If you are older than a tween, Netflix’s latest animated special, The Last Kids on Earth, is probably not for you.
This isn’t a knock on the project, which is adapted from showrunner Max Brallier’s graphic novel series of the same name. It’s just that, between things like Voltron: Legendary Defender, She-Ra, The Dragon Prince and Carmen Sandiego, Netflix has started to make a reputation for itself of producing “kids” animation with the range to appeal to adult audiences, while at the same time other original series like Big Mouth and Everything Sucks have drawn those same adult audiences in with all the awkward, uncertain, fearful reaching for adulthood their middle school settings so gleefully foster. The Last Kids on Earth, despite being a slickly animated comedy about quasi-hormonal suburban 13-year-olds who find themselves caught up in the middle of an inexplicable zombie+monster apocalypse, belongs to neither of these categories. It is instead fully a kids show, focused to a near fault on its preteen audience. That doesn’t make it bad (I said near fault), it just makes it something teen and adult Netflix animation fans get to feel zero guilt skipping when it pops up in their New Releases queue.
That bit of service journalism out of the way, here is what are you signing the kids in your life up for when you leave them alone with The Last Kids on Earth: 67 minutes of broad, (mostly) anodyne end-of-days action comedy featuring Nick Wolfhard, Charles Demers, Garland Whitt and Montse Hernandez as Jack, Dirk, Quint and June, seemingly the last humans left standing in their boring town of Wakefield after a slime-green vortex opens in the sky above the planet and spits out both giganto monsters and a fast-acting zombie virus that almost instantaneously takes out Wakefield’s entire population. Jack, an orphan whose latest foster family skips town the moment they see the vortex appear (abandoning him to the questionable safety of his foster brother’s lightly fortified treehouse), spends the first 40-odd days of the monster apocalypse fending for himself, playing videogames, and binging junk food. That is, whenever he’s not lounging around the yard vlogging his apocalypse story or fighting his way past monsters and zombies in the streets just to procure the basic necessities for survival. He is a pretty resilient kid, inventing his own book of “feats” to compete as a post-apocalyptic hero to make his situation not feel so dire, but he does have two things keeping him going: The fact that he and his best friend, Quint, made a plan to find each other again after they split up to hide on Day 1, and the fact that he saw his longtime crush, June, escape into the relative safety of the school before the zombies could get her, making her a potential damsel Jack could perform a post-apocalyptic feat to save.
Outdated gender/dating politics notwithstanding—which, from the Goodreads reviews, it seems like the Netflix version managed to iron out some of the more ickily objectifying elements Jack’s crush has in the original series—this is a perfectly serviceable monster apocalypse story setup. The principal hero has both a backstory and motivations that make sense, and a narrative arc that is dead easy to follow. When the supporting characters finally make their way into Jack’s story, it turns out that they all have similarly solid, if sleighter, motivations of their own. The zombies are whatever, but the giganto monsters are all interesting and dynamic. There’s nothing particularly clever about any of it, but aside from the fact that all the monsters call to mind the aggressively weirdo monster vibes of Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and the fact that Jack and his ragtag band of basics (+1 unexpected blue monster pet) read like a diet version of Phineas and Ferb’s gang of genius oddballs, there’s no reason it should be. It’s all fine. It’s not, like, great, but it’s fine. And in the end, June disabuses Jack of all notions of damsel-saving, and the four kids save the world—well, their treehouse—together, with remarkably negligible blood and gore. It’s fine.
This perfect fineness extends to the animation, where the most distinctive elements of The Last Kids on Earth—which otherwise reads as a sturdier, less distinctly stylized Kim Possible—are its occasional shifts into completely different visual styles (videogame graphics, screen-printed posters, camcorder footage, etc.), and its almost distractingly obsessive tracking of light sources from scene to scene. This latter element leaves the characters constantly seeming like they’re performing in some regional theatrical production of their own lives while lit from odd overhead angles by an overzealous number of PAR lamps, but it also has the added effect of highlighting the visual depth of the apocalyptic world the kids are fighting their way through just to survive. The Wakefield of Netflix’s The Last Kids on Earth is fully realized along the x-, y-, AND z-axes of the screen, which is both pretty cool, and extra useful for hiding potential monster and/or zombie traps in plain sight.
Ultimately, this “Book 1” Last Kids on Earth special seems to hew pretty closely to the first book of Brallier’s original graphic novel series, which should excite anyone who’s already a fan of the series, reader or parent, alike, as the the not-quite-a-movie hour ends on a To be continued… cliffhanger that promises more of the same to come. And that promise isn’t empty—according to Netflix, what that cliffhanger sets up is a real forthcoming series (date TBD) that will take on the next chapter of Brallier’s original story, and will feature a voice cast that includes Mark Hamill, Rosario Dawson, Catherine O’Hara, Bruce Campbell and Keith David. And you know what? That all sounds fine, just fine.
The Last Kids on Earth (“Book 1”) is streaming on Netflix now.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.