When you stop to consider what a pioneer in puppetry the late Jim Henson was, it should really come as no surprise that his family members and associates have never strayed far from the craft of animation and quality children’s entertainment. These days the hot ticket doesn’t involve puppets, or for that matter, even drawn animation. Computer generated animation is all the rage (just ask Pixar) and the Jim Henson Group has been responsible for four entries into the genre at present. Three of these fall under the “Unstable Fables” umbrella and the fourth, being reviewed here, is a solitary piece targeted toward younger viewers.
Rest easy if you find yourself wondering why this one failed to wrestle moviegoer proceeds away from the likes of Shrek or Finding Nemo; Blue Elephant was a direct to DVD affair (back in 2008) based on a 2006 Thai-produced film called Khan Kluay. In its native Thailand the film did enjoy theatrical release, not to mention gained status as the highest grossing film that year, and managed to rack up over a dozen prestigious awards in the process.
I am known for, among other things, criticizing the act of taking a foreign animated work, dubbing an English vocal track then pawning it off as a new experience in my critiques and it’s not because I suspect the concept can’t work. Rather, traditionally, it hasn’t worked and those seeking verification of these claims need look no further than to Impy’s Island, Dolphin the Story of a Dreamer, The Snurks or Doogal for concrete evidence of just how wrong things can go in the translation process.
Surprisingly, Blue Elephant is one of the stronger entries to have undergone this exact treatment and while in no danger of threatening Pixar or DreamWorks, the film manages to succeed on multiple levels of entertainment.
The story thread of the film follows the trials and tribulations of a young, blue-skinned elephant named Khan Kluay as he discovers the world he was born into, longs to meet his absent Royal warrior father, and eventually comes to befriend a Siamese boy prince, Naresuan, who has been ransomed to the Burmese in the process.
The will to track down his father is so strong in fact that the young elephant ends up wandering away from the protection of his brood and is soon captured by a Burmese raiding party. This leads to his being separated from his mother as well and his becoming romantically involved with a young pink female elephant.
Of course there are numerous subplots about concerning his budding romance with said female elephant, some political turmoil between feuding human nations, and a bit of an attempt at comic relief that never really develops.
So here’s where this review is about to get complicated. It is truly quite difficult to pinpoint exactly whom this film targets in its domestic presentation. A majority of the visuals are colorful and overly simplistic, that, when coupled to the flatfoot scripting, affirm suspicions that the goal is to have the film appeal to very young kids. However, the back story is a bit more politically charged than most children are capable of processing and though it’s done tastefully, the visuals become surprisingly barbaric in the later sequences especially, divulging what appears to be a centuries-old rift between Siam and neighboring Burma. The film culminates in a clash of human armies that, no exaggeration harkens to some of the famous battle sequences in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Return of the King.
Make no mistake, the overall message here is quite appropriate for viewers of all ages and there is no real visual violence to be leery of, but individuals expecting the type of age-tested perfection that comes from say, Disney, may be caught a bit off-guard.
Visually the film holds up surprisingly well. The characters are a bit on the goofy side with apparent indecision as to whether to super-deform them into comedic proportions or attempt to stick to as close to reality as possible. The background textures are certainly more consistently impressive throughout however and the lighting during the battle sequences is also noteworthy for its ability to establish mood.
The language track is passable with a few moments where the potential to derail and sink the credibility of the project that present themselves along the way. Fortunately the actors never cross that line here and manage to keep the prose moving along in a fairly believable manner. I suspect that much of the actor freedom in this particular film stems from the fact that the characters’ mouth flaps are pretty well covered by the presence of their trunks. Had the US crew have to not only translate the material but also match onscreen mouth flaps, there’s a good chance this one would be as disastrous as Dolphin The Story of a Dreamer.
In conclusion kids will likely enjoy the clean visuals and simple dialog exchanges here (and potentially come away from the experience having picked up a valuable lesson or two). The political conflicts and feuding nations angle would probably have appealed to adult viewers but in this case only those patient enough to endure the light-heartedness in the foreground.
I can state with authority that, thanks to the fact that it does away with the constant tongue-in-cheek attempts at humor found in the three Unstable Fables, this is the strongest entry in the Jim Henson Group stable. While it may not do anything exemplary, it doesn’t commit too many crimes either and when it comes to imported animation projects; that’s pretty high praise indeed.
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