[This review was first published December 12, 2008 on Blogcritics web site at http://blogcritics.org/archives/2008/12/12/194914.php]
In the genre of computer-animated films, Japanese and American studios have previously maintained superiority in both technical skill and storytelling. Dragon Hunters, the newest animated release from Futurikon Films, will delight audiences but also put Hollywood and Tokyo on notice that France is ready to compete as a peer instead of an aspiring student of the craft.
Dragon Hunters tells the story of four characters, three of whom will be familiar to anyone who has seen the animated television series that made a brief run on United States television via Cartoon Network.
Rob Paulsen is the voice of Gwizdo, an enterprising fellow, short on generosity but long on initiative.
Lian-Chu (voice provided by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker) is a skilled slayer of dragons, built like a mountain, but possesses delicate sensibilities (not limited to a love of knitting) that cause him to question why he does Gwizdo’s unscrupulous bidding as they roam their world slaying dragons and shaking down local people for monetary reward.
Hector, whose mish-mash language of grunts and growls is brought to life by Dave Wittenberg, rounds out their rag-tag band, a precociously ferocious blue-haired dog-like creature who is Lian-Chu’s partner-in-attack and provides the majority of the laughs that are dispersed throughout the 82-minute movie.
Fans of the television show will notice that a new female character joins the cast of regulars. Zoe, whose terrifically cute and exuberant character is voiced by Mary Mouse, is a young girl whose life has been spent in the safety and seclusion of her uncle Lord Arnold’s fortress. Her fantasies of knights and dragons – fueled by her uncle’s experience with such adventures – are made real when Lord Arnold begins to see signs that have foretold the coming of a great dragon known as the World Gobbler.
Desperate, Zoe sneaks from the castle, lands herself in mortal danger, and is rescued from peril by Lian-Chu. Now a group of four, they make their way back to Lord Arnold’s fortress where the original trio convinces Lord Arnold that they are, in fact, knights. Afflicted by blindness, Lord Arnold believes them and offers a mission of great importance – to slay the World Gobbler – a task that Gwizdo is more than glad to accept, for a fee. Zoe accompanies the trio on their journey to the ultimate destination – the end of the world.
Throughout the ensuing encounters with dragons and danger, Zoe’s belief in heroism (and Gwizdo’s denial of it) gives rise to the conflict within Lian-Chu about the path he has chosen. This theme is a good one that could have been introduced sooner and drawn in bolder strokes within the script. More films aimed at children with the message that doing good is a choice that each of us must make would have to be considered a good thing.
In many ways, the main character is the scenery. The story takes places in a world that exists in the sky, where massive forms of earth and stone float like lily pads on a placid pond. One of the great challenges to any animator – computer-aided or not – is to invent a setting that carries the story without leaving the audience scratching their head in disbelief. Dragon Hunters’ creators achieved this admirable feat, creating - in some moments - a world of that surpasses the imagination of Japanese animation genius Hiyao Miyazake. It accomplishes this even while it drawing from Miyazake’s visual catalog. In spite of this apparent homage, the film will take audiences to places they have never been.
The world of Dragon Hunters is rich with its own personality, a place in which all man-made things are old and all organic things are exotic. Everything seems in its place, despite the fact that nothing, except the basics of man-made architecture, is recognizable from the world in which we live and there is an incredible variety of landscapes, giving the world that these character live in a feeling of depth and realism. The rendering and detailing of natural surfaces creates the experience of looking at a painting, not as jarring as the hyper realistic or cartoonish appearance of lesser productions. Dragon Hunters represents more evidence that there is a French school of animated artistry. If so, I would like to see more of it.
At times the scenes and their composition achieve such peaceful beauty as to suspend the need for dialogue. In the greatest achievement for this genre, the animated characters, without speech, still deliver a performance. Yet the faster-moving sequences are equally masterful in their choreography, and visual pop. The scene in which we meet Lian-Chu, Gwizdo, and Hector – a carefully choreographed battle involving Hector, Lian-Chu, and a dragon called the Mamularus that resembles a large caterpillar - is the funniest, most energetic and well-composed action scene I have ever seen in an animated film. Without so much as an utterance about hope and change, a tingle was felt up my leg. The final battle scene will also serve as a wake-up call to American studios that their supremacy will henceforth be challenged.
Anyone making early guesses about how the story ends won’t be wrong, but the journey there is worth spending the time. The superb score by composer Klaus Bedelt (composer, Pirates of the Carribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Constantine), pushes all of the right buttons, and the script moves the story along at a fast pace toward its inevitable conclusion.
In some ways, however, the film depends too much on its visual impact. It seems to be infatuated with its own beauty and doesn’t afford enough time to the development of the characters that are so important in making a connection with a young audience. There are places in which the action is difficult to follow, and American children will not understand that the filmmakers decided to use the term dragons to generically describe all beastly and dangerous creatures.
Nevertheless, families with small children and fans of computer animation should definitely make a point of seeing the film. It is currently showing at the Laemmle’s Grand 4 Plex, 345 S. Figueroa Street, in Los Angeles, California in order to be eligible for an Academy Award nomination in the categories of Best Score and Best Animated Film.