Bright, encouraging, and outrageous, watching “Tuca & Bertie” can feel like watching a particularly excellent Saturday morning cartoon. Two neighboring bird women — voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong — help each other through awkward crushes and intimidating work duties, all while laughing, exploring, and supporting one another. Vivid colors fill the frame, and wacky animated features fly across the screen. Bertie, an anxious yet highly organized songbird with dreams of being a professional baker, might yank a graph out of thin air explaining the difference between jam and jelly. Tuca, an outgoing toucan and amiable agent of chaos, likes to make up new words that the series emboldens with specialized fonts and sound effects.
And yet, creator Lisa Hanawalt blends this imaginative spirit with stark, often intimidating, reality. Bertie tackles sexual harassment at work in the second episode. Tuca is an alcoholic coping with abandonment issues. More internal obstacles to external desires are brought to the surface as the series pushes forward, but this isn’t a bait-and-switch situation; the comedy isn’t just a means to get to the drama. The two gel seamlessly as the characters develop and grow together. “Tuca & Bertie” connects on a deeper level than many cartoons, without devaluing the importance of joy, laughter, and good old fashioned fun.
The 10-episode first season opens with the eponymous bird friends in flux: Having moved in with her boyfriend, Speckle (Steven Yeun), Bertie (Wong) is trying to get comfortable in her new living arrangement. Her ex-roommate and lifelong friend, Tuca (Haddish), now lives right above her, but such close physical proximity doesn’t ease Bertie’s emotional concerns. She wants to know her carefree BBF (best bird friend) is going to be OK without her. Tuca picks up odd jobs here and there, but she’s often reliant on her more responsible BFF (bird friend forever) to clean up her figurative and literal messes.
Hanawalt is quick to show off how these disparate bird people complement each other. When Bertie gets stuck in her head, Tuca pushes her out of the shell and toward what she really wants. When Tuca needs to confront her own repressed anxieties, Bertie is there to coax them out of her and lend a guiding voice. What may seem like an odd couple quickly feels like a real relationship, and their ebullient nature is showed off in a shared sense of humor.
Much of that comes across in the magnificent, limitless world they live in. Tuca opens her front door, and the image flips into a two-dimensional arcade game, complete with a high score to snag and rats to jump on for points. Bertie gets caught up in a baking story, and glowing close-ups of a golden treat called a “crunt” adds visual flair to her excited narration (just like Tuca slapping the picture with a “worst pastry name” ribbon illustrates her own point of view). As for who lives in their colorful bird city, there are no limits there either: One of their neighbors has a plant where her head would be and a green woman’s torso, and jaguars can be purchased as pets (if not house-trained like one).
These creative visual flourishes keep the pace quick and the jokes coming. Comedy is the goal, but Hanawalt — who broke out animating “BoJack Horseman,” and has been drawing unique, compelling pieces for years — and supervising director Mike Hollingsworth also use distinct stylings to shift tones. In later episodes, there’s a scene when Bertie digs into old memories, and the animation shifts to a darker, more muted color palette and faceless character outlines. It’s respectful yet honest, honoring both the feel of aged memories along with their difficult content.
These savvy formal choices help distinguish stand-out moments without separating them from the the rest of the story. The series is just as likely to snag laughs from the absurd thoughts inspired by a panic attack as it is to realistically show their crippling effects. Bertie and Tuca’s anxieties and frustrations are integral to the rest of the narrative, and Hanawalt addresses them with apt seriousness and frivolity. They’re a part of Tuca and Bertie’s daily lives, as they are for so many real people, so it’s refreshing to see them featured in a positive, hilarious series. The balancing act is tricky, but “Tuca & Bertie” stays on an addictive upswing.
Butts, believe it or not, are the key to having it both ways. Think about it. Butts are funny. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, thinking up goofy rhymes or dropping the word unexpectedly during a casual conversation can be a consistent source of laughter. But they’re also objects of adult desires and admired as part of the human body’s curvy aesthetic beauty. “Tuca & Bertie” appreciates butts in all forms, and there are butts everywhere (as anyone familiar with Hanawalt’s previous work should expect). Whether they’re naked bird butts from behind a towel or powerful toucan butts used as bouncy toys, you don’t have to choose one way to think about buttocks — in “Tuca & Bertie,” you can have it all! And you should. It’ll be your best Saturday morning in a long, long time.
“Tuca & Bertie” premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Season 1 premieres in its entirety Friday, May 3 on Netflix.