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Netflix’s Hilda is a gorgeous, melancholy kids’ show about emotional maturity

It’s all about how it’s good to stick to your guns. But only sometimes.

Hilda and her friends (including Twig the adorable deer-fox) race through a wonderfully wild world in the Netflix series Hilda.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Read the archives here. This week: Netflix’s Hilda, whose first season is available for streaming.

Sometimes I love a TV show because I want to move into it. It depicts an alternate world just through the screen where people are kind, real estate is charming, and the world has a little touch of magic. I’m not sure a TV show can survive on setting alone, but a lovely setting can make up for a lot of what might be missing elsewhere.

At first blush, Netflix’s deeply charming kids show Hilda is a “perfect setting” kind of show. Its main character — her name is Hilda, you may be surprised to learn — lives in a version of Scandinavia by way of the master Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, etc.). She’s just hit the double digits in age, and she’s bright and inquisitive — but also deeply suspicious of most human beings that aren’t her mother. (Like so many children’s heroes, Hilda lives in a single-parent household.)

The show’s irresistible world is immediately eye-catching, but Hilda has more going on than its wistful aesthetic. It is, deep down, a show about processing some fairly complex emotional experiences.

The bulk of season one is taken up by the story of how Hilda copes after she moves from the wilderness, which is chock-full of magical creatures but not so much other kids to befriend and play with, to the city of Trollberg, which has plenty of kids and not so many magical creatures (though it does have a giant wall built to keep out trolls). But over the 13 episodes, Hilda makes friends, and comes to realize Trollberg might be just as magical as her old home. It all depends on how she looks at it.

Hilda is a winning show about how sometimes our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses

Essentially every review of Hilda — and there are too few of them! — talks about how its visual style is “Scandinavia by way of Miyazaki.” (That includes this one, of course.) Some of this might just be how strong the show’s visual influences are, and some of it might be the critical hive mind malfunctioning. But I think much of the focus on how the show feels over what the show is can be attributed to Hilda’s gentleness. Even when Hilda has adventures or meets monsters, the peril she’s in feels secondary to the opportunity it gives her to grow as a person and gain emotional maturity.

Really, then, the American cartoons Hilda has the most in common with are Cartoon Network shows like Adventure Time, Over the Garden Wall, and Steven Universe, which blend the themes and storytelling of middle-grade chapter books with a slow-growing sense of responsibility to a community. But where those shows have candy colors that pop, Hilda is more muted and bittersweet. It has the air of an older teenager looking back on her earlier self rather than a kid looking forward to what’s to come.

The Netflix show is based on a series of graphic novels by Luke Pearson, which are freely adapted for television. The showrunner is Stephanie Simpson, who has found a smart way to incorporate the graphic novels’ cast of characters (which builds slowly across the series) into much of season one of the show, while also finding magic in the mundane. And the lead performance is courtesy of Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones’ Lyanna Mormont herself!), who gives Hilda a stubborn quality that is in turns endearing and sweetly cringe-inducing.

The cringe is the real secret skill of Hilda, because at the show’s center is the idea that Hilda is a bit set in her ways and unwilling to consider other perspectives, like many a strong-willed child before her. The show’s content would be appropriate for younger children, but its emotions might prove a harder hurdle for younger kids to clear. This is a show about knowing when your stubbornness is proper because you really are doing the right thing and when it’s just getting in the way of other people because you want your way, and how hard it can be to tell the difference.

For several weeks now, Hilda has been a chill-out watch for me, after watching something more intense. It’s a cartoon you could binge, but it’s also one that always leaves me a bit melancholy when an episode is done, thinking of a world where giants lurk atop mountains and where understanding is just a heartfelt conversation away.

Hilda’s first season is streaming on Netflix. Season two will arrive in 2020.

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