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Netflix’s quirky new cartoon comes from a surprising source: high-school show choir

a llama centaur forcing a horse to smile
Horse (Kimiko Glenn) is surprised to meet magical centaurs like Wammawink (Megan Hilty) in “Centaurworld.”
(Netflix)

Horse only knows a life of war. But during a mission with her Rider to collect a mysterious artifact that’s supposed to help their side to victory, she finds herself suddenly transported into a colorful, magical world inhabited by singing and dancing centaurs.

Lost in a weird, unfamiliar place, the battle-hardened warhorse soon discovers she now has the ability to speak. Understandably, she freaks out a little.

“I wanted it to genuinely feel like you took someone from a different series and put them into Centaurworld,” says Megan Nicole Dong, the showrunner and executive producer of “Centaurworld,” a new musical animated fantasy series now streaming on Netflix. “The world is really like a snapshot into my brain. A lot of the way it looks and the way the characters move is based on my sketchbook drawings. We tried to make it look like it was almost like marker on paper, to contrast the way Horse looks and the way that her world looks.”

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The 10-episode first season follows Horse (voiced by Kimiko Glenn) and her new centaur friends — Wammawink (Megan Hilty), Durpleton (Josh Radnor), Glendale (Dong), Zulius (Parvesh Cheena) and Ched (Chris Diamantopoulos) — as they travel across Centaurworld to collect the items she needs in order to get home.

A girl with a spear astride her horse running away from monsters
Ride (Jessie Mueller) and Horse (Kimiko Glenn) in an episode of “Centaurworld.”
(Netflix)

In contrast to Horse’s world, Centaurworld is vibrant and whimsical. In addition to traditional human-horse hybrids, the world is inhabited with “half-animal, half-man things” of all kinds, including beartaurs, moletaurs, cattaurs and whaletaurs. Even the mountains, trees and weather phenomena in Centaurworld look like quadrupeds with hooves.

“Biology was always something that I was really interested in so I wanted to have as many different kinds of creatures be the centaurs,” says Dong. “I wanted it to also be a place that, because we have so many different kinds of creatures of all different sorts of shapes and sizes and colors, naturally felt inclusive.”

Much of the magic initially introduced in “Centaurworld” is silly and frivolous — from blinking sparkles and turning handsome for a few seconds to shooting miniature versions of oneself from a hoof. But the magic of “Centaurworld” is anything but.

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The show is delightfully fun and strange and the soundtrack slaps. It’s also a sincere story about embracing change and how you can learn about yourself when life throws you a surprise challenge.

“I tried to draw from my own emotional experiences,” says Dong, an Asian American born and raised in Southern California. “Growing up, I always felt a lot of pressure to perform academically and keep up with my peers. The whole [story] is based on me going into high school, getting ready to take all these [Advanced Placement] classes and then ending up in a show choir because the only available extracurricular was show choir.”

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It was this chance scheduling snafu that set Dong on a course toward her future creative endeavors. The unexpected experience not only helped her see performing in a new light, it also helped convince her to pursue the arts as a career.

“I ended up falling in love with the whole thing, even though, initially, I felt completely out of my element,” says Dong. “That was the basis for Horse’s story. Being from one world, thinking that there was one way to do things, and then ending up in this really musical, silly place and having that really change her as a character.”

animated gerenuk centaur, giraffe centaur, bird centaur, llama centaur, horse and zebra centaur standing together
Glendale (Megan Nicole Dong), left, Durpleton (Josh Radnor), Ched (Chris Diamantopolous), Wammawink (Megan Hilty), Horse (Kimiko Glenn) and Zulius (Parvesh Cheena) in “Centaurworld.”
(Netflix )

While “Centaurworld” is remarkable for its aesthetic ambition — in addition to distinct styles that visually emphasize how different its two worlds are , the show has two studios, Mercury Filmworks and Red Dog Culture House, handling its animation in both styles — it’s the music that first gives viewers a hint there’s more to the series than the “Wizard of Oz”-like journey that initially meets the eye.

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The songwriting “was super integrated into the scripts and into the writing process, which was a lot of fun,” says Dong, who along with co-executive producer Dominic Bisignano wrote all of “Centaurworld’s” songs. “We wanted to make sure that the songs weren’t just songs happening for the sake of having them. They had to be actual musical moments that progress the story or informed the audience of where a character was emotionally.”

The series’ short life on the streamer sparked an outcry from fans. Behind the scenes, creator Lisa Hanawalt had outlets competing for her favor.

All of these elements are on top of Dong’s decision to center a realistic horse in a show set in a world of quadrupeds.

“Horses are notoriously hard to draw,” says Dong, who always knew she specifically wanted a warhorse as the main character of the show. “We were really lucky that James Baxter, who animated ‘Spirit’ and Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and so many other amazing Disney characters, joined the studio. In the beginning, he did a masterclass on how you draw horses, how they move and all of that, with some of our artists.”

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The herd Horse encounters upon arriving in Centaurworld seems to be — at least initially — the opposite of realistic: For instance, Dong’s own character, Glendale, has the constant urge to steal things — which she hides in a magic portal located at her stomach. But appearances can be deceiving.

A gerenuk centaur reaching into a portal at her stomach
Glendale (Megan Nicole Dong) reaching into her portal tummy.
(Netflix)

“I tried to figure out the herd all at the same time,” says Dong. “I wanted them to feel like their own distinct characters whose personalities and quirks all come from a place of trauma.”

Over the course of the season, the audience gets a closer glimpse into that trauma, and it’s always clear that the characters are neither defined nor judged by their quirks or flaws.

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“No one is actually judging Glendale for her stealing, you know,” Dong says. “Everyone is just accepted for who they are.”

As wonderfully whimsical and weird the show’s world may be, then, Horse and her story — as well as the magical centaurs — remain very much grounded.

“Animation is one of those things where you can kind of visually show anything,” says Dong. “The fun of it is being able to portray relatable themes in the most unexpected ways possible. I’ve always loved taking advantage of the freedom you have in animation to do that.”

‘Centaurworld’



Where: Netflix

When: Any time

Rating: TV-Y7 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 7)









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