“Steven Universe: The Movie” stars a 16-year-old who exudes casual confidence about who he is and where he belongs. He’s tall, smartly dressed and very much ready to return to Earth after ushering in a new era of peace and freedom in the universe.
It’s a big change from the Steven Universe audiences met when the Cartoon Network series premiered in 2013, a boy who believed the key to unlocking his dormant otherworldly abilities was eating his favorite ice cream. Since then, the half-human, half-magical alien teen has mastered his powers, learned the truth about his heritage and used kindness and compassion to dismantle a dangerously rigid space empire.
In the feature-length animated musical “Steven Universe: The Movie,” which premieres Monday, Steven is ready for a hard-earned rest. Alas, relaxation is not meant to be — Steven and his friends are suddenly attacked by a mysterious new foe — but his makeover is: Much like the TV series that bears his name, Steven Universe has grown up.
“What I wanted to explore in the movie was the feeling that at some point, your story is supposed to be done,” series creator Rebecca Sugar told The Times on a recent afternoon at Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank. “It’s the first time in the history of the show that these characters could even begin to believe that they’d completed the journey that they’d been on.”
A fantasy/sci-fi coming-of-age story, “Steven Universe” follows the adventures of Steven (voiced by Zach Callison) and his close-knit team of magical alien beings who’ve sworn to protect Earth, known as the Crystal Gems. In addition to Garnet (Estelle), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) and Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall), Steven’s inner circle includes his human father Greg (Tom Scharpling) and best friend Connie (Grace Rolek).
It’s a show that celebrates positivity, the joy of imperfection and people’s capacity for change — and both its ardent fans and the press have hailed it for its inclusive storytelling, its original music, its intricate mythology and more.
And the movie revisits some core themes from the show, including the powers of love and empathy, as well as how to deal with hurt, disillusionment and figuring out your own identity.
Because the TV series’ five-season arc had been planned since 2011, Sugar knew she wanted “Steven Universe: The Movie” to stand alone, building off the years-long journey that culminated in the Season 5 finale “Change Your Mind,” which aired in January. (Though the 44-minute episode marked the conclusion of the series’ original storyline, Steven’s adventures are set to continue.)
Just like in the show, Sugar’s interest was in challenging specific established cartoon tropes with her three-dimensional characters.
“The idea of happily ever after was something that I really wanted to dig into,” Sugar said. “To see what it would mean to have these characters who have made all of this progress and are really complex individuals kind of believe that they get to participate in this very one-dimensional idea and then get slammed with the reality of there never really being an ending to your story.”
It’s a theme that can only be explored because of everything Steven experienced — and learned — in the course of the series, a premise that mirrored the experience of the “Steven Universe” crew as they took on the challenge of making the movie.
“We had just accomplished the series,” said Sugar. “We had told the story we’ve been telling for years and years and years that we’ve worked so hard to tell. We felt like we were done. And then, all of a sudden, we have to do the hardest thing we’ve ever done.”
The possibility of making a “Steven Universe” movie was raised by 2016: Sugar had always known she wanted to make a musical episode, and the success of Season 3’s “Mr. Greg” helped her think about how she would approach a movie. She explained that some subsequent creative choices, like the “For Just One Day Let’s Only Think About Love” sequence from the Season 5 episode “Reunited,” became tests to see if they would be able to handle a feature-length movie musical.
After all, “Steven Universe” has always been about growing up: The show was designed to reveal the complexities of its world as Steven himself matured.
“Throughout ‘Steven Universe,’ from the beginning of the show through the movie, I really wanted to get at that moment where you start to realize that adults don’t actually have the answers that you think they have,” Sugar said. “This idea that somebody has figured it out, and that when you get older you will also have it figured out because they do — having that dissolve, that is the feeling I want to talk about.”
Inspired by her experience while working as a storyboard artist and writer on “Adventure Time,” Sugar made sure to leave enough room for the “Steven Universe” crew to express themselves within the show.
“I went into ‘Steven Universe’ with this overall structure and an overall point that I wanted to make, but I kept a lot of the details loose because I wanted my team to bring their stories into the fray,” Sugar said. “So the show changed a lot and continued to change as the staff changed.”
It’s clear that Sugar cherishes these personal touches from the artists and writers who have come through in the show and the part each has played in shaping the show’s journey so far.
“I learned a lot from my team. And over the course of working on the show, I really fell in love with the different ways that my various writers and storyboard artists told stories,” Sugar said.
The show also changed as the audience grew more aware of how it engaged with complicated issues and started expecting such nuance. That expectation meant the show has been able to double down on some of its more whimsical elements, a feat that is also showcased in the film.
“It’s allowed us to grow with our audience and start to explore characters that are literally more alien and also more cartoony than you expected,” said Sugar.
Some viewers might expect the show to reach a point where there will stop being wacky cartoon characters, but Sugar insists it’s the opposite.
“Not only will they not stop, they will just get more cartoony,” Sugar said. “And that won’t take away from the gravity of what they are, it will actually inform the problems that they have.”
(The movie’s villain is very much one of these cartoony characters.)
“Steven Universe” has also changed as Sugar has. Some of what she’s learned about respect, trust and caring for herself and others while being a showrunner has even been incorporated into the story. (“I don’t need you to respect me, I respect me. I don’t need you to love me, I love me. But I want you to know you could know me, if you change your mind,” Steven sings at the end of “Change Your Mind.”)
“Over the course of making ‘Steven Universe,’ I gained this really different perspective on what his heroism meant to me, and how I wanted to explore it,” said Sugar. “And seeing the way that the show has been interpreted and flattened out has made me really rethink my ideas about myself and how I approach the world.”
It’s understandable that after eight years working on the show, Sugar has come to see Steven differently from when she was first getting started. Some of that is a byproduct of growing up, though she also notes that the world is a different place than it was in 2011. This has given Sugar more themes to explore in future “Steven Universe” stories.
“What I love about working on [‘Steven Universe’] is that, because I keep changing as a person, I just have more and more new things that I want to talk about and write about,” Sugar said. “Because the character’s been growing up, the new things that I want to say, I can say them now with the character that’s been kind of growing up alongside me.
“I’m really glad I had the chance to grow up a lot while making this show.”