Saturday, June 05, 2004

Kaena: The Prophecy (Kaena: La Prophétie)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 June 2004 at the Brattle Theater (New England Animation Bash; print shown was dubbed)

I'd like to see Pixar or PDI commit to doing a full-out sci-fi action movie, just to see what someone with real movie storytelling skills can do with the genre. It seems like a medium where someone with imagination could create something incredible, and France's Kaena has four-star promise with its absolutely gorgeous opening shot of a spaceship ripping itself apart. After that, though, the movie gradually crumbles, as the visuals are forced to carry a weak plot.

Now, I'm not one to sniff and say that great special effects aren't worth anything without a good story (or, even more myopically, without good characterization). There are distinct pleasures to be found in just looking at this movie, from that opening sequence to the monsters that chase the main character to the dizzying image of a tree grown so tall that you're weightless above a certain point. But co-writer/director Chris Delaporte doesn't know how to pace them over ninety minutes; much of the cool stuff is bunched up on the ends, with the middle left to drag with a bunch of exposition and the overuse of a too-chatty character voiced (in the English dub) by Greg Proops.

A lot of Kaena's problems are shared by Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The animators often don't seem to trust themselves to show strong emotion without it looking hammy, so everyone seems restrained, even when they should be screaming or passionate. It also inserts a bunch of annoying mysticism into a science-fictional setting. Why does Kaena (voiced by Kirsten Dunst) have some sort of connection to the sphere (or "Vecanoï") at the base of Axis which the native Selenites wish to destroy and the sole survivor of the spaceship wishes to retrieve? No reason, she just does. Sure, those of us who like our science fiction and mystical fantasy kept distinct are probably a minority, but it weakens the title character here - in essence, Kaena is special because she's special.

Kaena is a fun character, though. She's the independent and adventurous teenager in her village, who explores Axis (the tree which is these characters' entire world) and draws the creatures she finds while most of the villagers harvest sap to be offered by the tyrannical High Priest to the gods. The adults are annoyed by her but the kids love her, as does a childhood friend. She's sexy, but in an innocent way; the tiny outfit she wears in the film's first half indicates a tropical environment more than any sort of naughtiness (and, hey, it's not like any of the guys are wearing shirts, either). It's enough to make one wish she was more of an active hero than a "chosen one", because it's a lot more fun to watch her figure things out than be told things.

(Of course, the costume whe's put in for the movie's last act is kind of fetish-like, and when a 700-year-old alien says he wishes he could merge with her rather than a member of his own species... Well, that's nasty.)

But golly, can this movie be pretty. Though it overdoes making one group of creatures shiny and liquid to the point where the eye can't quite hold on to them, it also offers up a steady stream of great pictures. Giant marauding creatures, worms in prosthetic suits, a tree so tangled it often looks like neurons, that beautiful, doomed spaceship, flight... Kaena has neat concepts and striking depictions of same. When this finally gets combined with people who can string them together to form an adventure movie the way John Lasseter can with a comedy, well, boy, that'll be something incredible.

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