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Koala Man on Disney+ is surreal, silly and splendid – review

You can watch this show and find some shrewd observations about masculinity, social status and Australian cringe ... or just simply enjoy it.
Koala Man. Image: Disney+

Koala Man feels like the kind of show that got greenlit because Americans are obsessed with Bluey. Hulu and Disney+ are no doubt hoping this adults-only animated comedy – it’s chockers with swearing, violence and sex references – will reach international audiences who find the concept of ‘bin night’ quaint and delightful.

But Australians will instantly relate to its passive-aggressive silliness, because we breathe its eucalyptus-scented air. Koala Man is all about the Australian terror of being a loser, which manifests in such tendencies as a love of kitsch, fawning to power, holding deep grudges, the stupidity of crowds, and the use of mockery to paper over vulnerability.

Created by Australian animator Michael Cusack, with Pokemon: Detective Pikachu writers Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit as showrunners, the eight-episode Koala Man is produced by 20th Television Animation in association with Melbourne-based Princess Bento Studio.

It began as a 2018 pilot in ABC’s Fresh Blood – in retrospect, a bumper year which also yielded the precursor to Why Are You Like This, plus a collaboration between Nina Oyama and Angus Thompson, who would reunite on SBS’s Latecomers. (Oyama is also a writer, voice actor and script editor on Koala Man.) The Koala Man pilot was later nominated for an AACTA Award for best online drama or comedy.

Aussie-ing up the cartoon sitcom

The revised story is interesting because it manages to smuggle its ideas into what’s clearly been massaged into more of a familiar Simpsons or Family Guy setting. Kevin (voiced by series creator Michael Cusack) is a schlubby, balding middle-aged dork from Dapto – the Wollongong suburb where Cusack grew up – who moonlights as the titular marsupial-headed municipal vigilante, micropolicing his local laws and neighbours’ social interactions while wearing a koala mask and bedsheet cloak.

He works as an IT helpdesk guy for the capricious Big Greg (Hugh Jackman), a reality-TV angler turned local-council honcho, and takes for granted his unfulfilled tuckshop-lady wife Vicky (Sarah Snook) and his twin kids, nerdy son Liam (also Cusack) and crafty Alison (Demi Lardner), who sees her family as an impediment to the high-school popularity she craves.

Early episodes lean in to the idea that Kevin’s ‘Koala Man’ alter ego is an exasperating mid-life phase. Koala Man is introduced spraining his ankle by leaping down from a tree, and spends considerable time writing himself a power-ballad theme song, tending to the rarely dialled Koala Hotline, and hanging out at the Dapto bowlo with his mates Spider (Jarrad Wright) and old geezer Maxwell (also Wright), where barmaid Louise (Rachel House) can barely conceal her koala-crush.

Mostly the animation is bland and smooth – the characters’ round eyes and bodies reminded me of Family Guy or Rick and Morty, which isn’t surprising. Koala Man is executive produced by Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland – who also voices Chad Wagon, an American themed diner owner whose Fast and Furious glamour seduces Liam. (However, this association could be a liability now, as Roiland faces domestic violence charges dating back to 2020, which recently caused Adult Swim to cut ties with him.)

However, a Beavis-and-Butthead grotesqueness creeps in to the character design of Dapto deadshits Damo and Darren (also voiced by Cusack), the stars of Cusack’s viral short Ciggy Butt Brain who face off with Koala Man in slurred expletives.

This local grotesqueness lifts the show. Anyone who’s ever caught public transport in the deep suburbs will appreciate Cusack’s dead-on derro impression – I had to laugh at the bit in episode 1 where Darren says, ‘Grab those copper pipes; we’ll take ’em down to Cashies.’

Indeed, Koala Man has plenty of cheap, determinedly silly and extremely Australian jokes that reliably made me laugh: the Handball Olympics, the Forbidden Showbag, the god-given Sick Sunnies, the Miss Sausage Roll pageant (in which some contestants are, inexplicably, actual anthropomorphic sausage rolls), and Emu War II (featuring Hugo Weaving as King Emudeus).

Subverting superheroic bravado

The writers throw so much at the wall, and the voice actors – who also include Kiwi ring-ins Jemaine Clement and Rachel House – are so game, that Koala Man is always fun to watch. It takes a few episodes to find its story arc, but I really enjoyed how surreal it gets. Like Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) in Everything Everywhere All At Once, Kevin turns out to be the ordinary anchor of an increasingly elaborate universe – and his mistakes end up creating his nemesis, the Kookaburra.

Jokes about Kevin’s Green Goblin-like conversations with the koala mask show that Cusack is keen to make fun of macho superhero clichés. Eschewing guns, his weapons of choice are a bottle of eucalyptus oil, an imperviousness to ridicule, and the endless patience needed to help an old lady get her DVD player working. Kevin is everything a superhero isn’t: self-effacing, hapless, and really bad at maintaining a secret identity. His whole koala schtick turns out in episode 5 to have surprisingly tender origins.

Kevin’s opponents have the supernatural powers he lacks, and they also represent genuinely potent, grotesque Australian cultural forces. There’s a giant alien plant called the Tall Poppy; a superheroic team of Tradies; the sinister, skivvy-clad children’s band the Tigglies; and Big Greg’s even more aggressive sports-coach brother from Sydney, Huge Greg.

You can watch this show and find some shrewd observations about masculinity, social status and Australian cultural cringe. You can also safely enjoy it on the level of pure stupidity. I mean, this is a show where an alien planet has a Tinder one-night stand with Earth, and someone puts out a bushfire with 30 years’ worth of stored-up piss.

Like the man himself, Koala Man is pretty decent.

Koala Man is currently streaming on Disney+

Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).