They had me at the Mod Frogs.
Attired in tailored suits, with skinny ties, pointy shoes, pencil moustaches, and all as green as Kermit — these stylish, savvy, human-sized “mute” mafiosi are just the tip of the allegorical iceberg that is the Dreamworks animated series “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.”
The Mod Frogs are also — like most of the anthropomorphic mutant animals that populate this post-human landscape — organized, and generally hostile to other species, including any homo sapiens who have survived the mysterious catastrophe that has shattered civilization.
And what a Day-Glo apocalypse this is. The colors are neon-bright; the ruined cities a playful yet haunted landscape of convenience stores, thrift shops and SoCal fashion boutiques; and the mutations gleefully haywire and pointedly absurd comments on just how strangely beautiful, but tragically alienated, our own contemporary society really is.
There are Newton wolves, who hunt in packs, wear turtlenecks and idolize Carl Sagan; outsize arthropods that run chi-chi brunch spots down by the waterfront; flannel-clad, axe-toting timbercats; K-Pop narwhals(!); a giant tardigrade colony named Mulholland that takes you inside your dreams; and daikaiju-scale megabunnies and megamonkeys whose very footsteps make the Earth shake.
Oh, and dubstep bees, who emit strobe lights and butt-rattling bass bombs, and who are, of course, ruled by a queen who is both fabulous and fierce.
At the center of the action is Kipo Oak, a violet-eyed, pink-skinned, biracial “burrow girl” who is washed to the surface after a flood sweeps through her hidden, underground enclave following an attack by a mega-sized mutant.
A precocious 13-year-old, Kipo has a hyperactive sense of wonder, strums the acoustic guitar, and, like Luz Noceda of The Owl House, is buoyant in the face of a bizarrely dangerous landscape that is also vividly beautiful.
Her pluck and youthful determination are the moral compass for the series, and steer the proceedings away from what could too easily, and merely, be a dark, Gamma World future of desolation, desperate struggle and dire endings.
But for Kipo. She can’t keep her hands off any cute animal she finds (even if it has four eyes and six legs), and she inevitably charms any sentient mutant peril she comes across. She’s fiercely optimistic, deeply loyal, and determined to find her way home, save her friends and family, and solve the mysteries of a strange, skewed, but wonderful world.
She’s also full of surprises and secrets, many of which she is entirely unaware of, and which roll out seamlessly over the course of the show’s three seasons.
Though she’s the narrative center of the series, Kipo is also a foil for the world’s trauma and alienation, manifested in a compelling ensemble cast of uniquely memorable characters.
Wolf, an orphan girl living by her wits, skill and ferocity in the wilds of the mutated surface world, grudgingly rescues a hapless Kipo in the opening moments of s1e1, and is constantly exasperated by her new companion’s clueless naïveté. Yet over time she grows into an ardent partisan for this weirdo chick who finds something redemptive in even the worst specimens of human, and post-human, sentience.
Mandu, a mutant pig and Kipo’s first friend on the surface, is pretty much the Lassie of the series, nuff sed.
Benson, who, like Wolf, is an entirely human surface-world survivor, but not nearly so feral, is a street-smart kid with a bomb collection of electro and disco mix tapes, and a taste for pre-apocalyptic soda pop, both of which he rescues from the wreckage of civilization. His best friend, Dave, is an immortal, trash-talking mutant beetle who constantly cycles through insectoid life stages, from larval to geriatric, moulting stickly (and inconveniently) along the way
There are also villains, of course, although the role doesn’t always stick, given Kipo’s earnestly beguiling charm, but one baddie of particular note is the power-hungry, foppish, and definitely insane mandrill Scarlemagne, a virtuoso Baroque keyboardist who aspires to the role of Emperor, and exerts frightening control over a growing army of human slaves
Yet there’s more to this particular primate than meets the eye. He comes with an ultimately tragic character arc, and remains a pivotal figure across all three seasons.
Scarlemagne is also a bonanza of visual style, with a fashion and architectural sense that can only be described as Versailles Gothic.
This dazzling sense of style is a hallmark of the whole series. “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts” is a gem of audio and visual production. The music and sound design is sparkling, and the art direction is stellar. There’s real delight in this mishmash world of bright colors and preposterous proportions, all set amid the colossal ruins of a world we know so well.
It’s easily one of the best post-apocalyptic adventures you’ll see on screens large and small, and, with its ultimately positive message, is a refreshing alternative to all the grimdark folderol cluttering up the streaming services.
From the LGBTQ-affirming romances to the gaga-spectacle of a gargantuan mega-corgi capering through a meadow in the cheekily titled season 1 closer “Beyond the Valley of the Dogs,” we fell hard for Kipo. Her wild and wonderful tale is a treasure for kids and adults alike.