Children’s literature, which this reporter maintains must include visual as well as text media, has always had a weird streak.
It’s tempting to cite “Adventure Time” as a recent trendsetter — the bizarro Cartoon Network kid’s series has, with its surreal visuals, engaging characters and loopy storylines, spawned a myriad spinoff books and comics, and set the stage for likeminded animations aimed at younger viewers.
Yet the weird roots run deep. The surrealist dreamscapes of Windsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland” ran in the New York Herald way back in 1905 clear to 1922. Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books, in 1865 and 1871, took their eponymous heroine through a series of beautiful but disorientingly hostile lands. L. Frank Baum’s Oz series included the aggressively strange Wheelers, who have wheels instead of hands and feet, and Princess Langwidere, with her collection of detachable heads, both from 1907’s “Ozma of Oz.”
We shall hereby add to this distinguished lineage Disney’s “The Owl House,” a hilarious, goofy, and rather heartfelt animated series that takes big storytelling risks with its unabashedly absurd conceits, then succeeds in pulling it all together through compelling character arcs, intriguing plotlines, and emotional relationships full of, well, verisimilitude.
It bears repeating, also, that it’s weird stuff. The animation swerves wildly between surreal and grotesque, but also beautiful. Its setting — the Boiling Isles, a verdant but demon-infested archipelago that has accreted around the gigantic decayed corpse of a dead titan — is gorgeously rendered. Fairy-tale hills, forests, cities and castles nestle on and around towering rib cages, mountainous knees, a colossal horned skull, and suchlike skeletal remains. Nice stars and sunsets, too.
Show creator Dana Terrace, whose previous work for Disney includes storyboarding for “Gravity Falls” and directing the “Duck Tales” reboot in 2017, has claimed influences as disparate as Hieronymus Bosch and Pokémon. These aesthetics both come through in the visual invention of the series; the abundance of interesting, strange and indeed disquieting critters; and the show’s dyadic atmosphere, which is at once lighthearted and full of lurking dread.
Terrace also riled up the religious right with her commitment to representing a budding emotional relationship between same-sex peers Amity Blight, a Boiling Isles schoolkid, and the show’s protagonist, Luz Noceda, who is apparently Disney’s first bisexual character.
Luz (whose sunny, can-do disposition puts her in the same league as Kipo Oak, from the similarly wonderful and weird DreamWorks animation “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts”) is a dewy-eyed, Dominican-American tween. An outworlder, she stumbles into the Boiling Isles by means of a magical portal (natch) en route to dreary summer-school detention camp on our boring old Earthly plane.
Unsafely ensconced in this weird new world, she falls in with Eda “The Owl Lady” Clawthorne, a powerful, sarcastically insouciant witch with a side business running a flea-market stall pedaling busted, cast-off gadgets and gizmos from our world.
Eda is a comic delight, a feminist archetype and a slacker icon with a bad attitude about her demon-realm’s uptight social mores. She’s also packing a dark secret, a bitter sororal rivalry, and a pint-sized pet demon named King whose quest for word domination is continually undermined by his extreme cuteness.
They all live together sitcom-style in the Owl House of the title, which is kind of like Baba Yaga’s hut done as a post-collegiate crash pad. Its namesake demon, a gleefully unhinged wooden owl head named Hooty that’s affixed to the front door, has absolutely no sense of boundaries or shame, and is, when necessary, a scarily powerful house guardian.
One wonders, upon watching the first two episodes, whether this near-dada mélange of animated madness can gel into a story, or will inevitably fall apart under the weight of its own absurdity. I am happy to report that it is entirely the former case. “The Owl House” is a treasure of 21st century television. It’s treat to watch, especially in the company of smart kids and their game parents.
*** Here be minor spoilers ***
Without giving anything major away, here are the salient plot points: Luz wants to learn how to be a witch, but humans can’t use magic; Eda agrees to teach her, while Luz figures out some workarounds, and yearns to earn a seat at a school of magic called Hexside.
Yep, there is a school of magic, and it’s a suitably freaked-out Hogwarts parody (example: “The Choosy Hat,” which could sort you into your coven, except that it would eat your head). The scholastic setting opens the door for greater plot continuity through the development of emotionally real relationships over the course of the school year. Plus hijinks.
There’s also an excellent anti-establishment subplot. Hornéd baddie Emperor Belos has declared that every Hexside student must join a coven (plants, beast-keeping, abominations, potions, etc.).
The catch? No one can practice magic outside of their coven. The Emperor claims it’s magical law, but he’s really just hoarding power.
Eda’s refusal to join a coven got her expelled from Hexside, and made her a wanted woman. She’s got a price on her head, and her blithe disregard for authority throughout the show’s first season delivers both dramatic tension and comedy gold.
The series’s improbable premise — a coming-of-age comedy set in an animated Hieronymus Bosch painting — is, in the hands of Dana Terrance, a storytelling pleasure and a visual feast.
Stay tuned: Whether you binge season one, or take it in at a more leisurely pace, “The Owl House,” which debuted on Disney+ this January, had its second season confirmed before the show even hit the streams.