When Chris Nee, the creator of the Disney hit “Doc McStuffins” last spoke to Variety earlier this year, she raved about the “fairy-tale” vision of artistic freedom that Netflix had offered her under an overall deal.
“I was looking at the Shonda Rhimeses and the Ryan Murphys and wondering why somebody couldn’t take that active role of being both a creator and a producer and creating an internal sort of house in [kids] TV, and that’s very much what’s happening,” she said then.
Now, the first of her creative saplings at the streamer is ready to bloom. The season premiere of “Ridley Jones,” about a girl who lives at the natural history museum and goes adventuring at night when the institution’s exhibits come to life, has already racked up more than 15.8 million views since hitting YouTube on June 8. Ahead of the entire season’s July 13 launch, Nee talked about telling a “hero’s journey” for girls, her creative output under her overall deal at Netflix, and “Ridley Jones'” nonbinary bison Fred.
Tell me about the genesis of the idea for “Ridley Jones.” It’s got all the things kids love: a museum that comes to life, animal adventures, musical numbers.
The thing I was excited about in the character Ridley was telling an action adventure story for a girl and more than anything, telling a hero’s journey for a young girl, because I don’t think we’ve seen as much of that, and I think it’s therefore not internalized in girls, this idea of the striving of the hero. So I’m excited about that.
The setting of the museum was so fantastic, because it was such a great place to talk about where I see our world where all of these really disparate exhibits, that have different needs are living side by side and trying to figure out how to negotiate that. So that seemed like a great setting.
My mother also worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. So when my son was little, she would take him either early mornings or late at night when no one else was in the museum. And so I have all these amazing pictures of him sitting on the floor in front of statues, and just being alone in these exhibits. And of course, my brain starts to immediately go, ‘Well, what happens if those guys start talking?’ This is sort of how I think and so it became a perfect space to play.
So there’s a real personal family connection there too, then.
For sure, yeah. I grew up in and around museums. I love them. And I’m always looking for spaces where I can work and have a big group of characters who are really different, but living together, because that’s how I’m writing about community and how we can take care of people who are not exactly like us. So a museum just felt like a perfect space for that.
You have a colorful cast of characters. One character that’s gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks is Fred, the nonbinary bison. Tell me a little bit about creating that character, and also what the reception was when you were talking to Netflix about it.
I have to say that the reception to Fred was a non-reaction, which is such a huge difference over a couple of years, from when we did a same-sex couple on [Disney’s] “Doc McStuffins” only four or five years ago. So I think the business has really taken a big change and a leap forward in a fantastic way.
For me, Fred is is such a reflection of what I’m seeing — I have a 14-and-a-half-year-old son, and so many kids are in a much more fluid place about who they are and who they’re going to be and what their gender identity is. We wanted to reflect someone who was going on that journey in this world and Fred is just one of my favorite characters, who is just very much stated as they are, and not a ton of attention needs to be given, except for the character is so full and rich and such a great part of the team.
And then tell me about the other characters and how you envision them all coming together, from the surfer dude dinosaur Dante to the astronaut monkey Peaches?
Peaches was great, because I wanted something that felt specifically like you knew it came from a museum rather than just being an animal. So I wanted an animal, a monkey in a spacesuit. We were very clear to make her the first monkey to slip on a banana peel in space because I didn’t want to disrespect the actual monkeys who had been space — these are funny conversations you have at work in our line of business.
Dudley fits a character type that I love — characters who are battling fear and finding ways to get through that. Every one of my shows has a character like that. I think fear is is one of the greatest things to teach kids how to get through because we walk hand in hand with it in life and it stops a lot of people from doing great things. So Dudley is the embodiment of that. He’s a dodo bird who is is very upset that he has to live in an exhibit alone, because he’s the last of his kind.
Dante is just pure physical fun. And to me, he’s the more teenage character who can’t quite control his tail. I have an extremely tall, just-about-to-go-into-high school son, who has limbs that are so long, don’t-know-what-to-do-with-them kind of thing. And that’s what Dante is.
Ismet is thousands of years old, a mummy queen, but she’s really the closest in age to Ridley, so they’re the clear friends. It’s such a fun group of characters to play with.
This is your first big project with Netflix. You’ve previously expressed that there is a lot of artistic freedom over at Netflix that you didn’t necessarily have in your in previous jobs. What has the experience continued to be like over there as you’re developing your other projects?
I continue to be a kid in the candy store. I feel this great privilege. It seems like when I’m interested in something, Netflix really gets behind it. And they believe so much in what I’m doing in my vision, and also in the people that I’m bringing up; I’m producing a couple of other people’s shows. So I just feel I feel very supported there.
But I do laugh, because I think a lot of people end up on overall deals as sort of like it’s their moment where they’re like, “I can kick back, I’m on an overall deal.” And I’m like, “Oh my god, I’m a 50-year-old woman, I feel like I’m racing to the — I can’t believe that I can make all these things…”
It’s funny, the other person I talk to about that with is [“The Book of Life” director and “Maya and the Three” creator] Jorge Gutierrez, and he’s always like, “Take the immigrant and the woman and give us these deals, and we are gonna make so much stuff.” Because we’re makers. I’m so excited that somebody wants to make the things I want to make. So I keep putting more things on the docket.
How many projects do you have in development right now? I know there’s “Ada Twist” and “Spirit Rangers” that are coming up.
Those are all in production. There’s also “Dino Daycare,” and there’s [the adaptation of the Dr. Ibram X. Kendi book] “Antiracist Baby.” Then there are one or two other things that are in development.
“Ridley Jones” streams on Netflix on July 13.