Dreamworks continues to grow its Netflix partnership by launching the vibrant She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
Much like Voltron: Legendary Defender, another Dreamworks-Netflix show, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power attempts to update a classic brand for modern audiences. Noelle Stevenson, creator of critically-acclaimed comics like Nimona and Lumberjanes, takes on this unenviable task with mixed results.
Where the show truly succeeds is how it redesigns the She-Ra brand and in how it develops character relationships. Stevenson’s She-Ra is untethered by the He-Man brand that spawned it, taking care to never mention any He-Man character so that the cast can stand on their own. She-Ra is then transformed by Stevenson and her crew into a space-opera about alien beings that create entire planets, and the technology they left behind. It gives both She-Ra’s allies and the Horde, the antagonists of the show, something far more substantial and immediately threatening to fight over.
Easily, the best aspect of the show is the relationship between its two lead characters, Catra and Adora/She-Ra. Adora and Catra are introduced as childhood friends, trained as Horde soldiers under their abusive surrogate mother, Shadow-Weaver. When Adora discovers the atrocities of the Horde’s war she defects to the Princess Alliance, unintentionally leaving Catra behind in an abusive environment. The betrayal that both Catra and Adora feel drives the emotional and dynamic core of the first season, carrying the two best episodes of the season in “Princess Prom” and “Promise”. Stevenson also takes time to imply that Catra and Adora had some kind of romantic relationship, though stops short of confirming it. (In fact, the show implies a lot of LGBT characters and relationships.)
But while the Catra/Adora relationship is She-Ra’s strongest aspect, it seems to favor Catra’s character growth more. Discovering her taste for power, Catra quickly climbs the ranks of the Horde by manipulating several characters and eventually imprisoning Shadow-Weaver. In this, she is joined by the best supporting characters of the show, Scorpia and Entrapta. Meanwhile, Adora doesn’t nearly get as much development. Most of her self-reflection gets railroaded by the overarching plot of alien technology or by supporting characters, such as in the episode “Light Hope”.
The show’s biggest weaknesses are in its animation and uneven writing.
The animation and art style often cripples action scenes and dramatic moments by making characters and backgrounds feel flat. This isn’t helped by its stark lighting that seems to drown everything in color, even the dark, industrial cities of the Horde. This affects the mood and atmosphere of several scenes. This isn’t helped by the show’s struggle to keep character heights consistent, such as when Adora changes into She-Ra. She-Ra is supposed to be eight-feet tall, as several characters comment, but only ever stands barely a head higher than any characters. The weak animation stands-out even more when compared alongside its influential contemporaries like Voltron: Legendary Defender, as shown below:
The show also struggles to develop its supporting characters. The other princesses are based on heavily on simple tropes, for example, Perfuma is a hippie, Mermista is apathetic and sarcastic, and Entrapta is a mad scientist. That’s it. But in Entrapta’s case, she becomes more developed when she begins to work with Catra and the Horde. The lopsided and shallow characters do little to develop each other or Adora while also signalling which characters are the staff’s favorites. Scorpina, Entrapta and Catra all get key character development. Adora, also, gets little chance to show her personality in the face of her weak supporting cast. For example, her Spartan military background only emerges in episodes like “Razz” and “Princess Prom”, but Glimmer and Bow fail to draw that trait out despite constantly being around Adora.
Many of the show’s themes and topics, such as war or abuse, tend to retread ground explored by other shows and series. For example, Adora discovering the horrors of war pale in comparison to its main influence, Avatar: The Last Airbender, as both limp animation and writing leave the war and its effects unexplored. Similarly, the abuse Adora and Catra experience at the hands of Shadow-Weaver feel slightly underbaked against the similar dynamics of Gamora, Nebula and Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Even the colonialism and racism of the Horde and the Princesses are dramatically overshadowed by its contemporary on Netflix, The Dragon Prince, which explores colonialism in depth.
As a result, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is a mixed bag. Stevenson and her crew were able to vividly reimagine the She-Ra brand with a new, interesting world that focuses on two characters, Catra and Adora, while delivering an openly inclusive show.
But, the show falls limp whenever Catra isn’t on screen. It can only reach its peak when both Catra and Adora are in a room together.