“One girl can make a difference.”
That’s the mantra of Lunella Lafayette, a precocious, Afro puff-sporting, 13-year-old New Yorker whose alter ego is the crime-fighting Moon Girl. It’s an empowering credo meant to inspire any young girl — even those who don’t have superhuman ingenuity and a 10-ton Tyrannosaurus Rex for a sidekick.
In the animated series “Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur,” Lunella exerts as much of her formidable brain power fretting over regular teen stuff, like school cliques and social media “likes,” as she does blasting supervillains and building incredible gadgets. These include the interdimensional portal that inadvertently welcomes her dinosaur friend into her world.
“I wrote a list of all of the things that I grew up struggling with,” said Diamond White, the singer and actress who voices Lunella. Some of those experiences — like getting her hair relaxed for the first time — were filtered into the show. “She goes through her insecurities and battles that you don’t have to be a superhero to go through — it’s just the experience of a Black girl growing up.”
Executive produced by Laurence Fishburne, Helen Sugland and Steve Loter, “Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur” premieres on Friday on the Disney Channel and on Feb. 15 on Disney+.
The series is part of a recent wave of superhero shows centered on young heroines of color. Last year brought the CW’s “Naomi,” an action-drama about a Black teen superhero plucked from DC Comics, and “Ms. Marvel,” about a Pakistani American Marvel fan in New Jersey who obtains her own powers. Later in 2023, Disney+ plans to add the live-action series “Echo,” following the Native American comics hero who made her screen debut in “Hawkeye” (played by Alaqua Cox), and “Ironheart,” about the ingenious Tony Stark mentee who appeared in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (played by Dominique Thorne).
Lunella was a 9-year-old whiz kid when the comic Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, written by Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare, debuted in November 2015. The original run ended in 2019, but a new Moon Girl series debuted in December 2022.
Loter, who directed the series, said the character was made over as a teenager for TV partly because “We knew that social media would play a large part of Lunella’s world, and we wanted to make sure she was at an age to be making use of it.”
“We focused every episode on a relatable emotion that we all would have but that is particularly intense to a 13-year-old — this episode’s about impatience, this episode’s about jealousy,” he added. “Then we would find a way to have the antagonist mirror that theme from the real world to the superhero world.”
There are other variations from the original story line, including the addition of new characters, such as Lunella’s cooler-than-thou best friend, Casey (voiced by Libe Barer), and the omission of well-known heroes that Moon Girl has teamed up with on the page (such as Spider-Man, the Hulk and Doctor Strange).
“We can’t really tell those stories that are in the books; those stand alone,” said Fishburne, who voices the Beyonder, an intergalactic trickster. He said that proprietary issues hindered the television show from incorporating some of the heroes depicted within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“In terms of being true to the comic book, Lunella is the smartest person in the Marvel universe,” Fishburne said. “She’s smarter than Tony Stark; she’s smarter than Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. Lunella really being this super-intellect whose superpower is her brain, that’s really where we’re holding fast to the source material.”
Fishburne and Sugland, his longtime producing partner, have been championing Black Girl Magic for years, going back to the moving 2006 family film “Akeelah and the Bee,” starring a preteen Keke Palmer in her first lead role. His motivation for telling stories about remarkable Black girls is simple, he said: “I’m the father of two remarkable Black girls.”
White said she was excited for the series even before she knew she would be starring in it. “I was just like, ‘Finally!’” she said. “It’s something that little me needed to see — I didn’t grow up with a cartoon like this.”
The Lunella of the series is warmer and friendlier than her more peevish comic book counterpart, but she possesses the same prodigious mental might. She is quick to cuddle with her, er, pet (whose grunts and roars are provided by the voice actor Fred Tatasciore) and enjoys the support of her roller rink-owning family, voiced by Jermaine Fowler, Gary Anthony Williams, Alfre Woodard and Sasheer Zamata. Guest voice actors include Jennifer Hudson, the astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, Cobie Smulders and Wesley Snipes.
New York City plays a prominent role, as well. Moon Girl’s main mission is keeping the streets of the Lower East Side safe for her loved ones and neighbors — you could say she thinks intergalactically and acts locally — and local sights abound. When Lunella isn’t thwarting foes on the Williamsburg Bridge or in Seward Park, she is skating through downtown streets filled with bodegas, graffiti murals, delis and a multicultural array of citizens. The design of her family’s apartment was reportedly inspired by the Tenement Museum, and her secret super-science lab, erected in an abandoned subway station, is based on the grand, long-closed, early 20th-century City Hall station.
“The architecture, the buildings and structures, the street names — what you see is very accurate to New York City because, honestly, if I didn’t get it right, I couldn’t go back,” said Loter, a native New Yorker.
And no tableau of the city would be complete without its sounds. The bubbly “Moon Girl Magic” theme song, which sounds like a G-rated Lizzo track, primes viewers for the show’s frenetic energy, vibrant colors, pop-up lessons on science and history, and slapstick battles with bad guys. And during each final-fight scene, Lunella spits rap lyrics at her opponents.
The songs and score were written by Grammy-winning R&B guru Raphael Saadiq, the show’s executive music producer, who said he had paired different instruments and genres with Lunella’s varied emotions and drawn from the sounds of her hometown.
“Hip-hop, funk, Latin, Yiddish music — it calls for so many different flavors,” Saadiq said of the soundtrack, adding that he had taken inspiration from “people who made the musical landscape of New York,” including Jamaica Boys, A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan. He also paid homage to musical heroes from his own childhood, like Curtis Mayfield, Maurice White and Al Green. He viewed the “Moon Girl” soundtrack as an “opportunity to give back to kids what all those greats gave to me.”
“When you’re putting music in shows like this, you’re actually exposing kids to something new,” he continued. “They won’t even know that it’s getting into their system.”
“Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur” has already been renewed for a second season, and according to White, there are plans to “go deeper and get more emotional.” Another chapter offers more opportunities, as Fishburne put it, to “use the whole fantasy element to illuminate basic human stuff.”
“It’s great to see a superhero,” he continued. “But it’s even better when you can relate to them.”
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