By Barry Neenan
Thank god for Netflix. For a while there, I was running dangerously low on animated shows starring spirited young women, but the studios within the Netflix empire have been working tirelessly to ensure I’m never bereft. A few months back we had Hilda, I’m currently watching Carmen Sandiego, and I’ve just now caught up on She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
Let’s cut straight to it. Far be it from me to cast doubt on the quality of something I’ve never actually watched, but, uh: I can tell in my bones that this is a lot better than the 80s version, produced on a budget which would barely fund one trip to MacDonalds. The character design here really pops, in contrast to Classic She-Ra, where everyone had to share the same character model like a shipwrecked crew shares the last flask of whiskey.
Indeed, the most questionable aspects of this show are inescapable holdovers from the older series. Take the character names, for instance. Some efforts have been made to polish existing names.She-Ra’s suspiciously similar rival, Cat-Ra, is now her nuanced rival slash sibling figure slash potential love interest Catra. Emphasising where the T hits the R goes a surprisingly long way in making it sound like a real name. Not so with the bow-wielding hero, who is named neither Bo nor Beau, but Bow. Just… bow.
And yet, much of the creativity on display is the creators’ ability to work with what they were given. You would think having pre-existing characters would make things easier, but it actually runs the risk of impeding the show by bogging it down in lore most viewers would be too young to even be aware of. I’m pleased to say that rather than retreading old territory, or burning everything down to start completely afresh, She-Ra manages to reinvent old characters and bring them in fun, unexpected new directions. The villainous Scorpia, a towering woman with nightmarish claw hands, introduces herself as “a hugger 🙂”. Seahawk is now a serial arsonist. Swiftwind the horse is a communist revolutionary. These all sound like jokes but I wish I could come up with material like this.
In short, this reboot brings a much needed sense of renewal and savvy to what was a very old-school cartoon. But it does this without becoming cynical. To circle back to Bow, I think he provides a good case study of the local brand of wholesomeness. The man is a labrador. He’s kind and polite and energetic, and despite the monsters and evil armies he fights on a weekly basis, it’s clear his deepest fear is being a bad friend. And it works! I like him! Whenever one of the adults expresses affection for him I’m sitting there nodding along! There’s a softness here that isn’t cloying, a sweetness that isn’t saccharine. This is a world that, for its drama and genuine stakes, has a core kindness.
And then, of course, there’s Catra. Those who know me will be unsurprised that I took quickly to the morally questionable cat person. But Catra isn’t just memorable for purring at the prospect of driving a tank – in a very real way, I’d say she’s the heart of the show.
Steven Universe recently framed an invasive empire through the lens of an abusive family, which didn’t quite land for everyone. On a practical level, I’d note that one problem is that this element of the narrative arrived very late, leaving little room to explore it. She-Ra does something very similar, but does it from the beginning. The dynamics between Adora, Catra and Shadow Weaver are legitimately fascinating, and make for a much more nuanced and complex approach than this kind of story is typically afforded. There’s a Catra moment late in the season that made me swear out loud. It’s dark and unpredictable and I am very much here for it.
By and large, I’d say character is the show’s strongest aspect. I was going to say that it outshines the plot, which begins is with some neat twists before settling into a series of easy done-in-one adventures. Until it doesn’t.
Our protagonist, who I have somehow only vaguely mentioned until now, starts life as a soldier of the Evil Horde. (Per the aforementioned name-tweaking, it turns out only other people call them that.) Adora is strong and focused because she has been raised from infancy in a military setting. It’s reminiscent of Finn from Star Wars, but with several notable differences. Among them, Adora was unaware of just how bloodthirsty the Horde is, leading to some heavy soul-searching as she reconciles her childhood with the atrocities her pseudo-family has committed.
After finding the magic sword of She-Ra and falling ass-backwards into the rebel alliance, Adora and her new friends must travel to various kingdoms (princessdoms?) to unite the Princesses, young women with incredible powers but easily fractured resolve. The first half of the season mostly concerns itself with introducing these characters, but that accomplished, the remaining episodes dovetail nicely into an extended arc. They’re equally enjoyable taken together, or approached a day at a time – Netflix pacing at its best.
Overall, I just appreciate the attention to detail here. I’m always pleased, for instance, whenever a group of faceless minions – an ‘evil horde’, if you will – has at least a few women sprinkled in among the rank and file. She-Ra goes a step further, covering all three genders: men, women, and lizardpeople, the latter having their scaly ears and tail poking out of their armour. At long last, the representation we need.
The critique of art is a tricky business. I have no formal training in the practice, and even if I did, I doubt a critic can ever truly distance themselves from their subjective tastes. So I suppose it’s worth clarifying: I like this show because it hits a lot of the specific tropes I adore. The final arc of this season, where characters begin to learn just how the world of Etheria operates, is exactly my kind of thing. There’s an undeniable talent on display here with regards to things like the revamped character designs, but the writing caught my interest on a more personal level.
This is the most succinct review I can give. In the first episode – as part of a routine, very straight-faced mission briefing – a Horde commander hits the audience with the phrase “queen of the princesses”.
Queen. Of the princesses.
If you have any, uh, qualms with that phrase, this show might not be for you. But personally, my brain completely reset for a second, and then I declared “I like it!” And I like this show. Here’s to the upcoming Season 2.
Colourful, humourous and surprisingly nuanced reinvention of oldschool classic