If there’s a missing necklace, an AWOL baby penguin or a herd of on-the-loose caribou, Ridley Jones is your go-to guy. Or make that your girl.
The 6-year-old title character of Netflix’s new animated series has the pluck and daring of classic screen heroes who were routinely male, a stubborn trope that “Ridley Jones” creator Chris Nee is eager to vanquish for TV's youngest viewers.
“Girls have not really gotten to be the action-adventure leads of shows” aimed at preschoolers, she said. “It felt really different to give Ridley that journey.”
Nee counts herself a “huge" fan of 1970s and ‘80s thrill-ride movies including ”Goonies," “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” — with the latter getting a tip of the fedora from Ridley's own headgear in the six-episode series debuting July 13.
Iara Nemirovsky voices Ridley, part of an impressive cast that includes Blythe Danner, Laraine Newman, Sutton Foster, Jane Lynch and Bob Bergen.
An award-winning maker of children's animated fare, Nee's consistent goal is to include an array of characters. She did it with “Doc McStuffins,” about an African American girl whose career dreams inspired its viewers, especially Black youngsters, to see medicine as an option, and she does it with “Ridley Jones."
Ridley is following a family tradition by joining her mother and grandmother in protecting the museum they call home and its precious relics, including Egyptian mummies and animals which, after visitors scoot, come to comically endearing and sometimes wayward life.
Nee is “just really a master of storytelling for this audience,” said Heather Tilert, director of preschool content for Netflix.
There are overt lessons to be learned, as when overeager Ridley pushes for more responsibility before she's ready to handle it. But Nee and her writers don't beat the drum for gender equality, allowing Ridley's exploits to make the point.
An equally nuanced approach goes for a friendly, hairdo-conscious bison named Fred, voiced by Ezra Menas. In the first episode, Ridley asks Peaches the monkey if Fred is “a she or a he.”
“I don't know. They're just a Fred,” replies Peaches. “Cool,” says Ridley, and the action resumes.
Ridley’s query about Fred mirrors a real-life conversation that was recounted to Nee, in which a child was discussing a playmate who identified as neither male or female. To give the character authenticity, actor Menas is nonbinary, Nee said.
She said she's determined to “push the boundaries of representation” by including what is a rare if not unprecedented character in a show for preschoolers.
“In many ways, Fred is playing out a lot of things that I felt as a gay kid growing up in the ‘70s and the ’80s," she said, when hostility toward gay men exploded during the nascent AIDS crisis. Now it's people in the nonbinary and trans world being targeted, Nee said.
“You might be at a moment of finding your true self, which is a very joyful thing, at a time when you're looking at the news and are very aware there are factions of the country who really hate you,” she said.
What would Nee, parent to a teenager, say to those who might consider the show's viewers too young to be faced with questions about gender?
“It's just actually what's happening in the world, and we're reflecting it,” she said. “Sticking your head in the sand isn't going to change that, and it is going to mean that we're not being as supportive as we can be to the kids who are going through these things.”
Netflix executive Tilert said the diversity reflected in Nee's work is a key part of its value to the streaming service, which signed a multiyear deal with her in 2018.
“We have a global member base, and it’s really important to us that all of our members, especially kids and family, can see themselves reflected on screen and reflected in our shows,” Tilert said. "That’s part of how we’re going to build trust.”
Upcoming Netflix series produced by Nee include “Ada Twist, Scientist,” based on the books by writer Andrea Beaty and illustrator David Roberts about a Black girl with boundless curiosity, and “Spirit Rangers,” which follows the magical adventures of three Native American siblings.
Shows that may be appealing for kids who identify closely with the characters aren't intended to exclude other viewers, Nee said, citing “Ridley Jones” as a case in point.
“Hopefully, girls are going to be excited about it because they might see a version of themselves they’ve never seen before, something aspirational,” she said. "But boys will hopefully want to watch as well, and get to experience what it is to be totally invested in a girl-led show. I think that’s important.”