You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Holy shit. As movies go, I’ve seen a lot of good ones, but I have never had an official favorite because I am extraordinarily picky and there is always something that low-key ruins it for me, even in the movies I love. Usually the ruination factor comes from fights between the protagonist and their friends/significant others, which tend to make me very uncomfortable for reasons that don’t particularly matter at this moment. Thus, I have never had a good answer to the classic office ice-breaker question, but, as of June 30, I am prepared to answer all the ice-breaker questions. Nimona is my favorite movie of all time, and you cannot convince me that this is not the greatest movie I have ever seen. I am saying that right now to establish the tone of this review, because if you need to be bitter about this movie this is not the place for you. If you hated Nimona or disagree with me on the quality of the movie, that is completely fine. (But also, you are dead to me. :D) It’s just that this is going to be more of a self-indulgent fangirl session than an objective review.
Once upon a time in a far-away kingdom (or kingdumb? IYKYK), there lived a lonely shapeshifter named Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz). She tried to make friends with the local wildlife, but they all rejected her because
animals are assholes her unique pink/red color palette always set her apart. After years of wandering, she finally stumbled across Gloreth (Karen Ryan), a little girl from a human village, and the two quickly became best friends. The shapeshifting took Gloreth by surprise, but she accepted it without too much question, and it actually augmented their friendship until the day Gloreth’s village noticed her wrestling with a large pink bear. Their fear skipped straight over anger and turned into hate when they realized Nimona was a shapeshifter, or, to use their terminology, “monster”; Gloreth’s protests were overriden, and the village mob came after Nimona with literal torches and pitchforks. They didn’t succeed in destroying her, but they did manage to burn their own village to the ground, which they naturally blamed on Nimona. Following the destruction of her home, Gloreth turned completely against Nimona and drove her back into the wilderness. She later went on to found a militaristic Institute and train an order of monster-slaying knights, because some people will literally build a whole empire around that one time they dumped their BFF.
This brings us to the present day, in which the village has turned into a walled city-state with the Institute at its center. Gloreth has now reached the level of a god, and both she and her will are frequently invoked in everyday conversation. Despite their apparent lack of contact with the outside world, the people are thriving; modern technology has taken over society, including a version of YouTube with a faintly medieval UI, and the knights of the Institute have become mega-influencers who are frequently seen participating in brand campaigns and taking selfies with adoring fans. Life is great, aside from the fact that nobody has seen the rest of the world in the last thousand years for fear of the monsters that are said to lurk right outside the city walls. (In this conceit, the monsters apparently have nothing better to do.) These monsters are completely theoretical, but the Institute has trained several generations of knights in preparation for a future massacre that so far has failed to materialize. The current graduating class includes superstar Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang), a direct descendant of Gloreth, and the extremely punchable Thoddeus “Thodd” Sureblade (Beck Bennett); and it also reluctantly includes Ballister “Bal” Boldheart (Riz Ahmed), who – unlike his classmates – is common-born.
The Institute has traditionally only accepted its cadets from the families of Gloreth’s original knights, but the reigning Queen Valerin (Lorraine Toussaint) made history when she decreed that the young Ballister should be accepted as a student. Having worked his way to the top of his class, the adult Ballister is poised for happiness: at the point that we meet him, he is about to be formally knighted as a Hero of the Realm, and he is in a relationship with Ambrosius, his best and only friend. Despite a literal millennium of prejudice and ongoing opposition, a lot of people are ready to embrace a common-born knight. His future seems assured for about five minutes, until it goes up in flames with the assassination of the queen. In a belated effort to defend the queen from the murder weapon, Ambrosius attacks Ballister, cutting off his right arm. One-armed, framed for murder, and with the whole kingdom baying for his blood, Ballister flees the Institute and finds an abandoned tower, where he makes himself a fully functioning robotic arm and broods over his innocence. He’s still brooding when Nimona turns up out of nowhere and appoints herself as his sidekick after a minimal application process, sensing in him a kindred spirit. She is disappointed when he professes to a total lack of villainy while he is both unnerved by her shapeshifting and prone to asking her microaggressive questions, but over time they settle into a comfortable camaraderie.
While Ballister runs around town with Nimona in his efforts to prove his innocence despite growing doubts over the righteousness of the Institute, the Institute Director (Frances Conroy) doubles down on the anti-monster, anti-commoner rhetoric she uses to control both the knights and the populace. Tensions simmer between the knights as Thodd volunteers to hunt Ballister down and execute him, only to find the role of Captain snatched from under his nose when Ambrosius convinces the Director that he is better equipped to find their quarry. Though he vows to bring Ballister to justice (in a presumably non-fatal way), he privately suffers from guilt over Ballister’s lopped-off arm, compounded by jealousy as Ballister is increasingly seen in Nimona’s company; and he also begins to question his own loyalties as he is constantly pulled between his belief in the Institute and his love for Ballister. Old ideas die hard, however, and, after an attempt to present him with evidence implicating the Director in the queen’s murder goes south, Ambrosius orders Ballister’s and Nimona’s arrests. Undaunted, the nominally villainous pair trick the Director into admitting that she killed the queen and framed Ballister to insulate the Institute against common-born knights, then upload footage of her confession onto the internet, where it goes mega-viral.
Faced with the prospect of her own arrest, the Director finds a thousand-year-old scroll depicting Nimona as the monster Gloreth reputedly defeated and gives it to Ambrosius, who in turn tries to convince Ballister to help him destroy Nimona. Though he insists that Nimona is his friend, Ballister’s resolve is shaken by Ambrosius’s continued affection for him as much as by his desire for a normal life, and he confronts Nimona over the scroll. Their fight quickly turns violent and ends when Ballister unthinkingly draws his sword against Nimona. Shocked and betrayed, Nimona flees just as Thodd breaks into Ballister’s hideout, having followed him from his meeting with Ambrosius. Meanwhile, Nimona makes it to the outskirts of the city and stumbles across the remains of the village well where she first met Gloreth. The placement of the well aligns with the giant statue of Gloreth that guards the Institute, an unmissable reminder that Gloreth built an entire kingdom around killing Nimona and other so-called monsters.
Abandoned by Ballister and with no one left to comfort her, Nimona loses control and turns into a Godzilla-sized creature, rampaging through the city on her way to Gloreth’s statue. Her intention seems to be to attack both the statue and the Institute, but she runs out of steam when the Elite Knights hit her with a barrage of missiles, and she instead tries to impale herself upon the statue’s sword. Horrified at the hurt he has caused, Ballister arrives in time to stop her. Though they quickly reconcile, the Director orders her knights to fire a wall-mounted, apparently nuclear-level gun at Nimona. Ambrosius refuses, knowing that the gun will destroy half the city and that Gloreth’s “monsters” were never truly a threat to the kingdom’s way of life, but the Director attacks him and the other knights with the same device she used to kill the queen, then fires the gun herself. In a final act of defiance, Nimona takes the shape of a giant phoenix and flies straight into the barrel of the gun. The resulting explosion kills the Director and takes out a large chunk of the kingdom’s outer wall, revealing a serene landscape beyond.
In the aftermath of the battle, Ballister reconciles with Ambrosius, and they rekindle their relationship. Nimona is presumed dead, but, in her absence, she and Ballister have both become heroes. With the Director gone, the city has created a tribute wall, on which citizens – including even Thodd, who appears to have had a significant change of heart – post drawings and notes in rememberance of Nimona. The damaged wall has been repaired, but not completely rebuilt: a gap was added to the redesign, and the kingdom now engages in regular trade with the outside world. At the very end, Ballister returns to his tower and begins to clean it up, but is almost immediately interrupted when Nimona finally returns. (As a quick side note: while I do sliiiiiiiiightly wish that Nimona hadn’t had to let herself get completely destroyed in order for people to accept her, that is very much not how either history or human nature work, so I really can’t fault the movie for that.)
I have many thoughts, but let’s get the obvious out of the way. I have been an unapologetic Eugene Lee Yang stan ever since I first laid eyes on him during his Buzzfeed days. If you want me to watch your movie and say nice things about it, cast Eugene in it. I swear it works. I was That Fangirl who filled in an empty hour listening to this Nimona-themed episode of the TryPod the day before the movie was released. With that said, I don’t feel my personal bias has colored my judgment of this movie. It is a superbly crafted story; there is literally nothing I don’t like about it. The writing, the music, the art, the acting, the humor, the emotion, all of it is spot-on. I wasn’t quite expecting the emotional heft of it: it’s usually Pixar that wreaks havoc on my emotions, but I’ve seen this movie seven times now and I always cry when Nimona gets to the well. I mentioned earlier that I struggle with movies that feature fights between the protagonists and their friends, which is pretty much every movie, but for some reason I have no trouble with the falling-out between Ballister and Nimona. Even if I’m not entirely onboard with this persistent idea that humans will automatically and vehemently reject people with supernatural powers – I mean, if I ever met Nimona face-to-face, my first question would be “How can I become a shapeshifter” – I love the way the movie handled her relationship with Ballister and just the general structure of this world, and I love that it took about half the time of the average modern movie. Sorry, but I’m really over the concept of a 2.5-hour movie.
I will admit that I had my doubts the first time I saw Nimona take out the Director’s gun, but I should not have. I was so ready to be so angry that Nimona had to sacrifice herself for the sake of a cityful of stupid people who hated her until she gave them her literal existence, and then I was so happy when she came back. (I feel like I should have had more faith in ND Stevenson, the author of the original comic and a co-producer on the film, but I’ve been betrayed enough times that my initial doubts seemed fairly reasonable at the time. That being said, I’m getting a real Iron Giant vibe from the ending, in the best way possible.) It is also tempting to be frustrated with Ballister and Ambrosius, who are – affectionately – a pair of weathervanes in some respects; however, that would go beyond what I think is reasonable to expect in that timeframe from two people who have been indoctrinated from birth to label anything different as a “monster.” I absolutely want to kick Ballister every time he angrily accuses Nimona of destroying Gloreth’s village, and if I were there in the movie with him I would probably do it. But in the end he makes the right decision, and I like to think that he is still learning and growing. I do feel that his reconciliation with Nimona was a little too quick and neat; yet even that doesn’t bother me the way it might in other movies because all Nimona really wants is someone who sees her and loves her exactly as she is.
And, though it’s more of a subtle detail than a formal talking point, I like that Nimona quietly debunks the idea that perfection can be found in a society without racism or homophobia. I have always thought that, humans being humans, something else would show up to take the place of both, and Nimona agrees: race is never mentioned and Ballister’s relationship with Ambrosius openly flourishes without raising eyebrows, but there is a lot of prejudice based on class and species. As with the real world, it is pervasive and self-perpetuating, and it has the effect of pitting everyone against each other. There are proudly bigoted idiots like Thodd, who mocks Ballister’s background every chance he gets, but his attitude is quietly echoed by the Director, who – even while pretending to accept Ballister as a knight of the Institute – shames the highborn knights by accusing them of behaving like “common children.” Yet even with this treatment, Ballister still occupies a space of relative privilege, which he unintentionally weaponizes when he tries to shame Nimona into behaving more like a human while in the same breath professing his own open-mindedness. It’s so well done.
In summation, this is the most perfect movie I have ever seen, and I will die on this hill. While I wish Thodd had got punched in the face just once, this is more of a nice-to-have than a formal requirement, and he did crash into a digital poster of his own face, which I suppose somewhat counts. Taken just at face value, the movie is sweet and heartwarming and funny as hell, and I love it so much that I caved and bought the graphic novel even though I normally don’t go for graphic novels. As an allegory for queerness and othering and humanity’s well-documented habit of creating its own worst nightmares, it is sharp and incisive, a primal scream packaged into a 99-minute movie. As someone who is generally considered strange and often off-putting, as someone who has struggled to make lasting connections and has lost a best friend specifically because of whatever it is that puts people off, as someone who suffers from multiple mental illnesses and is borderline queer (I remain uncertain of my exact classification; there are differing schools of thought), I feel every second of Nimona’s journey, up to and including her raw, visceral meltdown. I think the world should consider itself extremely fortunate that I do not have the ability to turn into a Godzilla-sized creature made of smoke. I’m still holding out on a slight hope that I will eventually learn how to shapeshift, but, until I do, I suppose I have no choice but to watch the movie again and let Nimona do all the shapeshifting for me.