Shape Island arrives on Apple TV+ today to teach kids about social interactions and to help them ward off the anxiety inherent in such things. Based on the critically acclaimed books by illustrator Jon Klassen and author Mac Barnett, this charming stop-motion show is as cute as it is thoughtful — a good way to make kids laugh while slyly making them learn.
This is one of the first Apple TV+ kids’ shows with enough joyous anarchy for parents as well as children.
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Shape Island review: An adorable kids’ show parents will love
On Shape Island live three shapes who are friends and neighbors with a lot of foibles. There’s neurotic Square (voiced by Harvey Guillén), who is always nervous about what the other shapes might think of him. There’s thoughtful Circle (voiced by Gideon Adlon), who gets wrapped up in her own excitement and can sometimes forget about her friends’ needs. And finally, there’s manic Triangle (voiced by Scott Adsit), who is excitable to the point of occasionally not thinking about what’s best for his friends.
Indeed without the intervention of the narrator (Yvette Nicole Brown), it’d be easy to think these three might never get on the same page.
The three main characters don’t go on adventures, but they do face their share of trials. For instance, Square notices a banana tree growing in his front yard. He wants to share the bananas with his friends, but he can only harvest two. He gives one of them to Triangle, who hates it. So Square must wait several months for the tree to grow more bananas so he can try the interaction over again and get it right this time.
Then there’s the secret of the lunar eclipse. Amateur astronomer Circle sees a lunar eclipse and, when she runs to tell Square and Triangle, she overhears them saying they saw it too and should keep it a secret. Then all three of them have to keep a secret and they are all, as the narrator tells us, quite poor at keeping secrets.
And then there’s a prank war that tests the limits of everyone’s patience and imagination. Each of their misunderstandings leads them eventually closer together, but not without all manner of hilarious detours on the way.
So much more than just another kids’ show
You can always tell when a kids’ show is made by people who are looking to do more than help parents distract the young ones. Shape Island is carefully written to get the most out of tiny moments. Partly this is because the books by Klassen and Barnett are richly conceived and provide a good bedrock for the other writers and vocal performers to make the most out of their potential. And it’s partly because the staff on this show is studded with amazing talents.
Heading up the writers’ room is Ryan Pequin, who worked for many years on the enormously popular Regular Show. Like Regular, Shape is concerned with simplicity. It deals with characters kids can relate to because their lives are not full of weighty tasks yet, but rather afternoons to fritter away.
Thus a gentle tone guides the shapes as they make mountains out of molehills. Things seem enormous, but only because so little else happens to the characters. A simple miscommunication or secret can suddenly seem like the end of the world. This is good for kids to hear because it’ll teach them (ideally) that there’s more to life than whatever’s bugging them that day, or that when things don’t go as planned it doesn’t matter that much.
Stop-motion animation done right
Directing is Drew Hodges, a veteran animator of cult properties. Like Yvette Nicole Brown, he worked on Community (briefly) as an animator. Hodges also did time in the animation studio for the very bizarre Charlie Kaufman movie Anomalisa, but on his own he’s been a little more kid-friendly.
Hodges created Tumble Leaf for Amazon Prime, and his quirky sense of humor and lovingly drawn character types are exactly what Shape Island needs. Every image of the three shapes bursts with emotion, despite the hushed quality of most episodes.
Take one of my favorite moments as an example. Square does weeks of research trying to pull a prank on Triangle. Then, his big plan comes down to moving Triangle’s coffee cup a few inches to the right. Everything from Square’s tiny hand movements, to him buzzing with nervous energy and sweat as he waits for Triangle to touch the mug, showcases the kind of wit and care of the best of the Wallace & Gromit cartoons, some of the best stop-motion efforts ever made. To get me thinking about that not even two episodes into Shape Island stands as quite the feat.
… plus outstanding voice work
The voices are also stupendous. Brown, by now as much a veteran of animation and voiceover as she is of live-action series and movies, does a great job as a kind of Arrested Development-style fourth-wall-breaking narrator. Adsit puts on a slight wiseguy affectation for Triangle, which helps his line readings seem silly without him needing to oversell his deliveries. A veteran of scripted and improvised comedies, he knows exactly what he’s doing as the show’s resident agent of chaos.
Adlon’s youthful exuberance helps locate the hidden emotions that Circle tries not to project. And then there’s Guillén, one of my favorite modern comedians. Adult audiences will know him as the put-upon Guillermo from the marvelous What We Do in the Shadows, but he’s about to have a long and wonderful career if I don’t miss my guess. As Square, he exhibits exactly the right nebbish energy, pitching the performance in such a way that his angst is palpable, without ever seeming too big for his little frame. He is the square.
Shape Island is marvelously animated, hysterically performed, carefully written and beautifully directed. It’s a stop-motion home run for Apple TV+.
Watch Shape Island on Apple TV+
You can now watch season one of Shape Island on Apple TV+.
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.