*** This article originally appeared in the August ’21 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 312)***
The definition of “centaur” is fairly relaxed in Megan Nicole Dong’s new series for Netflix, and that’s a good thing. An action-adventure, fish-out-of-water story wrapped up as a road trip musical fantasy with sci-fi elements sprinkled in, Centaurworld features hybrid creatures in just about any configuration you can imagine, along with a few others that you definitely can’t. What, exactly, is a taur-tornado? Well, it’s a lot like you’d think, except it’s not. Either way, you’d better stay out of its path.
Arriving on Netflix on Friday, July 30, Centaurworld follows a warrior horse named Horse (Kimiko Glenn), who is suddenly transported from her embattled, war-torn world to an exotic, brightly colored land inhabited by silly, singing centaurs of all species, shapes and sizes. Horse is desperate to be reunited with her Rider (Jessie Mueller), who has been left behind on their home world in the heat of battle. To reach her goal, Horse befriends a group of magical creatures, embarking on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance that will test her more than any combat she’s faced on the field of war.
Horse’s magical companions are led by the protective Wammawink (Megan Hilty), a fluffy pink llama centaur who uses her magic to help keep the group of misfits fed, sheltered and safe. The main cast is rounded out by Parvesh Cheena, who voices Zulius, a brash and quick-witted zebra centaur with a mischievous streak; Josh Radnor as a timid and slightly dim giraffe centaur named Durpleton; Chris Diamantopoulos as Ched, a bird centaur with anger management issues; and Dong herself as the zany yet anxious Glendale, a gerenuk (long-necked antelope) centaur with a magical storage compartment that can contain anything.
Uppity and Muppet-y
“That character was just so specific,” Dong recalls about her decision to take on the role of Glendale. “The Muppets were a huge inspiration for the show, and I really wanted a character who was, like, pure Muppet. That included the vocal performance, which I wanted to be super, super silly sounding. Something almost Cookie Monster-like, but still female, while also sounding super pushed and uppity. It was such a specific thing that I had in mind that I ended up voicing her myself because it was kind of hard to describe what exactly we were going for,” she explains.
Dong, who is also known for her Sketchshark comics, is an avid marine biology enthusiast. The Centaurworld creator and first-time showrunner moved up through the ranks as an artist on DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie before becoming a supervising director on Nickelodeon and Netflix’s Pinky Malinky. She is now executive producing the 10-episode series alongside co-EP Dominic Bisignano (Star vs. the Forces of Evil).
Megan Nicole Dong
“A lot of the characters in our show are kind of orphans, or don’t have any existing blood ties or living relatives,” Dong says of the cast of characters that populate the show. “I really wanted Centaurworld to be about finding your tribe, with the idea of finding your own family and finding people that you relate to and love genuinely.”
Friendship is a central theme in Centaurworld, Dong emphasizes, particularly female friendships. “Strong female friendships have carried me through some really tough things in my life, so that was something that was really important for me to show.”
Dong, who plays both piano and violin, accidently discovered a talent for musical theater as a student in high school, and continued writing songs afterward. She also wrote music for Pinky Malinky. She envisioned Centaurworld as a musical series and, along with Bisignano, wrote some 37 original songs for the show. Each episode includes three to five songs performed by the voice cast members, many of whom have had Broadway experience.
“We just have a lot of really top-notch singers,” Dong reveals. “Kimiko Glenn plays Horse, and Jessie Mueller plays Rider, and they’re both from the original Broadway cast of Waitress.” Diamantopoulos also performed in Waitress, and Hilty is another hard-hitter, known for her performances as Glinda the Good Witch in Wicked and Doralee Rhodes in 9 to 5: The Musical, as well as her Tony-nominated role as Brooke Ashton in Noises Off.
“I always knew that I wanted the music to be super integrated into the story,” says Dong. Because of her love of musical theater, it was important that the songs didn’t “just happen” without any connection to the story or action. “I wanted them to be character-driven. I wanted them to be really seamlessly woven into the stories,” she continues, describing how the songs were shared with the production team and other writers collaborating on the script so that everything flowed together.
The 2D-animated series boasts a range of distinct visual styles, overseen by art director Kimberly Knoll. “From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to tell the story of a character from one world, and essentially from a completely different style of show,” Dong explains. “Our main character, Horse, is from a more action-fantasy, almost Game of Thrones-y kind of world. So her world is more gritty and realistic, and we knew we wanted more of an action style of animation for that. And then Centaurworld is very bouncy and Muppet-y and colorful. So in order to show that contrast, we knew we wanted two styles and we needed to work with two different animation studios for that.”
Production took place at Netflix Animation’s in-house studio, with the animation provided by Mercury Filmworks in Canada and Red Dog Culture House in Korea. The two animation houses employed a mix of Toon Boom Harmony and TVPaint. “Red Dog Culture House did more of the action style, and Mercury Filmworks did a lot of the Centaurworld animation,” Dong recounts.
Dong pitched the series to Netflix in early 2018, just as the streamer was bolstering its animation slate with new original series. “That was really exciting for me, because I got to develop the show at the studio as they were building up a culture and building up a studio around it,” she says.
Inspired by Life
During development, Dong wrote and storyboarded the entire first episode, as well as the first four songs. “Because it combines a lot of different genres, and because it was so ambitious, I knew that I had to do more than just write a bible in order to really communicate what the tone of the show was going to be.”
Above all, Centaurworld has heart. “The character of Horse and her journey was inspired by my own life, too,” Dong says, recalling how her experiences as an Asian American, coupled with her accidental entry into musical theater, helped change the trajectory of her life.
Horse is plucked from the familiar heat of the battlefield and plunged into a world she can’t comprehend. Her journey and transformation — as bewildering as it may be — is ultimately filled with joy and a sense of belonging. “She’s a war horse, she’s really tough. And she thinks that all her vulnerability is weakness, but a big part of her journey is discovering that vulnerability is a strength.”