Amazon continues its amazing track record of acclaimed original content with its latest animated series Niko and the Sword of Light available now on Prime Video. Based on the motion graphic comic by Imaginism Studios, Inc., Niko has the distinction of being the first Amazon Original to win an Emmy for the pilot before the series launch. The series follows ten-year-old Niko (Andre Robinson) on an epic fantasy quest to defeat an ancient darkness and restore the light to his land. Among his companions is the cowardly yet faithful friend, Mandok, played by veteran voice actor Tom Kenny (SpongeBob Squarepants). I briefly spoke with Kenny about his experience working on the cartoon and the wide appeal for Niko.
What was your initial reaction after being introduced and learning about the world of Niko?
I thought it was terrific. The main thing I saw immediately, having kids and being a former kid myself, it definitely seemed to fill a niche that was in short supply. I do voices on a lot of cartoons, but the swashbuckling/adventure/epic fairytale genre is not something that you see too much. It’s a genre that kids and myself really enjoy. There’s elements of it in the superhero but those are more franchises of long established characters. It’s a little different than building fantasy worlds from the ground up that are appropriate for kids and at a level that they can partake in. The monsters are scary but not too scary. There’s derring-do and physical prowess required in combat but it’s not at a level that would be off-putting to the average kid or parent.
Kids love superheroes and adventure but there’s so much in movie theaters of that ilk that they can’t see. Kids can’t go see a Christopher Nolan Batman movie because the Joker sticks a pencil in a guy’s eye! But there’s elements of it that kids really crave. This [Niko] is such a well done version of that with a young hero who’s pure of heart has a fellowship of friends that are helping him through it. It’s such a mélange of elements that kids like. I would go beyond “like” and say that kids really need.
The voice director for Niko is of course 8-time Emmy winner Andrea Romano, whom you’ve worked with in the past. What did she bring to the project?
I’ve worked with Andrea quite a bit. In fact, she directed SpongeBob for a season. She’s great at bringing out performances and does her homework. She’s a great case study of preparing and getting your ducks in a row before a session. That’s definitely how I work too. Know as much as you can before you walk into a room so that your learning curve about who these characters are and what’s happening in the script, isn’t happening at the session.
She’s great at pulling performances out. I think the best example of that is Andre Robinson, our young Niko, had done a certain amount of voiceover work. He wasn’t totally new to it but what he had to do as Niko was different than what he had to do on these preschool shows. Obviously the content and drama and what he has to provide for the character is much simpler for a Dora the Explorer level. He had to really do voice acting and be in the moment. Watching him go from this “soft clay” and comparing the last voiceover session we had with Andre to the first one, she [Andrea] had to micromanage him more because he had never done a show quite like this. I think part of that was getting in a room with the other voice actors which is sometimes not how it’s done. We’ve all worked with Andrea a lot, and we respect her very, very much. A good voice director is clear with their direction linguistically. If someone can’t put into words what they’re looking to get from the actor, it can be frustrating. Andrea is very concise and clear. Her suggestions are always dead on, for the good of the performance and the project as a whole.
Would you say you mirrored your role of Mandock in real life in that you provided some guidance to the actual Niko, Andre Robinson?
Andrea [Romano] is obviously the “captain of the ship” voiceover wise so we defer to her but I guess we’re “first mates.” But yes, absolutely. I think Andre was watching, observing, absorbing, and learning from us and kids are like sponges. A lot of the voice actors involved are parents as well so they know how to deal with kids. We looked at him [Andre] as the new kid in class that we were shepherding. And he wound up being the valedictorian of the class.
Finally, why should viewers check out Niko and the Sword of Light?
There’s any number of reasons to check out Niko. It’s really well done; it’s made by people who care; the comic book source material it’s from is really good. The people who adapted that comic into animation were really mindful of the material and wanted to retain what was so good about it. We’re all really proud of it. It’s like a big adventurous fable that’s not formulaic or by the numbers either. It’s got a lot of twists and turns and goes to a lot of interesting places both geographically and emotionally that I think a viewer would really appreciate.