Much has been written about Amazon’s Pilot Season, particularly its live-action slate–and with good reason, judging from potentially great new shows like The Man in the High Castle. As for the animated fare, critics have been criminally silent–possibly with good reason, judging from titles like The Stinky & Dirty Show. But their first mistake is lumping those shows together with Niko and the Sword of Light. (Their second mistake is probably assuming that animation has nothing new to offer.)
Niko started out as a carefully crafted motion comic. Actually, it started as a labor of love by a group of storyboard artists, concept designers, and animators from several high profile studios. But thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Niko’s journey can now be purchased and experienced on iPads everywhere. These adventures follow the last human boy as he seeks to rid his savage land of the darkness that’s consumed it. With the help of a sword (of light, naturally) and a strange host of creatures he meets along the way, Niko braves countless enemies and discovers more mysteries about his past.
Admittedly, it’s not the most original idea. There are elements of Star Wars, The Neverending Story, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and countless other reference materials. But to be fair, none of these ever broke new ground in storytelling. They’re all works that stand on the shoulders of archetypes; yet it’s the presentation that makes each one worthwhile. The same can be said for Niko. The animated comic medium is an interesting novelty. Really, it’s been done before, though arguably never as cinematically as this. Which is why this story truly deserves to be fully animated on a big screen. Fortunately, Amazon spared no expense on the pilot.
No long-running cartoon on television has exhibited this level of quality. It’s especially surprising because hand-drawn 2D animation has been largely replaced by CGI and flash animation on TV. The characters move much more like Disney’s Renaissance features (The Lion King, Mulan) or even anime than anything on Cartoon Network. This raises the question whether Amazon could sustain such quality for an entire season. The answer, of course, is yes, but only if it devoted a budget to Niko that’s comparable to a live-action series. Which it wouldn’t.
Niko‘s spectacular aesthetic services an even more spectacular art direction. Their team of talented concept artists has fashioned a detailed, eerie, fantastical world. There’s no telling what Niko will see around the next corner, nor who he’ll meet. The possibilities are limitless as the show introduces talking creatures that resemble earthly animals, just enough to inspire wonder in any kid who likes to play outside. Fortunately, Niko himself is a lovable character, with a hilariously poor sense of direction. He has a passion for his quest that rivals Finn’s of Adventure Time, yet his self-seriousness gives him a harder edge.
In many ways, Niko resembles a darker version of Adventure Time, but mainly in the sense that Niko faces more real danger than Finn does. Rest assured, this isn’t cartoons according to Christopher Nolan; it maintains a vocation for lighthearted fun. But it does break the recent mold of shows like Spongebob Squarepants, Adventure Time, and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack that play up their weirdness for weirdness’ sake. This show harkens to a time when weirdness signaled danger and corruption, like Alice going deeper into Wonderland, or Jennifer Connelly into the Labyrinth. With any luck, Amazon will see the value in joining Niko down the rabbit hole, whether audiences discover the pilot or not. Otherwise, we’ll just have to make due with a damn good animated comic.