There’s something irresistibly charming about good animated children’s fantasy. Free from the limitations of practical production, creators are able to create bright netherworlds and distinct art styles that appeal to the eyes of children and adults alike. Plus, they lack a veneer of cynical hyper-awareness that so many animated adult shows create to justify their use of the medium. Without it, these series have room to play with common archetypes and broad thematic strokes outside of 21st century context — all without shutting out young fans in the process.
DreamWorks’ “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” manages to pull off this duality wonderfully, even with the added pressure of updating its predecessor for 2018. The character of Adora/She-Ra (originally portrayed by Melendy Britt) was rolled out in 1985 as a “girl version” of the wildly popular “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.” After years of tight commercial regulation, toy company Mattel was able to package He-Man and his toy box posse into a moralistic cartoon tie-in — its success later spawned “She-Ra: Princess of Power.”
Like her twin brother, He-Man, Adora was a royal with a magic sword that allowed her to transform into a mythical heroine to fight baddies. However, this also meant that she existed solely in relation to him and his Mary Sue-esque market appeal — where He-Man was comically muscular and indestructible, She-Ra was voluptuous and coyly self-assured.
The new “She-Ra” showrunner, Noelle Stevenson wasn’t even born when Adora first waged battle within the planet of Etheria. And maybe it’s the 26-year-old’s fresh vision of the original that allows the reboot to breathe so well on its own.
In Stevenson’s story, Adora is still a skilled warrior who defects from the colonialist “Evil Horde” that raised her in order to recruit other princesses with the help of her alter ego. Where the first She-Ra was presented as an alluringly confident superhero, the new one (Aimee Carerro from “Elena of Avalor”) is a scrappy teenage orphan dealing with anxiety and self-doubt after her discovery of She-Ra turns her life upside down.
Even as Adora dedicates herself to reforming the “Princess Alliance” and fighting the Horde with her new friends Glimmer (Karen Fukuhara) and Bow (Marcus Scribner), she’s forced to reckon with loss — especially of the deep bond she shared with her ex-best friend Catra (AJ Michalka), who is tasked with bringing her back to the Horde.
Adora, Glimmer and Bow’s mission inevitably takes them across Etheria and into the various lands in which the other princesses reside. Apart from keeping the first season’s 13 episodes distinct and fresh, these forays also give the show’s artists a chance to shine. In order to update the ‘80s characters’ monogamous, Barbie-inspired appearances, Stevenson hand-picked several young illustrators that she admired.
The result is an overwhelmingly-female ensemble of characters that come in all shapes, sizes, colors and ages — the dry-humored mermaid Mermista (“Crazy Ex Girlfriend” star Vella Lovell) and eclectic inventor Entrapta (Christine Woods) are standouts. As is often the case when a beloved franchise resurfaces, “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” received backlash from male fans of the ‘80s cartoon when the designs first surfaced.
But in an era where so much hay has been made about how media’s idealized depictions of women affect children, an operatic fantasy devoid of gender expectations and the male gaze still feels exhilaratingly different. This is also important to note given that only 25 percent of animation creatives are women. It doesn’t hurt that this matriarchal world also results in one of the loveliest reverse-Bechdel Test failures since “Orphan Black.”
Following in the footsteps of shows like “Steven Universe” and “The Legend of Korra,” “She-Ra” also imbues its pop-fantasy glitz with underlying queerness. While the show’s title might revolve around She-Ra and her fellow princesses, the rich exploration of Adora and Catra’s friends-to-enemies dynamic is the heart that propels the first season.
There is tangible tension and longing behind the raw, childhood friendship that underscores their conflict — in one scene, Catra pulls Adora close and dips her while wearing a scarlet suit! And no one instinctively reaches for their casual friend’s hand all the time!
Apart from a pair of girlfriends (one of whom is voiced by Sandra Oh), “She-Ra” has been refreshingly free of explicit romantic plotlines thus far. However, Stevenson has noted in interviews that, like her previous work, the series will build on “explicitly LGBT themes.” Well hello, future Catra redemption arc — let’s celebrate that!
The care that the “She-Ra” team puts into balancing fantastical innocence and emotionally-demanding arcs is ultimately what saves the show from becoming an inconsistent cartoon littered with garish ploys for kids’ attention. I mean, we’re living in a world where everyone who sat through “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” less than a year ago is now eligible for veteran discounts!
But whether the characters of “She-Ra” are staving off a Horde attack or attending a mandatory princess prom — such is life — the strong voice-acting and warm wit of the series’ scripts make the world of the show believably immersive nonetheless. The resolution of the first season feels unfortunately predictable, but if Stevenson’s lush vision of Adora’s universe is any indication, she’s just getting started.