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SYFY WIRE opinion

Hidden Netflix Gems: Hilda's kind heart is like Adventure Time meets Miyazaki

By Brian Silliman
Hilda (Netflix)

If you are endlessly scrolling through Netflix looking for something to temporarily make you feel good about the world, then I have the perfect show for you. The animated series Hilda, adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Luke Pearson, is a show that has received a modicum of critical attention since it hit the queues — fans continue to love it online, critics love it, and various awards wanted to be friends with it. It won the 46th Annie Award for Best Animated Television Production for Children and received four Daytime Emmys nominations.

Still, when I mention this show out in the wilderness while I search for giants and adventure, people look at me like I have 16 heads. I'm no stranger to this look, but still... this show demands even more attention than it is getting. Despite all of the celebration and awards, this show still feels like a hidden gem — a diamond in the rough, and the good news is that animated Jafar isn't trying to use the show to open the Cave of Wonders. It's right there on Netflix, and it's waiting for you.

First off, yes, technically this is a children's program. Second off, who cares. I understand why Netflix labels it that way, and it's definitely a great show with a vast array of powerful messages that any and all children would benefit from. That said, this really is a show for everyone. Like many great animated works, it works for children but also works on a deeper level for non-children. It has the power to remind adult-like creatures about lessons they have long since forgotten.

Comparisons are a bit tricky here because there's isn't another show quite like this one.

Hilda is sort of a less anarchic Adventure Time mixed with the extra AF whimsy of Over the Garden Wall, tossed in with a heaping spoonful of Hayao Miyazaki and a light sprinkling of Trollhunters. You could also say that it's like none of those things. The series is based on the titular character, Hilda, a young, inexorable girl who loves nothing more than going out for adventures with elves, trolls, giants, sentient onion weeds, and her loyal deerfox, Twig.

At the start of the series, Hilda and her mother live in a cabin in the wilderness — Hilda, especially, seriously enjoys this cozy life. Soon enough, she discovers that a whole colony of little elves has sprung up around their house, and she can only now see them because she's filled out the proper paperwork. She helps a lonely giant reunite with the long-lost love of his life, but that same giant accidentally puts a foot right through Hilda's house. Hilda and her mother (along with Twig, and an elf named Alfur, who yes, has filled out the necessary paperwork for travel) are off to live in the city of Trolberg. Hilda's not happy about it, but she gradually adapts.

If none of the preceding sounds appealing, then God, Jed, I don't even want to know you.

One aspect of the series that is very much appreciated is that the story slate is not wiped clean at the end of every 20-plus minute installment. Characters introduced always return, consequences remain, and things left unfinished in a previous episode will still have to be dealt with. The issue of the paperwork-loving elves persists through the first two episodes — just when you're thinking that it was a one-and-done bit, the problem comes back and changes the series' direction completely. This serialized format is fantastic, especially because it allows us to chart the growth of Hilda herself.

Hilda is a glorious force of nature and one of the best heroes in any adventure story in recent years. It probably helps that she is voiced by none other than Bella Ramsey, who stole every scene that she was featured in as Lady Lyanna Mormont in Game of Thrones. Ramsey gives a similar strength to Hilda, but the edges aren't as sharp. When Hilda decides that she's going to do the right thing, consequences be damned, then nothing will stop her. If she has to jump on a flying cat-ball and speed toward a distant mountain, so be it. Ramsey's performance here confirms what many Game of Thrones fans already believed: Ramsey is the real deal, and her future is brighter than sunshine glaring off the hood of a car in the summer.

Moving to the big city doesn't take the sense of adventure away from the series, as Hilda still manages to find trouble and face it head-on. The legends that the city itself are based on (this is a city surrounded by a giant wall to keep out dangerous things, by the way), are a lie, and Hilda has no trouble speaking truth to power.

She's assisted here when she finally, much to the relief of her mother, becomes friends with some other human beings. She meets the schedule/order-obsessed Frida, and the somewhat hapless David. This trio is bonded together in the forge of adventure fairly soon. Hilda has an opportunity to make friends before meeting them, but one of these potentials leads his posse to throw rocks at birds. Yeah, Hilda don't play that way.

Hilda and the Wood Man (Netflix)

Hilda makes great use of its serious voice talent (including Daisy Haggard, Claire Skinner, Ako Mitchell, Nina Sosanya, and more) with genuinely funny scripts. One-liners come fast and furious, and they are usually based in character. When they aren't, they're based in nonsense, which is also good. Many of the wondrous creatures that Hilda encounters (such as the Wood Man, or the giant, or the aforementioned elves) have their own weird logic, so their nonsense is just plain sense to them. It's sometimes baffling (yet appealing) to Hilda, and always irresistible to us.

It should also be noted that the animation of the show is beautiful to look at. The color palette is based in reds and blues (blue like Hilda's hair, red like her always-present boots), but it never appears drab. The designs feel interesting and new, and even when something like the look of the elves may be akin to something we've seen before (small people wearing pointy hats), the show puts a freaky spin on it.

All of this is nothing compared to the greatest strength that the show possesses. It's beautiful, it's hilarious, and it's fun as anything — but none of that compares to the show's giant heart, a heart that even the largest giant in existence would have issues holding.

Hilda is kind. So is her mother, so are her friends, and so are most of the creatures that she befriends. When she finds that she has misunderstood a creature's motives, she apologizes and makes amends. She is never cruel, and never cowardly. She is selfless in a way that most of us constantly wish we could be. Many of the messages in the show, filtered through Hilda, are of this nature.

In a world of weirdness, there is no them, there is only us.

Hilda may be animated, it may have jokes about tiny elves that you can only see when you fill out the right forms, and it may feature the occasional stone troll — but it is highly applicable. It has a benevolent wisdom that rises above the fantasy and humor.

This is a wisdom that is truly ageless. Every child should learn from it. Every adult should be reminded of it. Every human being can learn from the bravery and kindness of Hilda. May our hearts be even a trifle as bold as Hilda's is.

If you watch the first season as quickly as I did and are hungry for more, worry not — the show was renewed, and fresh episodes will be coming in 2020. Double check that you've filled out the proper forms with the elves, though, just to make sure you'll be able to watch.

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