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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iKipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts /iis still one of TV’s most imaginative adventure stories
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Perhaps one of the most interesting facts about Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts is that prior to its inception, creator Radford Sechrist was aiming for a story that resembled The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones. Thankfully, the end result, modeled after the creator’s webcomic, pivots greatly from those far drearier properties, giving viewers a vividly fun, post-apocalyptic dreamscape, relegating it to a class unto itself. DreamWorks’ Kipo offers hope, compassion, and something altogether new to the fantasy world, while injecting enough classic adventure throughout to satiate even the most faithful follower of the genre.

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In a weird, futuristic universe where an adorable Border Collie may very well be 40 feet tall, Kipo Oak (She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power’s Karen Fukuhara) is a relentlessly chipper teenager who lives in a burrow community with a majority of the surviving human population. When her home is ransacked by an invading mute—that is, a mutated animal, which can range in size and ability—she is swept away from the relative safety of her underground abode and forced to the surface. Suddenly Kipo must learn how to traverse the surface world, an unpredictable environment where she can get devoured by a Mega Bunny just as easily as she could run into a swarm of Dubstep Bees (you know, regular bees that happen to wear skinny black jeans and enjoy house music).

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In its first season, Kipo followed the titular character, a beacon of positivity, in her effort to reunite with her community in between encounters with groups of fantastical beasts that, like the Dubstep Bees, shine in their specificity. With the help of her fellow survivors-turned-found family—fellow humans Benson (Coy Stewart) and Wolf (Sydney Mikayla), constantly regenerating mutated beetle Dave (Deon Cole), and four-eyed blue pig Mandu (Dee Bradley Baker)—Kipo discovers her people, only to find that her father, Lio (Sterling K. Brown), has been captured by a dangerously power-hungry mandrill named Scarlemagne (Dan Stevens), who aims to rule the human population on the path to total domination.

Season two moves the adventure forward, from learning the beats of the fairly unknown surface world to a more focused mission of recovering Lio and saving the human and mute races from Scarlemagne. Fortunately, streamlining the story does nothing to diminish the show’s signature whimsy. As Kipo begins to uncover multiple mysteries (including one that quite literally exists within her own body as she realizes that she is part mute), she learns more about the complexities of the long-maligned surface world and the creatures that inhabit it. Such heavy doses of reality might have a dimming affect on similarly bright figures of positivity. For Kipo, growing with this knowledge seemingly strengthens her resolve to seek common ground with every being she meets, further confirming that Kipo is a show that leads with empathy, even during the moments when she must fight.

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This season, returning fans will also witness Kipo and her friends uncover her startling connections to both Scarlemagne and Mega Monkey, the destructive but amenable giant mute under Scarlemagne’s control. New, mystifying human traveler Dr. Emelia (Amy Landecker) arrives bearing additional details about Kipo’s parents that suggest that they may not have been the pristine figures she once thought they were. It’s certainly a lesson that we’ve watched protagonists learn before, as in fellow animated delight Steven Universe. Kipo manages to find a balanced angle with these revelations, carefully emphasizing the often-gray area that exists between right and wrong without shifting anyone into newly villainous territory.

As this universe expands, it’s clear that the collective imagination of Kipo’s animators and storytellers is tough to beat. It’s very hard to top the “packs” that were introduced in season one, such as the feline, ax-wielding lumberjack-like Timbercats or the turtleneck-wearing, cosmos-obsessed Newton Wolves. Though this season doesn’t quite have a moment that compares to Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA rapping about the constellations, it still manages to insert new beasts and fresh perspectives while recalling a few favorites.

Of course, it’s easy to wish for a few more new faces, as the previous round of episodes brought so much color-splashed wonder to the screen. But as the main mission to hunt down Scarlemagne commands more of our focus, there’s less wandering and more of a straightforward pursuit, which means less pleasantly surprising run-ins this time around. That’s not automatically a negative thing, but a testament to Sechrist and co.’s addictive world-building, and probably something to keep in mind while setting appropriate expectations. The soundtrack that made this series such a standout in its nascence still reigns supreme, thanks to the eclectic sensibilities and leadership of composer Daniel Rojas.

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Kipo also continues to benefit from the expertly deployed writing bolstered by stellar performances. Fukuhara’s warm and passionate delivery pairs well with Mikayla’s protective bite and Stewart’s engaging zen, while Cole’s Dave brings the same comedic levity and (to the delight of the less squeamish), even more horror-like body metamorphosis than before. As Scarlemagne’s backstory reveals unexpectedly devastating developments, Stevens successfully brings a more nuanced, oddly human essence to the wicked mandrill. Landecker also proves to be a welcome addition to the fray as her chillingly composed resolve proves that sometimes the greatest monsters hide in plain sight.

In many ways, Kipo remains as surprising as it was when it first premiered in January, shirking overused tropes by digging into the underlying humanity of each and every character, human or otherwise. When stories leave such a strongly positive first impression, there’s always the risk of not meeting already-high expectations. In its second season, Kipo establishes itself as more than a one-off slice of amusement, a contender for one of the best, most imaginative modern cartoons in the current landscape.

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