It’s hard to describe Centaurworld. Part musical anime, part Yellow Submarine, this comically psychedelic confection premiering on Netflix later this month isn’t easily categorized. Thankfully, we were able to sit down with Centaurworld creator and showrunner Megan Nicole Dong, who explained the background behind this wildly hallucinogenic quest show.
What Is Centaurworld?
In the beginning, there was Horse (Kimiko Glenn) and Rider (Jessie Mueller); two beings of basic nomenclature built for war in a grey, post-apocalyptic world. This heroic pairing are relentlessly pursued by their enemies until one day when Horse slides off a cliff and ends up in Centaurworld — a bright, psychotropic universe inhabited by a colorful collection of googly-eyed half-human beings who collectively call themselves “centaurs.”
Oh, and they sing. Frequently. In fact, there are enough musical interludes and show-stoppers to warrant an opening on Broadway. This isn’t surprising, given the ensemble cast of seasoned musical theatre veterans. This is musical theatre for the soul — not despite the nonsensical fantasia of animal-human hybrids, but because of them.
The “herd” includes Wammawink, a llama hybrid (Megan Hilty); Zulius, a mix of zebra and total fabulousness (Parvesh Cheena); Durpleton, a giraffe mix (Josh Radnor); Ched, a fried chicken cast off with a Napoleon complex (Chris Diamantopoulos); and Glendale, a fawn hybrid with a secret tummy portal, a neurotic streak and a serious kleptomania habit (voiced by Dong). Throughout the series, this herd embraces Horse and helps her on her quest to return to her own world, and her beloved Rider.
The Creator of Centaurworld
“Whenever I explained to friends and family that I was making a comedy, fantasy, action-adventure, road trip musical whose main character is a talking horse, I was almost always met with confused nods, blank stares, or a baffled ‘But…why?’” Dong said in a statement. “But it always made perfect sense to me. At its heart is the story of an outsider finding herself and choosing her own family.”
Being Asian American and born and raised in suburban California, Dong struggled with identity and felt immense pressure to succeed academically. When she was a freshman in high school, a chance scheduling mix-up placed her in a show choir class; an error that would ignite a creative passion and forever change the trajectory of her life.
“I was really out of my element … ‘jazz hands’ and goofy, sparkly dresses,” Dong tells Parentology. “And I was really shy and introverted. So I was initially horrified, but then I ended up falling in love with it. It really allowed me to feel more excited about music and performing and passionate about musical theater.” Dong says she spent an entire school year singing, dancing, and shamelessly jazz-handing, having an amazing time in the process.
Not long after, Dong decided to pursue a career in the arts and ended up in animation. She came up in the ranks as an artist on DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, before becoming a supervising director on Netflix’s Pinky Malinky.
Centaurworld pays homage to her past and present pursuits. Indeed, in many ways, Dong was a version of Horse, a duty-bound student suddenly exposed to the crazy world of musical theatre. “That’s where I wanted to tell the story of a character who’s driven and thought that there was only one way to do things, and then winds up in this zany space with a lot of singing, and who ends up being changed by that environment,” Dong tells us.
Dong drew on a lot of creative inspirations to inform the characters of Centaurworld, including Jim Henson’s Muppets. “There’s a lot of ‘Muppetiness’ to the way the characters look and in the way that they behave and move. Jim Henson and the Muppets, in general, were a big thing for me,” says Dong. She also drew on Henson’s darker pieces, such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, to create some of the show’s more sinister creatures.
Comically psychedelic, Centaurworld is a beautiful hallucination; funny, scary, and weird all over. As Dong notes, “The characters are childlike in a lot of ways, but they’re not children.” Likewise, the story is not two-dimensional. These characters harbor some very real trauma that they’re able to examine and exorcise as they work through their quest together.
“Trauma was one of the things that we were exploring from the very beginning with all of those characters. We wanted them to be flawed,” says Dong. “We wanted them to have characteristics that were rooted in their trauma and to not judge them for it.” This approach inevitably delivers a level of sincerity that can be felt when watching the show.
“The one thing that was important to us, for all of these characters, was that in spite of the wackiness of everything, we wanted all of our characters to feel genuine, like real people that you might know,” she says.
There are a lot of universal truths in the wacky world of centaurs; the importance of family, the value of trust, giving and receiving love and allowing oneself to be vulnerable. If I had to choose between a gritty reality and the heady giddiness of Centaurworld, I’ll take the latter all day long.