Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur reminds me of Jake Long: American Dragon. Despite releasing years apart, both shows focus on young heroes with the utmost potential who find themselves far out of their depth. We watch as they take on villains and dilemmas that not only serve in their pursuit to become a better person, but the tight-knit community in which they exist. There is a focus on individuality, culture, and politics that supersedes the intended audience, yet never treats them as lesser while delivering nuanced and valuable life lessons.
American Dragon hasn’t aged incredibly well, having only run for two seasons and often reliant on cliched orientalist imagery and super cringe street lingo that was unfortunately more common in the early 2000s. Yet much of its DNA persists in Moon Girl, and from just three episodes, it has already delivered a poignantly timely comic book adventure with stunning animation and unflinching resolve to address issues that continue to impact modern day Black communities. Lunella Lafayette is a small town hero in all the ways that matter.
Growing up smart isn’t easy, even more so when your family is too occupied with keeping the lights on to notice. Lunella is the smartest girl in New York’s Lower East Side, making a habit of outshining even the adults in her life as her grades soar and she spends time below her rustic apartment in a secret lab toiling away on experiments. Such isolation leads to few friends though, and even fewer ways to help out her struggling family when sudden power cuts and continued gentrification mean her father’s roller rink has to close up shop for good.
The extended opening episode takes its time fleshing out a colourful, modern picture of New York City, brought to life through vibrant and rhythmic animation work that isn’t afraid to be unorthodox in its framing or unusually lifelike in how it depicts the layout and design of specific buildings and characters. Executive producers Laurence Fishburne and Steve Loter have been outspoken about creating a world that is equally realistic and stylised, resulting in a diverse representation of our own with distinct political messaging etched throughout each minute detail. This might be a show about a young genius and a red dinosaur she summons through an interdimensional portal, but it’s also one about questioning your place in society and the importance of standing up for the little guy.
The opening and closing scenes of Moon Girl’s first episode parallel her growth. In each she rollerblades through the streets with confidence, waving hello to local business owners and family members preparing for the day ahead. Except in one she is a naive yet lovable child, one oblivious to her community’s emergent struggles and how outside powers are tearing a once prosperous place apart in service of their own progress. In the second, she’s become Moon Girl, having saved her community from economic devastation by wiping out a villain who is a greedy, privileged White person draining the electrical energy from a more deprived area. It isn’t subtle, and not once is it ever trying to be. This show exists in a post-Black Lives Matter world and wants to take a stand, and it does so without ever leaving humour or heart behind.
While it isn’t a part of the MCU, this branding gives Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur a lot of budget to play around with, a quality that is consistently evident on screen. Characters can often be seen gliding about the place, which in other shows would be a sign of mediocrity, but here it informs how pulled from a comic book this universe is, frequently toying with an eclectic selection of panels and positioning to execute bombastic action scenes and basic conversations. It really pops, possessing an attitude I wish Disney was far more willing to embrace when it comes to properties like this. A smaller hero like Moon Girl likely afforded more freedom to its execution, and to see her so culturally relevant in almost every facet brings a smile to my face. The music, visuals, and writing all slap pretty damn hard here.
The three episodes I was given access to ahead of release jump across the series and featured a mixture of classic character introductions and more specific themes. Lunella feeling shame for her hair and how it’s perceived by others is especially strong in how it tackles racial prejudice and the insecurities POC can associate with their unique appearance and how it’s perceived by the whiter world. She is taught to be proud of her heritage and who she is, turning apparent weaknesses into strengths whenever such an opportunity arises. Lunella remains flawed in ways young viewers can empathise with, all while coming to learn about a cultural landscape they might otherwise be ignorant to. The Lafayette family spans generations and features authority figures who are all fleshed out in their own ways, adding a familial warmth to even passing bits of dialogue.
Lunella’s relationship with supporting character Casey is lovingly presented too. The nerd with amazing grades and scene girl with a love for social media and fashionable looks are historically treated as bitter enemies, but here they become fast friends and learn to help each other in ways that come across as earned in spite of how quickly they’re introduced. Both need somewhere to belong, even if that sanctuary awaits beneath the shadow of a giant dinosaur hiding out in the nearby roller rink. It’s cute, and subverts clichés in ways I hope teaches audiences how everyone is different and dealing with their own vices, and that how they were raised or what they’re into shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss them.
Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur is off to a strong start. Given the talent behind it, I’m not surprised, but after tearing into three episodes I’m smitten with its stylish yet modern rendition of NYC, empathetic characters, killer music, and a clear desire to touch on themes that really matter. With any luck, it will keep on delivering.
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