I recently finished watching the final season of the new Netflix reboot “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power“. I never watched the original, so I have nothing to compare it with, but I really enjoyed it. So permit me to gush out why.
🛡 Spoilers, obviously
I initially dismissed She-Ra when Netflix released the first season for a few reasons – It was a reboot of a show from a time when cartoons were basically long toy adverts, and the promotional art for the show was incredibly pink and at the time didn’t speak to me.
But I really like animation, and DreamWorks certainly have a pedigree in producing decent films, so I eventually gave it a shot. I am incredibly glad I did. A few minutes in to the first episode and I had made my mind up that this was going to be a spectacular cartoon. Certainly aimed at teens, so well below my demographic, but I don’t care one iota about that. There’s nothing wrong with some escapism from reality every now and then.
Going in completely blind to the She-Ra story, I quickly realised it was going to be exactly the kind of story I love.
The first thing that really sucked me in was the premise. The show is ostensibly a Magical Girl story set in a fantasy genre. Not a bad combination, until the pretty early development that tech plays a significant role in the story. A perfect storm of Sci-Fi Fantasy.
What makes it so perfect is the fact the Sci-Fi is entirely hidden in archaeology on Eternia. The planet has evolved for millennia with only remnants of a technologically advanced civilisation to prop up an almost cult-like history of them. Add to this the fact that everyone left on the planet has grown up either with magic or is part of a military force seeking to destroy magic. I love that. I love everything about that premise.
And the story only gets crazier as the show goes on. There are constant new twists and turns. She-Ra is one of the old First Ones, She-Ra is a mantle you can inherit, the planet is stuck in a pocket dimension, the bad guys have a giant portal, the planet a the weapon.
After the story which pretty much sold itself, the art looks beautiful. The incredibly colourful Eternia next to the swathes of grey-brown invading Fright Zone. With almost, but not quite, sterile First Ones artefacts sprinkled everywhere. Everything looks alive and organic, the background artists on this show did a wonderful job. The magic, technology, and people all mesh together in a world that seems very much alive and in many cases out to get you.
The animation itself is very good. It uses a more traditional “western” 2D style animation. CG is reserved for only a few choice scenes, and it’s used well so it doesn’t look out of place. There are plenty of scenes with gigantic creatures or architecture and the animation sparks the imagination well into getting a sense of scale. Magical Girl shows always have a transformation scene, and She-Ra properly delivers on that promise.
As this is a reboot, a lot of the same characters are rebooted from the original, with new looks. I have seen a couple of shots of the old characters in comparison, and I really much prefer the new ones. They now look a lot more… normal for lack of a better word. Which kind of helps make their individual quirks and abilities more unique.
When watching I really get the impression that the character artists had a lot of fun while drawing up the designs. This really shows on the rare occasion that a character gets a temporary costume change. I mentioned the colourful environments, and the character designs are no exception to that rule.
The ability to go further than real life is one of the strengths of animation, and the production team made full use of that on this show.
The background music and general sound design is a joy to listen to. There’s a really wide range of tracks – from the upbeat banging op, to atmospheric and emotional background themes, to the charged battle sequences. Consistently underpinning all this is She-Ra’s audible identity. It perfectly sounds off the visual design.
It’s this kind of visual and audible art that makes me wish I could create something this inventive and fantastic.
The writing is good. It, being aimed at younger audiences, does not have strong language, excessive violence or gore. Yet those limits don’t reduce the impact of the story.
There is plenty of twisting and turning, double crossing every which way. The show usually makes no effort to try and hide these elements for a later reveal. This might be due to a number of reasons – the audience, the fact it’s streamed on a platform which likes to promote binge watching, but I reckon the show could have gotten more impact had it managed to hide certain parts – such as Double Trouble’s infiltration – till a bit later.
She-Ra is a funny show. The humour comes from lots of places: comedic timing and slapstick (Kyle is a real punching bag), one-liners, to the characters’ ridiculous traits (Adora spends a whole episode mispronouncing words). The levity next to some of the more sombre parts really stand out (A perfect example in the most recent season where Frosta introduces herself to Catra quite violently).
The story has a mix of more light-hearted storylines and more serious ones, all of them have a lot of action. There aren’t a whole lot of “Slice of life” episodes, with every episode contributing something to the main storyline. This leaves you wanting more. Not to say that the show lacks fanservice. The season 2 episode “Roll with it” is purely humour and one of the ones that comes closest to a true SoL, and is full of fun which is clearly aimed at fans.
As it progresses, the story gets a lot more tense, and throughout watching the show I got a feeling that it really could have ended well or badly for She-Ra and the rebellion. This is in spite of the “kids show” nature, which tends to favour ending on a good note. The invading horde really steps up the villain factor in the final season, with the brainwashing cult really overshadowing the Horde from earlier seasons. The final run of episodes from when Adora loses the sword and her powers to the finale is very emotional, which makes the perhaps inevitable happy ending much more fun.
With constantly evolving characters, the story never seems to stall. Be it Glimmer’s sudden rise in power leading to her ruin, Shadow Weavers tactics leaving you never quite sure if she can be trusted, or the constant fight between Adora and Catra over what is a very complicated and long lived relationship. Props to the voice actors on this show. They really sell the characters and give them an extra dimension, especially in difficult times.
The characters all have a relevant role to play (excepting the star trio that appeared randomly in one episode of the final season, only to never be seen again outside of a few frames of exposition). This gives them all a chance to both shine and show their demons – a flawed character is a much more enjoyable one. There is a moment towards the end of season 4 where you come to realise that many of the characters are neither good nor bad, and everyone is simply thrust into a grey position. Bow, usually bright and chirpy, must deal with his friends falling apart. You feel sorry for the Horde soldiers you’ve come to know, who can’t seem to catch any kind of break. Seeing the characters grow and overcome all their difficulties, some of their own invention, is a real journey.
Adora frequently comes up against issues of fate and what it means to forge your own path. I can relate a lot to feeling stressed about these more existential anxieties. I think it is important to cover those kinds of topic in media and cartoons make a nice outlet for that given they are somewhat detached from reality. I know that other cartoons reference such issues quite often but more often than not it is played for laughs, which isn’t helpful in promoting tackling difficulties.
The show really pushes the limits on LGBTQ+ in cartoons. It is very openly gay and takes a very positive approach to all relationships, regardless of “orientation”. Props to the creator for actually managing to do this, it’s nice to see a push for more of this kind of storytelling – not just having gay characters for the sake of it but embedding them in a world which doesn’t make anything of it, in some cases making it central to the story’s progression. Even ignoring the queer aspect of relationships, any story which bothers to make a point about *the power of friendship* instead of being doom and gloom gets a plus from me.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a Sci-Fi/Fantasy mashup with an inventive world and a colourful cast. This show is a definite recommendation for anyone, young or old, who likes cartoons and stories about growth and magic.
You can stream it on Netflix.
(All Images included © whoever owns the She-Ra IP right now, I claim fair use under the guise of critic.)