During the animated science fantasy film Nimona, the main character, Nimona (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz), attempts to explain her shape-shifting ability to her partner in crime, Ballister Blackheart (Riz Ahmed), a disgraced knight.
“You know what? I feel worse when I don’t do it,” she confesses. “It’s like an itch deep inside me. You know that moment right before you sneeze? It’s kind of like that. But then I shape-shift, and I feel free.”
Curious, Ballister asks, “What if you resist the urge? What if you don’t shape-shift?”
“I would suffer,” Nimona replies. “It’s awful!” exclaims Ballister.
“Don’t be so naive,” Nimona retorts. “I wouldn’t actually die. I just wouldn’t be truly alive.”
For many fans of the web comic-turned-graphic novel also called Nimona, which the movie is based on, shape-shifting serves as an allegory for trans identity. The sensation of “itchy insides” resonates with them as gender dysphoria. It’s a fitting interpretation considering the author of Nimona, ND Stevenson, who also co-produced the film, is non-binary and transmasculine. Stevenson came out after writing the comic and reflects, “There have been moments in my life when it seemed like everyone knew who I was before I did, and this is one of them. But it took me years to realize it myself. I guess I planted the seeds unconsciously.”
Available on Netflix starting this Friday, Nimona follows the shape-shifting protagonist and Ballister as they navigate their escape from the Institute, a knight training facility. Ballister left the Institute after being framed for a regicide he didn’t commit. Nimona appears at his doorstep with a simple desire to be his villainous sidekick and create chaos. Complicating matters further, Ballister’s ex-boyfriend, golden boy knight Ambrosius Goldenloin (voiced by Eugene Lee Yang), becomes his nemesis.
The film combines medieval and futuristic elements, mirroring the comic’s blend of magic and science. Its animation style seamlessly blends 2-D and 3-D, creating a hand-drawn appearance similar to Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Like Spider-Man, Nimona appeals to audiences of all ages despite its PG rating due to its humor and underlying themes.
Shape-shifters have fascinated Stevenson since childhood, though they didn’t give it much thought. Nimona has the ability to transform into anything, whether to rescue Ballister or simply for amusement. This includes various male human forms, which she assumes regularly, fully embodying them. This particular aspect of the story resonated strongly with the filmmakers, including directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, who emphasized it in a way that astonished Stevenson. Every time he watches the movie, he discovers something new, something he hadn’t realized he had incorporated while writing the book.
The “itchy insides” scene exemplifies this. Nimona attempts to confine herself to one life, one body, and one set of relationships, but she is physically unable to do so. It starts as an itch, but the discomfort persists and worsens.
“You don’t realize how that discomfort transforms into unbearable pain until you experience relief,” Stevenson explains. “That’s what my transition has been like—small steps towards self-discovery and finding my place in the world. But like Nimona, I am not defined by just one thing. No one is.”
Nimona cannot be confined to a single identity. If she were to stop shape-shifting, she wouldn’t be true to herself. She exists in the in-between, constantly transforming from one form