Amphibia: Series Creator Matt Braly Dishes on the Importance of Endings

Premiering in 2019, Amphibia has proven to be a smash hit for Disney Animation, and with good reason. Focusing on Anne and her friends Sasha and Marcy after they're transported from an average life to the fantasy realm of Amphibia, the series has steadily raised the stakes while also delving into a deceptively complex and mature exploration of friendship. The Emmy-nominated series is now approaching its epic finale with the 45-minute "The Hardest Thing," which premieres on May 14. The finale forces Anne and Sasha to confront not just armies that seek to invade the multiverse but their own lingering issues with Marcy, who's been taken over by a nefarious force known as the Core.

During an exclusive interview with CBR ahead of the series finale, Amphibia Creator and Executive Producer Matt Braly revealed which of the three main characters surprised him the most across the series. He also spoke about juggling epic stakes within the Disney Animation aesthetic and the importance of endings.

CBR: Going into this final stretch of the series, was this the story you always had in mind for the finale?

Matt Braly: This show has always had an intentional three-season arc, a three-part story. I'm crazy about threes, you know what I mean? I'm a meticulous, long-form planner. The ending that audiences are about to experience has always been my dream ending. When you have a show like this, you make Season 1, fingers crossed, hoping to get Season 2. You make Season 2, fingers crossed, to get Season 3. When we were writing the Season 2 finale, and it ends on a cliffhanger... We were fighting for Season 3. I was like, "If we don't get this, we're hosed." It will be one of those legendary shows that ended on a cliffhanger. Thankfully, we did get picked up for a third season. I'm so grateful that I was able to see the story through to the end.

That's not to say that things didn't change. Anytime you have a long-form outline, you have to be flexible because sometimes you'll get to these narrative choke points, and you'll be like, "Oh, crap. The character would never do that. They would never do that based on how they've evolved or how they've changed." Then the voice actor comes in and really crafts the character as well. You will get into these situations where you do need to bob and weave a little bit. If we had not gotten picked up, I think we would have gone back and scrambled... I've seen lots of shows where they got canceled, and they were able to somehow thread the needle and create a satisfying ending that was still open-ended. So, I guess we would have tried to do something like that.

All three main girls in the show -- Anne, Sasha, and Marcy -- have gone through so much growth over the series. Which one, would you say, has surprised you the most over the last three seasons?

Marcy really changed when the actor Haley Tju was introduced to the equation. Haley brought such a positive, energetic, lovable vibe to this character. I'll be honest, she was originally written a little more cold and calculating... but as we were casting and as we started writing and really getting into the characters, that felt like a little bit of a repeat of Sasha. It felt like, "Well, let's do something different. Let's really create a character who brings something new and exciting and bubbly to the group dynamic." So I think of the three girls, that was the biggest one because, I'll be honest, Anne and Sasha were pretty much the same in [the] pilot as they are now.

It was so consistent that Anne was this girl who was irresponsible, and Sasha was kind of walking all over her. Deep down inside, she was this really great person. She needed the space to find that person. That's always been pretty consistent. Of the three, I would say Marcy started one way. As we started working on her, we took her in a different direction than I'm super happy with. I love that character... That's the character who is excited to be there. It's like Po from Kung Fu Panda, who was such a fan and a lover of this genre that to them getting sent to this place is... It starts off as wish fulfillment, and I think in both shows they lose that very quickly... That's not wish fulfillment. These worlds are not to be trifled with.

Speaking of that danger, Amphibia is a show that's never shied away from the inherent dangers of a fantasy epic. How did you approach the tonal balancing act between that kind of storytelling and the more family-friendly, comedic Disney aesthetic?

It's awesome. That was such a challenge because there's some Lord of the Rings-like stuff, and that's hard to pull off on an 11-minute animated sitcom. When the team read the script pages, everyone's worst fear is to read in a script "two armies face each other down." Everyone was like, "Oh my god, how are we going to do this?" It's really about which shots and graphic imagery [do we use]? I think of shows like Samurai Jack that were so brilliant in their use of limited imagery to deliver the impression of a crazy battle. So we had to kind of do a lot of that.

I think, to your question, it is challenging, and it's not only the tonal kind of juggling -- it's got to be fun. There has to be jokes, but it's also a juggling of the format. This is an 11-minute sitcom, that's what we were. That's what was bought, that's what the network paid for. I understand that, and I am a professional, who is working within those limitations to the best of my ability, ready to deliver the best story possible. At the end of the day, yeah, it does create certain limitations for us and certain expectations... There's an expectation that like, okay, you can get big and epic, but at some point, we need to return to the kind of lighter fun stuff, at least for a duration, and then you can get back into epic stuff.

It always is a little bit for them, a little bit for me, you know what I mean? That's sort of just business. I'm super proud of what we've done with this show. I think that there is a point in any kind of climax where you gotta turn the jokes off. You've just got to turn the faucet off. I think in our Season 2 finale, there is a very clear moment where it's like, from here on out -- I think it's like the last five minutes of the episode -- there are no jokes. Nothing's funny anymore. I think that's really important. The same thing sort of happens in our 45-minute special at a certain point. I mean, you shouldn't notice it. It shouldn't be like, "I feel like there hasn't been a joke for five minutes," but you'll feel that like, "Oh, it's not like that anymore."

I've seen a lot of movies where they won't stop making jokes... It's like, no more jokes. Just play it genuine because I think there comes a time -- and I think this is sort of like an issue just in general in entertainment right now. We're very meta, and I love meta, but, at a certain point, the meta can't take over the genuine stakes and emotion of the scene. So it's this tricky balance of how meta, how much? It's about contrast. If you have a show and everything's dramatic all the time, then you get bored. If you have a show where everything's goofy all the time, then nothing matters. So it's really just finding that balance. I feel like our epic moments really do spike in the show because they're the contrast of what the show normally is, and it allows for these moments to really stand out.

The moral of these episodes -- and the show as a whole -- can be explained with the line, "we can't forget the past, but we can change the future." Why was that so important to make that core message of the story?

It's really like the finale of any show is sort of the team's last chance to say "but what was it really all about?" We've all had fun, but what is your mission statement? What is the point you're trying to make with this piece? That's why I love endings so much. It really is the ending of something that completes the story and completes the loop. Honestly, I feel like there are lots of stories that they didn't really have one. They're searching for it, or whatever, or they didn't go in with the intention to say something. [Amphibia] was specifically created to deliver a very specific message about friendship and my own experiences with friendship, which is that it's an ebb and flow. You start together, you grow apart, you come back together, you reform, [and] you grow individually, independently of those friend groups. It's like a living thing. It's all very, very liquid.

I think that in this show, it's very important for me... The past is part of the equation, but it's like, let's build a future with it. I think that the next couple episodes are all about what that means -- moving forward [with] these characters, who they are now, and how obviously, their past does deeply affect them. There's a line coming up in the 45-minutes special that really embodies this idea. It's with Sasha... So yes, you're exactly right. It's very important to the show. These episodes were very important for us to really, I guess, hammer down some of those messages and really make sure that our intention was coming across with this story.

You've spoken in the past about the importance of having Anne be a Thai American main character, in a medium that has really seen a strong push for diversity in recent years. What does it mean to you -- both as an animator and just as a fan of animation -- to know generations of fans will grow up with these characters?

I mean, it means everything to me. We just had this really fun fan celebration, and I ran into so many people who came up and were like, "Hey, I'm Thai, and I can't tell you how much this means to me" -- people who are just of Asian American descent feeling the same. I think, for me, the most important thing was... It's one thing to create a character, and they're diverse. It has to be a good story. It has to be a great, memorable character. I just wanted this character who people would remember and really love. There's a lot of really specific cultural references in the show that are for me... Like, we're going to the Thai temple, and we're doing all this stuff, and she's going to talk to her mom, and it's gonna be awesome.

At the heart of it, there's a very universal story about a girl finding her best self and becoming this hero. To me, that would be the biggest win is that people would be like, "I love this character." Then on top of that, they're also Thai. So it was this kind of the double goal for me where it's like, that's awesome that we have this diversity, and it means so much to me, it means so much to everyone. In order for it to really stick, it needs to be a memorable character. That was my true goal. I hope we've been successful. I hope people do remember Anne, and they think about her a lot -- and when they think about their favorite characters, the fact that she is Thai will only be like icing on the cake.

Amphibia's final two episodes, the one-hour special "All In" and the half-hour series finale "The Hardest Thing," premiere on Disney Channel May 7 & May 14

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