Ahead of the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a rumor began circulating that J.K. Rowling was going to kill off Harry’s best friend, Ron Weasley. That didn’t happen, though Rowling admits she seriously considered it. But the fact that the idea was so believable reveals a problem with Chosen One stories. They create a narrative power imbalance where the main character’s best friends can never be their equal. They can be killed off to show the situation is serious, but even if they survive, they’re relegated to emotional support and comic relief. They’re sidekicks at best, accessories at worst.
But they can choose another path. The heart of Netflix and DreamWorks’ animated reboot series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is the relationship between Adora (Aimee Carrero) and Catra (A.J. Michalka), who grew up as orphaned child soldiers in the military-industrial wasteland of the Fright Zone. When Adora discovers a technomagical sword and learns her destiny is to become She-Ra, a champion of peace and balance for the planet Etheria, she leaves Catra and their home to join a group of magical princesses fighting against her former allies. Catra, who stands somewhere between Adora’s best friend, sister, and first love, is tasked with bringing Adora back to the Evil Horde. (The show is a reboot of 1985’s She-Ra: Princess of Power, so the names, which are carried over faithfully from the original, aren’t particularly subtle.)
Showrunner Noelle Stevenson, a TV writer and comics artist who previously explored the complicated relationship between heroes and villains in her fantasy comic Nimona, walks a delicate line between satisfying nostalgic fans who are giddy to hear Adora shout “For the honor of Grayskull!” and viewers who are being introduced to Etheria for the first time. She’s kept much of She-Ra’s sprawling cast of heroes, improving upon them by adding depth to their personalities and bringing them to life with a vastly improved voice cast.
While some corners of the internet bemoaned She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s artistic style, it’s one of the best parts of the show, as Stevenson has worked key components of original costumes and powers into new versions of the characters, who run a gamut of ethnic and body diversity. The art isn’t perfect — characters are constantly pointing out that She-Ra is eight feet tall, seemingly because that height difference isn’t particularly obvious, and Adora’s sword often disappears and reappears — but the fight scenes are beautifully drawn, and there are often engaging visual gags tucked into the background.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s biggest problem isn’t its past, but its modern competition. Too often, the show feels like it’s retreading territory that Steven Universe and the two Avatar animated series did better. Adora is strong, tough, hotheaded, and a fish out of water in the world of princess luxury and palace etiquette, which are traits highly reminiscent of the title character in The Legend of Korra. Her chief friends are the teleporting princess Glimmer (Karen Fukuhara) and Bow (Marcus Scribner), an archer with no magical powers who has the same existential crisis about his role in a party of magic users Sokka did in Avatar: The Last Airbender.
There’s even a plot straight out of Avatar where Adora is told she must give up her friendships to realize her true potential, a principle so obviously counter to the show’s central tenets that the conflict is rendered hollow. Meanwhile, the show’s primarily female cast, overt queerness, and mysterious science fiction elements all draw easy comparisons to Steven Universe. Those shows are some of the best that modern Western animation has to offer, so even coming close to them is an accomplishment. But She-Ra and the Princesses of Power will have some heavy lifting to do if it wants to be as successful.
The show particularly falters in its earliest episodes, which follow a rigid template of the “Best Friends Squad” of Adora, Glimmer, and Bow traveling to new lands to recruit new members to the “Princess Alliance” against the Horde. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is taking a relevant stand against isolationism and complacency, but these plots get repetitive due to shallow characterizations like a princess with the ability to manipulate plants being a big flower-obsessed hippie who thinks putting out positive vibes will bend the universe into making everything go her way.
The show hammers home the moral of “maybe doing something is better than doing nothing” too hard and for too long. It also takes away from some of the better narratives the show plays with, like Adora’s concern that her friends only like her for her powers or the long-running plot of the toxic power exerted over She-Ra and Catra by the evil sorceress Shadow Weaver (Lorraine Toussaint), who served as their commanding officer and abusive foster mother.
But it’s worth sticking with She-Ra and the Princesses of Power to get its turning point in the episode “Princess Prom,” which starts as yet another princess-recruitment mission where the primary conflict seems to be that Glimmer is jealous that Bow is going to the big princess ball with someone else. Then it grows into a phenomenal 23 minutes of storytelling that questions the entire nature of the Horde-versus-Princess conflict through Scorpia (Lauren Ash), a sweet, brawny scorpion-woman who doesn’t fit in with her conventionally cute and pretty magic-using compatriots.
The emotionally fraught struggle of wits and wills between Catra and Adora becomes a literal dance in this episode, which deals the heroes their first major setback. The show isn’t consistently better after that story — two episodes later, “The Beacon” spends way too much time on an inane plot about Glimmer trying to hide a problem with her powers from her mother — but the balance shifts for the better as the season leads to an epic conclusion.
That’s largely powered by the action in the Fright Zone, as Catra — like Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Prince Zuko — pivots from her basic role of chasing the good guys around the world and takes on a far richer arc. Her plot is the best animated antihero story since Zuko’s, using the conflicted relationship between Adora and Catra as a lens to question why some women feel they must hide their competitive natures and accept being second best. In many ways, the show’s initial 13-episode season feels like a setup for bigger stories to come. If Stevenson and her crew avoid further lazy fetch-quest plots and keep to the emotional core they build here, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has the potential to become a new fantasy classic.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power debuts on Netflix on November 16th.