In Apple TV+’s animated children’s series Pine cone and ponythe characters are literally designed to subvert and defy expectations.
“Pinecone is about being a warrior and that there’s a certain way to be a warrior,” said Stephanie Kaliner, showrunner of the Kate Beaton-based series. New York Times bestselling children’s book The Princess and the Pony. “But with Pony’s help, she sees that you can be a cute warrior or a cuddly warrior, or you can be a ballet slipper warrior. That’s the main lesson of the book, so we tried to translate that message from the book to the show in every possible way.
This meant both narratively and through the series’ character design, which debuted its first season in April and hails from DreamWorks Animation.
“You think a wizard has to look like this, like Gandalf the Grey, but we always wanted to show that no, a wizard could look more like this. Or you see the really beefy muscle guy in the competition from the first episode and think that he can wearing a floral suit and being dressed like a daisy,” Kaliner added. “That was a big part of the conversation. Anything that looks like a handy fruit or a cozy trope because we’ve seen it before, then we try to go in another direction.
Kaliner said the team always wanted anyone watching “to just feel like they can be a part of this world.” But they also wanted to do it without pointing it out in an “overt” or harsh way. So they never wrote in specific discussions about physical, visual, or identity diversity in storylines and dialogue in an effort to avoid inadvertently altering anyone to their young viewers.
“We talked about showing the world the way you want to see it,” she explained. “We didn’t want anyone at Sturdystone to ever say onscreen, ‘You’re too this’, ‘You’re too that’, or you can’t do this and you can do that.”
So while lessons on the obvious physical differences between the show’s human-coded characters are absent, the main and background characters are, among other things, racially diverse, LGBTQ, have disabilities, some carrying the hijab and, in another move rarely seen in animation, having various body types and sizes.
The bodily diversity that exists among the series’ warrior characters and its larger group of semi-medieval community magical residents — whether more or less muscular, shorter or taller, rounder or thinner — actually a star among animated, live-action children and family. series. In the genre, the focus has historically been on teaching children a healthy lifestyle through nutrition and physical activity, but rarely on an intentional depiction of what that might look like on different off-screen body.
“A reflection of the world is not something I constantly see in animation”, Taneka Stotts, Pine cone and ponythe story editor, said THR. “I think we tend to gravitate towards an art style that we want to see lead a happy, healthy life. But we can lead a healthy life in many different ways and that doesn’t meet certain body standards.
The story editor would help lead the charge, his work driven in part by his own experiences of different sizes at different times in his life. They also hoped that the series would “finally set a precedent that fantasy doesn’t have to exist in a realm of ideals,” especially when it comes to inclusion.
To help the series do this through character design, the story editor set up some time early on with Kaliner, Beaton, and the other writers to discuss the lack of body diversity in children’s cartoons, including the results were then presented to the series’ storyboard artists and character designers.
The talks would have a direct impact on how at least one of the show’s couples, Wren and Gladys – described by Kaliner as a “badass warrior from another time who is a female Thor but also a female Worf of StarTrek” – proved. Through them, Stotts explained how when gay couples are brought together in animation, they are “usually juxtaposed into a taller body and then into a thin or small body”.
“We like to show kids shapes, and sometimes we go to extremes to do that,” Stotts explained. “We’ll put a block next to a rectangle, then we’ll make it smaller or bigger. But I wanted to see a block next to a block.
Kaliner confirmed that there were “a lot of things we threw at the show’s character designers,” who were led by Victoria Evans, but the Pine cone and pony The executive producer also strongly credits Beaton’s book for inspiring his broader inclusive approach to the show. This includes creating the character Pony, a (farting) horse’s best friend with a rounder body.
Beaton said her own discussion of pony design began sometime in 2008, when she first wrote the Listen ! A vagrant webcomic and 2015, when she published her children’s book. After nicknaming him “little big pony”, Beaton grew concerned about how emphasizing Pony’s size in the book before the princess initially rejected him (because he’s “not the warrior horse of his dreams”) could be perceived by young readers.
“I have no problem with the word bold. I didn’t want it to have a negative connotation. I didn’t want the kids to read it and think, ‘I don’t want that pony because it’s greasy,” she explained.
This awareness was then applied to all the characters in the book and eventually those in the series. Beaton drew inspiration for Gladys from bodybuilders, watching older American gladiators to be true to what’s happening to their bodies, including developing “a little belly”. The writer also specifically pointed to the treatment of Pinecone’s father, Arlo, as another example of how the show has thought about his messaging and portrayal responsibilities.
“I was like, I really don’t want him to be a goofy dad; the inept daddy – a dirty daddy Peppa Pig or Homer Simpson type – because he has a bigger body type. There’s so much on TV and I feel like if you start attributing certain traits, we easily fall into stereotypes that we don’t want,” Beaton said. “Arlo is a capable father. He is a loving dad. He is quick with affection and very comfortable in his masculinity.
This desire for body-positive representation has also had an impact on the residents of Sturdystone who young viewers are likely to identify with the most: the show’s children. For The Wiz Kids and The Lil Rumblers, the creative team provided personality outlines but offered no body notes, helping the show deliver. a series of Season 1 episodes that give a refreshingly effortless portrayal of all of its characters.
Among them was a Wiz Kid named Celestia who uses forearm crutches and whose real-world design meets fantasy was informed by Evans, consultant Kirsten Sharp and Chris Auchter, who designed her.
“We tried to find a mix where you could see his crutches, which look a bit like moose legs,” Kaliner said. “We wanted to make them cool and fantastic, but we also wanted to make them functional. So Chris helped show us where the stand would go and also sent videos to share with the animation team of how Celestia would move and how she would pose them when she was seated. We wanted it to feel real to a child watching.
And in yet another way, the show has worked to subvert and challenge expectations while supporting its message of body diversity, Pine cone and pony creatives told THR they were able to execute their take on character-driven comedy, without ever making any character’s body laugh.
“I grew up very steeped in comedy and one thing I’ve learned is that hitting isn’t funny,” Stotts said. “In fact, for me, it makes the show stronger when you don’t rely on old jokes, old narratives, and old tropes about someone’s body. There are so many other things at our disposal to make someone laugh, especially a child. You should focus on what they find funny, and making fun of their friends is not what they find funny.