Authentic Voices

Voices of experience deepen shared connections in two animated series.

Spirit Rangers images courtesy of Netflix, Inc.

Seen and Heard

Abominable and the Invisible City takes children on a playful ride through Chinese culture.
Tiffany Lo and Ethel Lung with characters Everest the Yeti and Jin.

While Abominable and the Invisible City is a spin-off series from the 2019 feature film Abominable, it trades in the movie’s “epic quest” trope for adventure-lite stories that take an imaginative look at Chinese tradition. Each episode features Yi, Jin, and Peng, along with the lovable yeti Everest, as they help a different magical creature, some original but most inspired by mythology, such as Todd the Toad and Sewer Koi.

For Tiffany Lo and Ethel Lung, the series’ Story Editors, one of the exciting things about working on this project is that much of the creative leadership is Asian American, sharing similar reference points. “When you say, I want a sesame bun, that’s it,” says Lung. “[The art directors] don’t need to look it up. They eat it with their kids. Or [take] Voice Director Stephanie Sheh. She understands exactly how to speak to an elder. The respect level. The luxury of bantering in a certain way. It would be hard for us to convey that to a director who didn’t have those experiences.”

A big fan of cartoons as a kid, Lo says that when she watched the characters: “I would insert myself into them in a way. But they never looked like me. What that did to me—it was this subconscious thing: I didn’t want to be me. I wanted to be what I saw on the screen. That is why it’s so important to have representation behind the screen in writing.” 

Seen here with Yi, Peng, and Sewer Koi, Everest is Lo’s favorite character. “Every time I see him I just want to cry and hug him,” she says.
Abominable and the Invisible City images courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

As for any characters of color that did exist, most were written by white writers, and Lung adds, “we need to make sure that our voices are heard in authentic ways.”

The show is also important, they say, because of the recent rise in anti-Asian hate. “Very few media outlets report on it,” says Lo. “There’s very little outrage around it other than from our own community. What we can do as writers and creators is put people who look like us front and center in the mainstream as normal, flawed individuals—not the quote-unquote other.”

The message they hope to convey comes organically, according to Lung, because a lot of Chinese folklore and mythology is about acceptance. Not that they want Abominable and the Invisible City to be a “message show.” They want it to celebrate Chinese culture in a fun way, and to do that, they took inspiration from original folklore and then built modern stories around that. 

Todd the Toad.

Todd the Toad, for example, is a traditional symbol of prosperity. Most Chinese businesses display a toad with coins in its mouth. Using this as a foundation, Lo and Lung built on the character, giving Todd the ability to grant wishes. Another character is Sewer Koi, who is based on a traditional giant fish who wants to be a dragon. “Why not utilize our [Shanghai] cityscape and the close relationship with water-slash-sewage, modernize it, add a heist into it,” Lung says. 

“Todd the Toad is a closer inspiration,” says Lo. “Then Sewer Koi is a very loose interpretation. That’s what was so fun about it.”

The writers also brought their personal stories and perspectives into the series. Both lived with their Chinese grandmothers when they were young, and when Lung’s Nai Nai passed away and was cremated, she was kept in an urn in the family’s home in America until she could be taken back to her homeland. “I just remember going into the study and talking to her all the time. There was solace for me,” says Lung.

This memory found its way into an episode where Yi visits her deceased father in a temple filled with urns. “Yi showed up and talked to her dad, said, ‘Hi dad, I need some advice,’” says Lung. “It was definitely therapeutic for us to have that storyline.”

Personal to Lo was the bigger-picture idea of making sure the show has an emotional heartbeat. “How we deal with our emotions,” she says. “What we have to face. What we carry with us, and how it affects how we connect with other people. That’s something we didn’t have growing up, culturally.” She thinks a lot of people can relate because “this is not a specifically cultural thing—it’s just a human thing.”

In the Present

An all-Native American writing room is one of many firsts for preschool series Spirit Rangers.

When Karissa Valencia took hikes with her dad in the Los Padres National Forest as a girl, they read plaques that described how the Samala Chumash used to live on this land. “And we’re like, we’re literally right here,” she says.

Bringing her culture into the present was one of many things that led her to create Spirit Rangers. Valencia is also the Executive Producer and Showrunner behind the preschool series about the Skycedar family living in a fictional California national park. Mom, the Head Ranger, is from California’s Samala Chumash tribe, while Dad, a scientist, is from Washington state’s Cowlitz tribe. The kids—Kodi, Summer, and Eddy—are Junior Rangers and also Spirit Rangers. Spirit Rangers are land and water protectors with the ability to transform into bear, red-tailed hawk, and turtle spirits, respectively, to help other spirits in need. 

Growing up, Valencia says, “it was hard to feel proud about my culture.” If she shared it with others, “I would get so many dumb questions like, ‘Can you sage my apartment? Can you make me a dreamcatcher?’” By watching the Skycedar children, she hopes that Native youth will feel a sense of pride and “that they can be loud and proud Natives,” she says.

One of the reasons Valencia loves doing the show for such young children is that “preschoolers are just so earnest and come with open hearts. They’re building their own communities, figuring out their place in the world. That’s exactly what the Spirit Rangers are doing. They’re new at everything, too, and I think that’s a universal thing.”

With the Skycedar children learning about new spirits, and as a result, new tribes in California and around the country in each episode, the series has the opportunity to introduce viewers to a wide range of Native American culture and history. To do this, it was important to Valencia to get approval from the tribes the series portrays. When it comes to the representation of Native Americans in film and TV, “a lot of these tribes have never been invited into the process,” she says. 

Coyote and Lizard accompany the Spirit Rangers on their adventures.

Valencia worked with Native Production Consultant, Joely Proudfit, Ph.D., who was crucial in selecting the right elders in different tribes to approach to provide language consultation, sign off on a story, or give a head’s up: “Hey, that story is from Google, don’t use it.” This method didn’t mean that tribal elders authorized every story Valencia wanted to tell, though. She wrote a premise for one, and her own tribe’s Elder Council said no because it is “one of our creation stories which are really, really sacred. They were afraid it could be like a game of telephone,” Valencia says, changing once it was out in the world. “Any time they said no, we backed off.”

Loving, supportive family life is a foundational theme in the series.

Because Valencia was aware that she can offer only one perspective, she assembled the animation industry’s first all-Native writers’ room, with members of tribes from around the country. She worked hard to create a safe space, and she says, “I’m really grateful that they took the time to be vulnerable, to talk about those moments when they were Native kids, and how they felt overlooked, because we brought all that into the show.”

Balancing traditional and urban Native life, Valencia calls the series her love letter to Native culture. “And if anybody’s taking anything away,” she says, one of the things she hopes they learn is “seeing Natives in the present space.”