By Barry Neenan
It’s 2018. The world is dark and we are all very tired. There’s no shame in wanting something fluffy to watch, which is what initially motivated me to check out Netflix’s new cartoon, Hilda. But the show, which I turned to for its apparent simplicity, soon had me impressed at the artistic depth on display.
Based on graphic novels of the same name, Hilda tells the story of a spirited young woman who has grown up in the wilderness, alone except for her mother Johanna and her pet deer-fox, Twig. Important sidebar: Twig is one of the cutest creatures I have ever goddamn seen. I’m talking the same weight class as Pikachu. There is a talented designer here using their powers for good.
After a mishap I won’t spoil because it made me laugh very, very hard – which itself is a useful data point for a review – Hilda must leave the wilderness and adjust to city life. She finds the change exasperating, but has soon befriended two other children, the overachieving Frieda and the lovably inept David.
So far, so fluffy. But under the familiar patterns of weekly adventures and childhood morals lies some impressive writing. And it’s all the more impressive considering that this pleasant surprise does nothing to impinge the welcoming atmosphere. This is not an Edgy Kid’s Show, luring in its audience with the intent to sucker punch them. It’s just able to deliver child-friendly content that is, y’know, smart.
Folklore enthusiasts will find much to love here. The show is populated with clever takes on mythical creatures, both familiar and obscure. Elves, for instance, mostly fit the mould of small, invisible villagers (not the other common interpretation of statuesque vegans). The twist: they love paperwork. Elvish society is entirely predicated on filling out forms in triplicate, and Alfur, Hilda’s otherwise lovely elf companion, will frequently insist she should never make a promise without signing a waiver establishing terms and conditions. It’s a simple twist, but it breathes a lot of life into the concept. And that approach is abundant through the show.
What particularly impressed me was the deconstruction of character archetypes. Hilda does what the vastly different Rick & Morty managed in its own first season; disguising itself as a mostly episodic series before unexpectedly springing consequences back on the characters and audience. Not to give too much away, but the now-familiar triad of ‘Brave Kid, Smart Kid, Ron’ popularised by Harry Potter gets a hearty poke with a stick. Again, not so much that kids will feel alienated, but certainly more than I was expecting.
The animation is also definitely worth noting, demonstrating crisp, clear colours and a handy command of atmosphere. The character designs are solid – and in many cases, such as Twig, adorable – and every newly-introduced creature immediately adds to the world. Better yet, the animation is unafraid to go all in when the moment calls for it. It’s something to behold in of itself, and during the course of viewing made me swear out loud more than once. (I enjoy children’s media responsibly.)
As a penultimate note, I have to admit I was also personally won over by the show’s welcome glorification of libraries. Whenever Hilda and friends are stumped by a problem, the library – and the enigmatic goth lady working the shelves – never fails to provide the answers they need. Indeed, the conflict of one episode arises when Hilda didn’t consult the library well enough, and began innocently acting on some very poor research. (“Never, ever ignore a footnote!” Alfur chides, rightfully). Lessons on how to navigate friendships and life changes will never be obsolete, but lessons about the proper way to conduct research? That’s modern, intelligent, and very necessary. Hilda isn’t just harmless entertainment. I feel like children would come out of this series actually a little bit smarter.
In short, Hilda is a show that knows what it’s doing. With characters who are flawed yet likeable on adventures that are classic yet new, it shows a deft hand throughout. If you enjoy the wholesomeness of Steven Universe or the pine-scented mysteries of Gravity Falls, Hilda comes highly recommended. Between its strong characters, beautiful animation, and vibrant world, we’re definitely looking at a new star in the constellation of Children’s Shows So Critically Acclaimed You Can Definitely Get Away With Watching Them (or CSSCAYCDGAWWT for shortsies). Once it rolls around, I’ll definitely be tuning into the second season for more adventure, British accents, and aggressive befriending of woodland spirits.
Oh, and the theme song was done by Grimes, which may mean something to people who actually follow the music scene beyond reading disapproving memes about Elon Musk.
Colourful kid’s series with sharp writing under its soft veneer