El Deafo review: Apple TV+ takes a sensory journey to empathyville

Stream El Deafo and take a sensory journey to empathyville [Apple TV+ review]


Enter the magically ordinary world of El Deafo
Enter the magically ordinary world of El Deafo.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+’s newest animated kids show is all about accessibility. El Deafo, based on the book by Cece Bell, focuses on a little girl who loses her hearing just before the start of school. She goes on misadventures as she learns to navigate the world with the help of her imaginary superhero alter ego. And she learns to love herself in the process.

The show is, if anything, a little too effective at making you feel for this young girl’s struggles. El Deafo is at times too affecting and sad for words — much to the credit of the writer, performers and animators. But it’s an open question whether kids are ready to feel so much on top of everything they’re already dealing with.

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El Deafo review

Cece (voiced by Lexi Finigan) was just like any other little girl rabbit but one day tragedy struck. She came down with a terrible fever. And when she woke up in the hospital, she couldn’t hear her mom (Pamela Adlon) or her doctor (Clancy Brown). This comes with a host of problems compounded by the already precarious nature of coming of age as a young woman. So the usual school dynamic becomes even more awkward and difficult because Cece has to wonder if people are being rude or treating her strangely because of her hearing disability.

Cece’s one method of escape comes in the form of her favorite TV show, about a superhero named Mightybolt. It gives her an idea about how to handle mean kids at school, or social estrangement, or any of the other problems that arise in her everyday life. As her superhero alter ego El Deafo, whom she becomes in fantasies in her head, she gains the confidence to stand up to bullies, to tell her mom how she feels about her hearing and how the world sees her, and to be more earnest with her friends about her needs.

A new kind of kids show

El Deafo review: The new Apple TV+ kids show presents a new kind of hero.
El Deafo presents a new kind of hero.
Photo: Apple TV+

Cece Bell’s graphic novel El Deafo became a quiet smash last decade. It sold millions and won prizes. And from what I can tell, it is considered a minor classic of children’s lit. Will McRobb, who also produces and shepherds the new Harriet the Spy show for Apple TV+, did a fantastic job preserving the look of Bell’s original artwork.

The show looks cute without being too cute. It’s elegantly and fluidly animated. And the animation style is unique enough that you’re not reminded of other work, without being so radical you’d have a hard time getting kids to sit still for it.

Where El Deafo does get radical is in the sound design. McRobb, Bell and director Gilly Fogg hit upon a truly singular idea for representing the world as the show’s Cece experiences it. So if someone isn’t looking at Cece when they talk, and she can’t read their lips, their audio gets quiet and glitchy. It sounds exactly the way it might to someone using a malfunctioning hearing aid.

This may prove alienating for kids looking for easy viewing — but that’s exactly the point. El Deafo is all about empathy, about trying to teach children about people living lives completely separate from their own perspective.

It’s also meant to be something of a representational first. Children’s cartoons have long been at the forefront of showing different ideas and attitudes. The best showrunners know that kids are at their most empathetic when they’re young and growing. It’s never too early to teach children to love everyone. El Deafo has quite a remarkable checklist of ideas it communicates, and for that it should be commended. It helps, of course, that it’s very good.

Not for the faint of heart

Indeed the show is almost too good. The child actors’ performances are so affecting that when Cece and her friends are dealing with the very real moods and sadnesses of childhood, it can be completely overwhelming, like you’re in the room with a crying child. You just want them to be happy! Maybe I’m losing my edge, but I found myself on the verge of tears once or twice an episode and, well, that’s a lot of feeling for a cartoon.

I used to welcome being wrecked by the latest Pixar film. But now I have my limit (especially since my sister had her two boys) vis-à-vis what I can stand to a see child go through.

Of course, this doesn’t matter all that much because I, a childless man in his 30s, am not even remotely close to the target audience for this show. It is much to the El Deafo creative team’s credit that everyone in this show does such a stellar job communicating the complex inner life of Cece the Rabbit, and much less to mine that I couldn’t emotionally process it.

Watch El Deafo on Apple TV+

El Deafo premieres January 7 on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-G

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.


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