Kipo and the (p)art of war

This all-ages Netflix cartoon is smarter about mortal conflict than most generals

Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a remarkable cartoon. It’s the most sophisticated storytelling that has captured my 7 year olds’ imaginations — I think in part because its intense moments are presented so that kids (and adults) absorb the emotional impact without enduring gratuitous violence.

The music is rich and fun and often really good — the scene that pairs Dope Saint Jude’s “Grrrl Like” with Wolf taunting the pack to save her friends is inspired. But the story also creates its own memorable, original tunes, including the catchy-sweet: “we may not have sunshine, or starlight or weather, but we have each other, and that’s even better…” which reminds me a bit of “Moon River”: a silly little nothing thrown into a movie that ends up becoming a real song.

The story also has a fantastic sense of humor: surly Teenage Dave, Mulholland’s hat, the shouty-caps bonding between Zane and Label. And just fantastic characters…

Benson is of course the stand-out because of the beautifully healthy way his sexuality is revealed and handled throughout — low key awesome. But my kids cried, cried for Yumyan Hammerpaw. I mean, they WEPT. (I may have had a similar reaction.) Oh, and don’t forget the wonderbeasts! From the mega-corgi to the two-headed pigeon scourge Beakbeak, this is an amazing world.

But I’m most impressed by how well this cartoon story handles the thorny question of conflict, how deeply this story understands that it’s easy to escalate and difficult to resolve. How the whole plot eventually turns on one extraordinary person — Kipo — who is able to midwife a good world from a dystopia by refusing to give in to fear and hate and doing things everyone else thinks are nuts: especially trusting enemies, standing up for right in the face of danger, and singing bad karaoke in the mega-scorpion side of town.

Every aggression in the story can be traced back to a cause, and most of those causes can be addressed through turns of plot. The glaring exception is [ major spoiler alert, seriously stop now if you don’t want to know ] the ultimate antagonist, Emilia, whose rage can never be calmed because it’s true object is herself: she murdered her brother to prove her father right (or to prevent her dad from being proved wrong). How could she ever forgive the mutes for making her do that?

Of course, the mutes didn’t make her kill her brother. The mutes were just friendly to him, leading him to realize that their father’s anti-mute hate was not based in fact. She couldn’t let her brother bring that “doubt” back to the lab. The lie which is her whole life and mind is too fragile — the truth is an existential threat. As soon as Kipo’s parents climbed out of the burrow and saw the vast and amazing world of the surface, they decided they would not do anything to harm this magnificent place, and essentially became lab-saboteurs. We see here how, while in one heart (like Emilia’s), the hatred of the “offensive other” is existential, most others just kind of accept what most people seem to believe, and the hatred of mutants is therefore actually fragile. It must be wrapped in layers of lies, and the other humans kept burrowed and blind, ignorant of the facts of the surface world, so that they will go along with it.

Emilia was more dedicated to her father’s cause — the ideology — than her father’s (and her own) genetic line — the biology. Which is interesting given their anti-mutation dedication to genes. In other words, the unmutated idea of unmutated humanity was more important to her than the actual unmurdered continuing human life of her brother.

The meme outcompeted the gene.

No, the mutes didn’t make her kill her brother, but their kindness created the inevitability: if her brother stopped believing that all mutes are bad, that would threaten her core sense of reality, her core sense of self, and she cares more about herself than anything else. She can’t forgive herself for what she did, because she can’t even really blame herself, all she can do is double down and double down again. Her only “defense” against what she did is agressive war against the mutes, until all of them are brought down, squealing and mindless, under human control.

For Emilia to be willing to make peace in the shadow of her own actions, she would have to face and accept the wrongness of what she had done. I’m not sure she could do that in 100 years with Fun Gus. In other words, even Hell can’t save her.

Emilia’s story is the age-old story of escalation and war. She wants things to be back the way “they used to be” when humans ruled the surface; she wants to wipe her enemy from the face of the Earth; she will lie to the other humans, she will kill her own brother, and she’ll even betray her own impulses towards "purity” by becoming one of them, if only temporarily, in an attempt to defeat them. This also shows how she sees the essense of mutant being as a mere tactical advantage, one that she can put on and take off — wrongly, as it turns out.

But before that, there’s a moment: an important moment when Emilia has hurt so many of Kipo’s mute friends so badly that Kipo, always positive, always loving, always-finding-a-way-towards-peace Kipo, seems driven to finally use her mutant powers to destroy. By this point in the story, we know that if Kipo gives in to this rage, it will destroy her. And everyone who knows her knows this too: they’ll do and say and try anything to get her to stop and calm down. This is where we learn (by seeming almost random accident!) how Benson and Dave the immortal bug became friends: 200 years earlier, Dave was one of the initial instigators of a petty battle of over a small “resource” — a hand-held electric fan (later dubbed lil’ breezy).

This escalates into all-out total warfare: ALL the Daves and an army of fan-loving humans kill each other off, one by one, destroying all of Las Vistas along the way (that was mostly Dave’s fault), until all that’s left (aside from that very resilient and still very desireable fan!) is young Benson and ancient Dave — the last surviving member of one side, and the instigator of the conflict on the other. How do they become best friends? What creates peace between the two sides? It doesn’t happen quickly. But evenutally, in a state of mutual need, they are both forced to humble themselves a little. Moments of vulnerability lead to repeated forgiveness. The war becomes a dance, the duel becomes verbal, the offenses become more jokes than attacks, more pranks than traps, and underlying every joke or prank is the fondness that forms between two people who really do have each other’s back when it’s needed most.

After hearing this story, Kipo reaches Emilia and the humans who still follow her, still believe in her cause, and unexpectedly, she doesn’t kill or destroy. Dave’s story made her realize something: “you can’t end a war by fighting it.”

And she invites them to P.R.A.H.M. — “Party Reconciling All Humans & Mutes” — Which is part of the story’s humor, but it’s also part of its truth.

Even quoting her, your mouth might try to say “you can’t win a war…” in which case the statement no longer makes sense. And we want to say “win” — it’s habit. That’s why the reframing is so essential, because it points out that wars are not really won, they’re ended. So long as the war is ongoing, tragedies multiply. At its end, one side may be utterly defeated, but the so-called “winners” have lost whole parts of themselves in the course of events too. When the war ends, everyone has to find a way to put their lives back together, with whatever parts that are left. However that’s going to happen, it’ll probably involve something like PRAHM.

I see parallels in so many real-world conflicts, from domestic political extremism to actual warfare. Fighting is by definition the perpetuation of conflict; ergo “fighting” cannot “end” war. If you want to “win” as a way of ending war, you imagine the total obliteration of your “enemy” — but that’s not typically how it goes. Even when you think you’ve won, the “other” is still there, in some form. The end of a war requires all parties to be reconciled to a new future in which they are not fighting. How do we get there? Imagination… the risk of trust… the careful aligning of interests… and a willingness to work together against the “dead-enders” — what Emilia eventually becomes — who keep fighting no matter what. None of this is easy. The coalition(s) that Kipo works so hard to form fall apart again and again, and rebuilding them is often harder than building them in the first place was. That leap of faith gets longer when you’ve been burned before.

As many have pointed out across human history, we treat war as an active thing, and peace as the mere “absense of war.” What this story really gets, and really well-portrays, is that war is a default state of selfishness and chaos, that war is actually the absense of peace, and that peace is an active thing, a complex thing, something that must be worked for, something that requires effort and planning, and individual growth. I could have written this entire essay about Wolf — Wolf is probably the most entrancing character in the story for me. Her complete and believable transformation from episode one to the story’s conclusion is a parallel to the transformation of this world. She suffered the ultimate betrayal when she was young and vulnerable; she is a survivor, she has no hopes or illusions. But Kipo shows her a strange glimmer of another possible world.

I feel like Kipo shows the audience another possible world too. If we drop any pretense of “winning” our conflicts and set about trying to end them, we can build a better future. Our losses don’t return to us: Yumyan Hammerpaw, as we knew him, is gone, if still much-loved. Scarlemegne — Hugo — can be neither forgotten nor returned to life. Yet there is beauty in these small scraps of possibility: a former gangster steers a megabunny bus; Benson opens his restaurant; the casualties of war are loved, remembered, Wolf’s corgi has puppies, and now she has her own pack, one she will protect and never betray, as she was.

And somewhere in the depths of the lab she sprang from, Emilia is imprisoned by Fun Gus, the only character whose toddler-like ego is bigger than hers — a kind of justice.