The first thing most people will notice about Firebreather, Cartoon Network’s new CGI-animated movie, is how bad it looks. The character designs are bland, the backgrounds are sparsely detailed, and the animation is stiff. The hair on the characters’ heads might as well be helmets, considering how little it moves. As much as the network is promoting the film as a big event, it’s disappointing to see how cheap it appears. One may not go into the movie expecting animation quality on the level of Pixar or DreamWorks, but there’s little excuse for a finished product that resembles the CG cut scenes of a mediocre XBox 360 game.
The shoddy animation puts Firebreather in a hole from the get-go, and it never manages to dig out of it. Veteran animation director Peter Chung (Aeon Flux) uses a lot of dynamic camerawork, particularly in the action sequences, to make scenes appear more exciting. But all the swooping angles and creative zooms in the world can’t bring much life to the film when the figures can’t move and the plot sags.
Set 15 years after the world was engaged in a war with “kaiju,” giant monsters set on world domination. Somehow, the humans came out on top in this war, although the world still fears Belloc (Kevin Michael Richardson), king of the kaiju. But Belloc has disappeared since the war, and things have returned more or less to normal. From this prologue, the film starts with 16-year-old Duncan (Jesse Head), the new kid in school. Duncan is a half-dragon, the product of his human mother Margaret (an energetic Dana Delaney) and Belloc, although he doesn’t discover his father’s identify until later. Duncan is worried about things like his fondness for eating charcoal and his orange-tinted skin, which might make it hard for him to fit in at school.
The thing is, nobody else at school seems particularly concerned about these issues. Despite the presence of the kaiju (something the kids in high school would’ve heard about, as history), nobody seems to care too much about Duncan’s heritage. On the way to school, he meets Jenna (Amy Davidson), a hottie who is in charge of the student council and a prime candidate for homecoming queen. Still, she’s completely cordial and seems interested in him. The geeky Isabel (Tia Texada) and outcast Kenny (Dante Basco) also take to Duncan immediately, while bully Troy (Josh Keaton) and his friends predictably pick on him, but simply because he’s the new kid, not because he’s, you know, orange.
Things change a bit when Duncan gets into it with the bullies and discovers he can breathe fire. But he’s bailed out by Barnes (Reed Diamond), a military officer masquerading as the school gym teacher. Barnes has apparently been keeping tabs on Duncan for years, with the tacit approval of his mother, and now takes on a more overtly paternal role. Duncan doesn’t bat an eye when Barnes takes him up in a super-fast personal aircraft thingy and spirits him to a secret laboratory where a scientist attempts to determine the cause of his fire breath. In short order Duncan is back in class, trying to talk to Jenna and going to his first party.
As Duncan is plainly headed toward a confrontation with Belloc, the movie also complicates the villain, because, you know, appearances can be deceiving. This sets the stage for the movie’s action-heavy second half, which features large-scale battles between monsters and the military, Duncan discovering more of his powers, and the big homecoming dance.
Firebreather juxtaposes high school angst with over-the-top action—the sort of thematic mixing that anime does all the time—but ultimately fails at both. In school, Duncan seems like a whiner. He’s accepted by both the nerdy kids and the cool one (Jenna, Isabel, Kenny, Troy, and other bullies seem to be the only people at the school, hence there is no “rest of the clique” to tell Jenna not to hang around with Duncan). He has the support of adults, including the principal, Barnes, and his mother, so the adversity he’s facing at school is mostly in his mind.
This woe-is-me attitude undermines our investment in Duncan, and the battle scenes suffer from the substandard animation. A more interesting story pops up briefly, concerning Margaret and Belloc. Not only did they end up conceiving Duncan, they also managed to end the war between kaiju and humans. Their son’s unearned angst feels like small potatoes compared to that surely epic tale.