tells him that she's really glad they have the amazing friendship that they have. She quickly pivots her romantic feelings into an appreciation of their friendship, acknowledges his identity, and the two go on being just as close and supportive as they had been before. It doesn't change anything about the relationship between them.
While the season could totally have ended Benson's coming out there, quickly and plainly stated and supported, the show also doesn't shy away from displaying Benson as getting to have romantic feelings on screen, something made all the more powerful by the fact his orientation has been made properly clear. Toward the end of the first season, Benson bumps into a young boy, dropping his cassette player in the process. The two lock eyes as they stand back up, with the screen turning pink, and a song playing with lyrics explicitly referencing falling in love with someone. The boy recognizes the artist he's got in his cassette player, the two hit it off, and leave the scene excitedly talking music. Again, this shouldn't be a shocker, but you'd be amazed how rare it is to see a gay character in animated children's media get to actually fall for people along their journey.
Benson is a charmingly developed character, and one of my favorite parts of an opening season that generally hit it out of the park. Getting to see a romantic subplot within the main cast shut down early on in such a tactful way gives me hope that the show's creators are aware of genre tropes, and how to avoid them, which has me all the more excited for the plot moving forward. Hopefully one day a children's show doing a quick tasteful direct coming-out scene, and letting a Black teen boy fall for another boy on screen, won't be a rare noteworthy occurrence — but until then, the fact that this exists within Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is one more reason to love and support the show.