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There are precious few shows for kids that don’t have flaws. Many of them look beautiful, but at the expense of characterization and story. Others are wildly creative, but frenetic and shallow. Still others teach valuable morals, but come off as heavy-handed.

Hilda, an animated series on Netflix that I watched with my family, is the rare example that hits the trifecta. It’s gorgeous but has rich depths of story, imaginative yet grounded, and handles heavy themes deftly. It’s the kind of show I wish there was more of.

Cast of characters

Hilda is an 11-year-old girl who lives in a cabin in the woods with her mother and her loyal pet, Twig. She’s a free spirit, naturally suited to solitude, and loves the freedom of the wilderness. She delights in befriending the magical beings that live around them, from tiny elves (invisible to everyone except those who’ve filled out the paperwork) to giants as large and slow as mountains.

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But when circumstances force them to move to the city of Trollberg, Hilda has to start over. She has to trade her idyllic existence for a mundane life of classrooms and chores, stop signs and supermarkets. She chafes against conformity and struggles to fit in, especially when it comes to other kids her age—whom, it seems, she finds harder to relate to than wild creatures.

However, Hilda soon discovers that Trollberg isn’t as boring as she had assumed. Once she knows how to look for it, she discovers that the city is full of magic of its own. It’s the kind of place where the little old lady down the block might turn out to be a powerful witch, where the library has secret doorways into magical realms, where talking ravens control the weather and household spirits help out with the chores. Many of the beings that populate its cracks and crevices are drawn from Scandinavian mythology.

The ones who loom largest are are the trolls, who inhabit the mountains and caves around Trollberg. In the daylight they turn to stone, but at night they come to life. They’re huge, bestial, aggressive, and hostile to humans. Like a medieval town, Trollberg is encircled by walls to keep them out.

Hilda is a show about empathy

In season 2, the conflict between humans and trolls reaches a boiling point. For unknown reasons, the trolls are becoming more numerous and aggressive, as if something is drawing them toward the city. They even seem to be organizing, contradicting the widespread belief that they’re mindless brutes.

Erik Ahlberg, the vainglorious and arrogant head of the city’s Safety Patrol, promises the people that he’ll keep them safe if they just give him unchecked power and don’t ask too many questions. Hilda and her friends see through his lies, as few others do, and make it their mission to expose him. It’s a kid-friendly yet potent allegory for fascism, xenophobia, and how propaganda exploits fear of the other. My son grasped the message immediately, and it led to some fruitful conversations about similar things that have happened in real life.

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This arc, but also the moral woven through the entire show, is a lesson about the importance of empathy. Hilda is eager where others are fearful, curious where others are suspicious. She always wants to befriend magical creatures, even when everyone else sees them as dangerous beasts or evil monsters. She’s the kind of girl who’ll face down a fire-breathing dragon or cheerfully dabble in necromancy to help out a friend. In season 2, she’s dead-set on proving that the trolls aren’t as bad as the Safety Patrol says they are.

And yet, Hilda is also one of the more realistic child protagonists in fiction. She’s brave and clever, but not necessarily smarter or more competent than the adults around her. Her insatiable curiosity, her stubbornness, and her courage verging on recklessness get her into trouble as often as they get her out of it. Many of the episodes are about a problem she inadvertently causes and has to set right.

My son is 6, and much like Hilda, he’s both unusually fearless for his age and loves animals and mythology. He fell in love with the show immediately. However, there are moments that might be too scary for most little kids. One episode in particular, about two rival clans of immortal Vikings who slaughter each other every night and rise again the next day, had some (bloodless) imagery of death and dismemberment. There are also moments of real adult fear where the characters’ peril is played realistically, not for comedy.

These cautions notwithstanding, I’d recommend it to anyone. More than any other show I know of, Hilda captures the magic and wonder of childhood. It has that blanket-fort-and-flashlight feeling of unbounded imagination, the sense that the world is bursting with mystery and possibility. It’s the places on the map marked “Here there be dragons,” except that they can be found just around the corner, rather than over a distant horizon.

Hilda is streaming on Netflix. There are two seasons, plus a movie-length episode, Hilda and the Mountain King, that wraps up season 2’s cliffhanger ending. A third and final season is in development.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...