Stillwater review – panda pleasures, with a side order of mindfulness

Apple TV+ has hit the jackpot with a new children’s animation that delivers wholesome morals via dreamy visuals

The home-working parents of young children can develop an unusually involved relationship with their streaming services. To bestow co-parent status on an inanimate object may seem extreme – even if it does have Bluetooth 5.0 wireless technology – but it’s whatever gets you through the pandemic, right? And if we must park them in front of a glowing screen every once in a while, it’s good to know there’s something not only harmless but actively wholesome.

Apple TV+ came late to the streamer game, but they already know the playbook: lure subscribers in with starry prestige drama, then get them hooked via the pester-power of their offspring. This is presumably the thinking behind Stillwater, a high-end animated series that arrives just weeks after Doug Unplugs to further bolster the service’s programming for kids.

Siblings Karl (voiced by Judah Mackey), Addy (Eva Ariel Binder) and Michael (Tucker Chandler), experience the usual childhood frustrations and squabbles, but their path towards junior enlightenment is smoothed over by Stillwater (James Sie), the wise and endlessly patient Panda who lives next door. He has a warm chuckle and a suitable story for every occasion.

Where are their parents? Never seen and never asked after. As with CBeebies’ Bing, the childcare arrangements of this family don’t bear much scrutiny. Stillwater is always on hand, however, following in the part-zen master, part-child psychologist tradition of Big Bird and Mr Rogers.

When Karl complains that neither Addy nor Michael believe that his cardboard spaceship is capable of taking off, Stillwater tells the story of the farmer who built a tower to the sun, despite his neighbours’ naysaying. When Addy loses patience with her brother’s toy-hogging, Stillwater is reminded of “a monk I once knew, who asked a similar question about a scorpion”. Unlike real children, these guys never get bored and wander off to find the iPad. They stick around, not only for the story’s all-important moral, but also to talk through their feelings afterwards.

Stillwater’s earnest, encouraging style doesn’t leave much space for humour or silliness, but its calming tone is just right for the post-dinner, pre-bedtime crowd. The quality of animation is also well above average. As befits a show that essentially functions as a mindfulness app for the under-eights, each leaf and strand of hair is detailed enough to justify some moments of quiet contemplation. A shot in the first episode depicts two crisp autumn leaves in a rainwater stream with the kind of stunning CGI realism usually reserved for Pixar blockbusters.

Speaking of whom, it’s ironic that all Pixar’s movies are to now be found on rival service Disney+ despite the fact that Steve Jobs was so involved in the founding of that groundbreaking animation studio. Meanwhile Apple TV+ has a deal with rivals DreamWorks and Gaumont, but such is the complicated history of corporate mergers. Despite such inevitable comparisons, this series forges an aesthetic of its own by including animation-within-the-animation segments to illustrate Stillwater’s fables. These hark back to the 2D style of classic Disney, and feature talking animal protagonists in human costume and settings that are variously suggestive of ancient China, 19th-century Italy and 1950s Brazil.

It’s the hodgepodge of east Asian culture, filtered through suburban America, which best characterises Stillwater. The garden features a koi river and a cherry tree, the panda spends his spare time painting in the Japanese shodō style or practising tunes on his bamboo flute. This is true to the Zen Shorts stories, written and illustrated by Ohio-born Jon J Muth, on which the series is based.

Yet cultural appropriation can be an aesthetic issue as often as it is an ethical or economic one. Streaming services have, almost accidentally, become a smorgasbord of re-dubbed insights into foreign cultures, and Stillwater simply lacks the idiosyncratic charms of Mumbai-made Mighty Little Bheem on Netflix or the South Korean Pinkfong on YouTube.

Happily, it is possible to experience life’s minor disappointments without losing sight of the greater joys. No doubt Stillwater has a story about just that.


Ellen E Jones

The GuardianTramp

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