Despite its Far-Flung Sci-Fi Setting, WondLa Is Overly Familiar

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Despite its Far-Flung Sci-Fi Setting, WondLa Is Overly Familiar

Over the last few decades, Pixar has built an empire, and although there have been signs of decline for some time now, the studio’s ongoing success and ability to still put out great pictures places them in a position many are eager to emulate. Among numerous others jockeying for this position, Skydance Media also clearly wants a slice of that pie, as evidenced by them scooping up Pixar’s key contributor John Lasseter (specifically, after he left the company following allegations of sexual misconduct) and investing hundreds of millions into their new studio, Skydance Animation.

While this outfit has only put out a single feature film so far, the somewhat unenthusiastically received Luck, they’ve got quite a few projects on the way, including several more movies and their first TV show, WondLa, which is coming to Apple TV+ later this week. At least visually, this seven-episode series demonstrates much of the previously mentioned investment through impressive animation and colorful vistas that convey the strange jungles and abandoned cityscapes of this far-flung Earth. However, although it looks the part, weak character writing and a general inability to get across more than platitudes result in a narrative that falls short of its lofty sci-fi aspirations.

This story begins with the birth of Eva (Jeanine Mason), a girl raised alone in a sterile underground complex that looks lifted from THX 1138. For the first decade and a half of her life, she’s brought up by Muthr (Teri Hatcher), a maternal robot who tells her bits and pieces about the outside world. From heavily sanitized instructional holograms, it’s implied that things went wrong above ground generations ago, resulting in the creation of underground bunkers that would eventually create and raise a generation of children for the repopulation of Earth in the distant future (you’ll be forgiven if this reminds you of another sci-fi series that came out a few months ago).

However, as Eva approaches her sixteenth birthday, a monstrous intruder infiltrates the settlement, forcing her to flee. On the surface, things are much different than she expected—the Earth she learned about in school has transformed into an unrecognizable landscape filled with alien flora and fauna, including intelligent life forms who don’t seem to take kindly to homo sapiens. From here, Eva sets off to find a place called “WondLa,” where she thinks she’ll finally find other humans.

Out of the gate, this series boasts a slick introduction with a lot of promise. Eva’s first 16 years are presented via a snappy combination of montages and sequence shots that glide us through her early life, while offering just enough room for pathos as she understandably longs to escape the overly familiar confines of this bunker. Day after day, the educational program she’s subject to, which features a somewhat unsettling hyper-cute mascot, reiterates that her “real family” of fellow humans is waiting for her on the surface and that her robot guardian doesn’t count as kin due to an absence of flesh and blood.

Much like her, it’s easy for us as the audience to buzz with curiosity and questions about the outside world: what’s out there? Why was Eva raised alone? Is this really Earth, given all the strange creatures? Are there any humans left besides her? But while it plants plenty of encouraging seeds, the show largely fails to nurture them until its last moments.

Part of the problem is that the middle stretch of this tale is dragged down by a cast of characters that feel as artificial as the sterile bunker that Eva grows up in. Although our protagonist, an overeager teen, creates some fun moments, the larger cast comes across like archetypes: there’s Muthr, an overbearing mom, Rovender (Gary Anthony Williams), who, despite being a blue alien with hooves, fits neatly into the sad widower dad trope, and Otto (Brad Garrett), an adorable animal sidekick. While this trio is made up of a robot and two aliens, one of which is basically a giant tardigrade, they manage to be uninteresting for the majority of the series as they play out all of the obligatory scenes you would expect from those in their roles: the sad dad saying the equivalent of “you’re not my real daughter” to the surrogate child, check; animal mascot getting hurt in a very sad and pathetic way, check; the mom getting into it with the kid due to their overprotective streak, check.

On top of this, the other people this group encounters during their trek are even more one-dimensional, such as Besteel (Chiké Okonkwo), a six-armed hunter chasing them to the ends of the Earth, or the silly royals they meet in the capital. There’s nothing wrong with a mustache-twirling adversary or two—this is TV, after all—but it is an issue when nearly every figure comes across this way, and the only upside is that everyone pronounces human as if they are Ferengi (hoo-man), which is admittedly pretty amusing. It also doesn’t help that, structurally, this barely feels like a TV show, and the three-ish hour runtime makes it doubly hard to shake the sense that this is a sliced-up film, which hurts the pacing of the middle stretch.

If you’re a sci-fi nerd like myself, you may also be disappointed that this far-flung society feels as flat as these characters. While many entries in the genre bring an obsessive anthropological lens to the proceedings, fleshing out complex cultures and histories, this show fails to accomplish this. I haven’t read WondLa’s source material, but the adaptation doesn’t make this space seem particularly lively or “real,” and provides too few moments with the denizens of this empire. It is empty in a way that comes across more like a budgetary restriction than an intentional creative choice. On the other end of the spectrum, they could have taken things in a fantasy-tinged direction by making this setting an unknowable world governed by quasi-magical laws, which it flirts with but fails to fully commit to.

But while its characterization and worldbuilding don’t bring us into this backdrop, thankfully, its visuals are more successful. Jungles and undergrowth are filled with unfamiliar vegetation and critters, from walking plants to massive insects, all of which are united by the pastels of its cohesive color scheme. Skydance has clearly put a lot of manpower into this one, and this comes across in technically impressive 3D animation that would pass as film quality. If I have a reservation here, it’s that the direction doesn’t give us enough time to luxuriate in space (where’s my obligatory shot of some big herbivore eating a leaf or something?) as we’re whisked from one locale to the next so Eva can reach her goal as fast as possible. Another smaller issue is that the alien designs are held back by the overarching cutesiness of the art style, limiting the possibility of seeing any unsettling or truly out-there sights.

Perhaps the biggest saving grace here though is that the story bounces back a bit in the last act, as it finally conjures the found-family undercurrents it’s been building towards. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but the climactic episode is sound thanks to melancholy revelations and heroic acts that play on Eva’s obsession with finding fellow humans at any cost. Here, it also riffs on some interesting ideas, like how our protagonist is treated as an I Am Legend­-style pariah due to being part of the species that seemingly destroyed the planet. This idea could have used more space to breathe, but it is a cool angle.

However, despite this capable sendoff, even this relatively successful final episode doesn’t compensate for WondLa’s shortcomings. I was aware that this show is mostly directed at a younger audience, and so I didn’t go in expecting the truly out-there appeal of Scavenger’s Reign or the obsessive worldbuilding of Frank Herbert, for instance. But these kinds of restrictions haven’t held back plenty of sci-fi tales like Wall-E, The Iron Giant, or, you know, Star Wars, which take familiar concepts and inject them with nuance and creativity that blasts past the guardrails of children’s programming.

The fundamental issue with this series is that, unlike those stories, its setting and characters largely feel devoid of originality, charm, and wit. Even well-rendered animation can’t save it from a nagging familiarity compared to dozens of other family-friendly films and shows hitting identical plot beats. This story may take place so far in the future that Earth is almost unrecognizable, but its boilerplate narrative and stock characters give a nagging sense of déjà vu.

WondLa premieres Friday, June 28th on Apple TV+. 

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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