Kipo and the portal fantasy

Portal fantasy explained – Kipo and the age of wonderbeasts


There are many types of fantasy stories, each one gives a different feeling and theme to the genre. But there’s one type in particular that became absurdly popular recently: the portal fantasy.

It’s a story about a character (or group of characters) who get transported into a world different than the one they know.

Simple enough, right? Wrong.

The popularity of the genre made it so that a simple premise like this one can have myriad variations and even its own genre conventions.

Even a small section of the genre, like isekai, can create so many different stories based on this premise. Protagonist dies and ends up in a video game. Protagonist doesn’t die but ends up in a video game. A video game character dies and ends up in the real world. The real world becomes a video game.

And those are JUST the ones about video games.

So let’s take a look at the Netflix series Kipo and the age of wonderbeasts to see how a portal fantasy story can be written.

The portal

Kipo - bats
Image from the series Kipo and the age of wonderbeasts

So, this portal… doesn’t really have to be a portal. 

This popular fantasy trope was given this name because the main character has to be transported into a world that’s completely different from the one he knows. And very often the “thing” transporting him is a shiny sparkling magic door.

In classic fantasy literature like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there’s a literal portal disguised as a seemingly innocuous wardrobe. But there are other, more recent, stories where the protagonist has to go through a figurative portal instead of a real one.

For example, in many isekai like Re:Zero the portal is represented by truck-kun that kills the protagonist, allowing them to enter the world of their favorite video games/manga/anime/light novel.

Likewise, a portal isn’t always a portal. Meaning that it’s just a device that carries people and objects but it’s not the bridge between worlds that kickstarts the story.

In the magical world of Harry Potter there are many portals (or portkeys) and other magical objects that have the function of transporting people from one place to the next, but only one is the “portal” in question: platform 9 ¾.

The same goes for the superhero movie of Doctor Strange. He can create sparkly circles whenever he wants, but he doesn’t “enter” the world of magic through one of them. He travels the world in search of help and when he finally finds it, his master yeets the soul of his body. That’s his “portal”.

What’s Kipo’s portal? The sewers. Not the most elegant type of portal, but it did the job.

The very first scene of the first episode sees the girl being thrown out of her burrow and into the world of the surface.

In most portal fantasy stories, it will be impossible for the protagonist to go back the way he came. He will have to embark on a quest to find another way back.

Trying to go back is literally the first thing Kipo does. She tries to dig her way back into the sewers to go back home, but it’s impossible. And the first season is dedicated to her journey to find her people.

The new world vs The old world

Kipo - the teacups
Image from the series Kipo and the age of wonderbeasts

The funny thing about this series is that we don’t get to see Kipo’s “old” world right away. At the beginning of the series, we have a girl that comes from “nowhere” and explores this new and exciting post-apocalyptic world.

The burrow / old world

“The portal fantasy allows and relies on both protagonist and reader gaining experience”

– Farah Mendleshon

In most portal fantasy stories, the protagonist is either a person from the real world or someone from a world similar to the one we know.

Harry Potter gives us a protagonist who is a normal boy (well… he occasionally talks to snakes and makes things disappear but other than that he is “normal”).

Lord of the rings gives us the Hobbits. Those creatures are completely different from us, but their sheltered lives in a nice neighborhood makes them more “ordinary” than the rest of the characters.

For almost the entire first season, Kipo’s burrow is talked about and shown briefly in flashbacks. And that’s all we know about it. However, we do get the sense that the burrow is fairly similar to our own world.

Kipo reacts to the extravagance of the surface the same way someone from real life would. She also makes references to scientific theories and facts that are familiar to us (or that someone smarter than me would understand).

So despite the differences between the burrow and the real world (which pretty much boil down to they live underground and we don’t), it’s easy for us, the audience, to see Kipo as “one of us”.

The surface / new world

“The portal fantasy allows and relies on both protagonist and reader gaining experience”

– Farah Mendleshon

Unlike other types of fantasy stories, the portal fantasy compels the audience to identify with the protagonist. It doesn’t matter how different your personalities are, or the fact that the main character has godly powers and you don’t. At the end of the day, you’re in the same boat.

We, as the audience, find ourselves in a strange and unfamiliar world along with the protagonist. We’re basically learning, fighting, and exploring together.

In a different story, we might get a protagonist that already knows the story world better than us. Maybe he’s likable, maybe he’s charming, maybe he’s someone we can sympathize with… but he’s still a different person in a different world. He’s not “like us”.

 It’s easy to share Kipo’s curiosity and wonder for everything she sees because she’s seeing it for the first time, just like us. She’s just as confused as we are when her powers manifest for the first time.

Portal fantasy and exposition

Kipo - death ivy
Image from the series Kipo and the age of wonderbeasts

The portal fantasy can even make it easier for the writer to deliver exposition

A protagonist that has lived in the story world his whole life doesn’t need to be set down and explained the ins and outs of his own hometown.

And if you try to force the explanation, it’s probably going to sound ridiculous. “You see, this country you’ve been living in for the past 16 years is ruled by a king. Yes, the one you heard about many many times. As you already know, he is going to have a ball and, I’m sure that you already know that the princess will attend it.”

However if the protagonist doesn’t know anything about the world he’s in, it’s only logical that he will have questions to ask and that the other characters will have some explaining to do.

The protagonist aka The chosen one

Portal fantasies are often considered some sort of wish fulfillment for the viewer. This idea has to do with the fact that most of the time the protagonist of a portal fantasy is both a wimpy awkward outcast and Da cHouSan UnE.

Wimpy kid

Here’s the thing: the strongest feature of a portal fantasy is the ”bond of relatability” that the audience has with the protagonist. As I said before, even when the main character is a different creature, they still must have something that allows the audience members to see themselves in him.

So the easiest way to make the audience empathize with the protagonist is to put them at some kind of disadvantage, making them the “wimpy kid” in the cast.

This is why the Hobbits are frail and not particularly courageous creatures in a world where everyone has either big ass swords or magic powers. And also why Harry is an awkward kid who doesn’t know the first thing about magic.

Chosen one

However, our protagonist won’t stay the wimpy kid forever. As the story progresses they will have learned more and more about the new world they have discovered, gather allies, and acquired great powers. Making them The chosen one, the most powerful person of the bunch who is destined for greatness.

So Frodo proves to be the only one who has enough willpower to resist the ring (up until the last minute). Harry becomes a powerful wizard and matures enough to face his greatest fears (a noseless man).

In a story told well, the message that comes across to the audience is “Even an outcast can change the world through hard work and compassion”. But in a portal fantasy that is created to be nothing more than a vapid escapist fantasy, the message turns into “If you’re sad, don’t worry a wizard will come along and give you superpowers”.

So, how does this apply to Kipo?

She fits both categories pretty well. When we first meet her she’s a wide-eyed geek who couldn’t survive half a day on her own. By the time season 2 ends, she has become one of the strongest megamutes around and a precious ally to the communities she has encountered.

Her transition from wimpy kid to chosen one is gradual and fun to watch. Her influence on the surface grows as she befriends more and more people, and her control over the purple jaguar is a result of training.

In a way, her struggle to balance her animal side and her human side is the symbol of her transition from underground to surface. When she manages to control her powers, it means that she has been able to mature into a new identity without erasing her past self.

She’s still the geeky girl who lived underground, but now she knows the secrets of the surface. As Joseph Campbell would put it, she is the “Master of the two worlds”.

Why portal fantasy

Okay, so these are the things that make a portal fantasy adventure special. But why do writers all over the world find this subgenre so appealing?

Well, let’s say that a portal fantasy story is a win-win both for the writer and the audience.

The writer has the chance to create a wonderful and crazy world that can be explored by the protagonist and throw in there as much lore and history as he wants. Meanwhile, the reader can see himself as the underdog protagonist who discovers secrets, powers, cultures, and ultimately himself.