[28 June 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s amazing how quickly illustrators and designers forget that animation is art. For most of them, the concept of cartooning and commerciality are so closely linked that, as long as it looks good and can be sold across the widest possible demographic, the job is all but done. But when you look at some of the more inventive designs, when you look at the time and effort taken with something like Robots (ridiculous to sit through, gorgeous to look at) or any Pixar title and you realize that there can be some beauty inside the box office. This is especially true of French import Dragon Hunters. While some may mistake it for a low rent direct to DVD offering, this motion picture based on a famous TV series is actually quite pleasant. The script is rather pedestrian and crude. The computer generated images, on the other hand, are magnificent.
In a sensationally surreal world slowly falling apart, various floating islands and spheres make up the crazy kingdom of Lord Arnold. When the latest in a long line of monsters known as dragons show up, the despotic ruler demands his knights avenge his empire. Sadly, the last of these noble warriors has been driven insane by the evil creatures. Hoping to help, Zoe, Arnold’s grand-niece, suggests that two wandering drifters - hulking hero Lian-Chu and his con artist assistant Gwizdo, take on the horrific beast. The only problem? They have no skills as dragon hunters. But with the realm crumbling and falling away, it is up to these novice champions to save the day. But as they will soon learn, this World Eater is the most vicious of all the mythic beings - and perhaps, the most difficult to destroy.
Clearly a case of getting lost in translation, Dragon Hunters is a drop dead gorgeous CG adventure with a script that sounds like someone’s idea of what everyday English-speaking stooges say in the face of imminent danger. The dialogue, absolutely dripping with toilet humor putdowns and calm clichéd platitudes can’t rob this stunning film of its visual grace, but it damn sure tries, you smelly ass-face! With only a single recognizable name among the other voice actors (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker is Lian-Chu) and a narrative that sets up a simple adventure, it is up designers and directors Guillaume Ivernel and Arthur Qwak (who also created the original TV show this is based on) to build upon the idea - and what they construct will have your jaw almost permanently affixed to the flooring below your home theater.
It’s hard to describe the look and feel of this film. Imagine Terry Gilliam collaborating with the late Edward Gorey with the results filtered through a very European view of science fiction. Sure, the look of the leads is very exaggerated, shoulders, hands, and heads embellished to give the characters a clear, otherworldly look. But the background elements, from floating farmland orbs to disintegrating Baroque buildings are breathtaking in their execution. One could literally sit and watch the film without its soundtrack and still experience something incredibly exciting and optically moving. As the heroes come to their final stand-off, as the world continues to fail all around them, there is a Wall-E level of desolation and destruction that is hard to forget. Even in its most idiotic moments - and there are more than a few - Dragon Hunters is heaven on the eyes.
But it’s the plot that will constantly give you pause, if only to keep you wondering about why this particular story is being told (when we learn it is a prequel of sorts to the standard 2D animated TV series, the idea makes more sense). Zoe can be a bit of a pain, especially since she’s not necessarily involved in the hyper-heroics. Whitaker is wonderful, underplaying the role of champion Lian-Chu with just enough halting humility to make us fully comprehend the traumatic youth we witness in flashbacks. The main stumbling block for some will be Gwizdo, voiced with Steve Buscemi like prowess by Rob Paulsen. Though small in size, he has a massive ego, lots of interpersonal issues, and tends toward selfishness, cowardice, and an overall unpleasant disposition - and this is someone we should be rooting for. By the time of his denouement, we have grown to literally loathe him.
Luckily, the direction both in action and art saves the day over and over again. Perhaps in its native tongue, without all the Americanized crudities included, this would play perfectly. We wouldn’t cringe at the implied fixation with farts and other bodily belches, nor would the various arguments and confrontations sound so forced and flippant. Since this is one of the rare speculative fictions that creates its own clever world and its unusual gravity defying rules, we wait for the moment the filmmakers violate same. After all, it takes an equally extraordinary person (or persons) to preserve said scenic prerequisites every step the way. Dragon Hunters does so, and then just to make things a little more exceptional, it attempts to reinvent the animated movie genre as well.
It’s a shame then that so few will seek out and actually find this film. Though it’s a big hit in other foreign markets, and the TV series has been seen worldwide, the USA can be so closed minded sometimes. Indeed, tell someone that this is a French made sci-fi parable with incredible CG and some equally visionary work behind the camera and they will probably crack wise. In their mind, if it’s not Shrek, or Ice Age, or any number of mindless animated pop culture comedies, they turn their head and tune out. For once, they should instead open their eyes and see what they’ve been missing. Other international efforts may make for rough going for American mindsets, but Dragon Hunters is different. This is the rare cartoon that takes its art seriously - and it shows. Boy, does it show.