ADV Films // 1987 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // May 5th, 2004
Freely adapted from Windaria!
Quick: For what role is Russell Johnson most known?
If you immediately thought, "The Professor from Gilligan's Island," then Once Upon A Time is marketed toward you. If you're among the bulk of us who didn't exactly light up at the mention of Russell Johnson's name, you may find Once Upon A Time lackluster.
The complete backstory is hard to determine, but here is my understanding: In 1984, renowned anime director Hayao Miyazaki created Nausicaä of the Valley of Winds. This environmentally-themed tragedy was about a princess who tries to stop warring nations from destroying her bucolic valley. In 1986, Kunihiko Yuyama (of Pokèmon fame) created an animated environmental tragedy called Windaria, wherein a heroic vegetable farmer tries to stop warring nations from destroying his bucolic valley. In 1987, Carl Macek brought Windaria to the United States. In the process, he trimmed several key scenes to get it into PG-13 territory, rearranged other scenes, rewrote the script, changed the score, and hired American actors to dub the dialogue. Most notably, Russell Johnson did opening and closing voiceovers to cover lapses in the reworked script. The result is Once Upon A Time, an animated morass that is "Freely adapted from Windaria," which in turn is freely adapted from Nausicaä of the Valley of Winds.
I haven't seen Windaria, but I'm willing to bet fifty dollars -- sight unseen -- that the changes are for the worse. Once Upon A Time is simply a mess. An intriguing mess to be sure, but still a mess.
The running time of 95 minutes is on the long side for animated feature films, yet the voice acting makes it seem like a three-hour, 45-minute epic. I cannot fathom a deader-sounding dub. The voices are completely purged of inflection and emotion; where a good dub gives you a sense of energy and character, this one sounds like "Proposed Outsourcing Restrictions Day" on C-SPAN. The ballyhooed voiceover narration by The Professor set the tone early, reminding me of a documentary on pupal metamorphosis that I had to watch in elementary school science class. His narcotic droning attempted to pull me into the warm embrace of sleep, but I shook it off. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast showed up to reinforce the assault on my alert mental state. As far as their voices were concerned, the characters might have been discussing crop rotations instead of passion, war, and betrayal. The opening credits and narration seemed to be invoking a classic Disney vibe, perhaps in an attempt to make this Japanese work more palatable to American audiences.
Once Upon A Time wants to be deep and tragic, making a statement about the folly of war, or the inexorable march of technology pulling us further and further from our spiritual roots. Certain snippets of the movie did impart such meaning. Yet the tone leans too far toward allegory to support its own weight, which makes the tale seem simultaneously pompous and inauthentic. It is a shame, because the animation would support a more natural and piercing interpretation. Stilted themes of universal strife just don't mesh well with the story. Take, for example, the affair between Princess Veronica and Prince Roland. These two seem to possess insight and nobility that their warfaring parents lack. Yet they cave in to contrived promises to carry on the war. Aside from stretching the limits of plausibility, these actions only serve to frustrate us and alienate us from the characters. Roland becomes King: how hard is it to say, "Hey, call in the troops"?
Many characters suffer from this inexplicable tendency to act against character. Allen is our hero, a brave and blustery rube who takes the salvation of the valley into his own hands. But his actions make scant sense in the best light. He carouses with hookers, drives tanks around the city, and causes major destruction? I don't know if we are supposed to root for him or against him (frankly, the droll tone makes it hard to care either way), but I was mostly exasperated. Allen's wife does little but cry and wait. I can't help but feel that half of her scenes were cut, because what stands makes no sense.
While we're on the subject, where do these subplots keep coming from? Several trains of thought arrive from nowhere and follow random tracks out of the screen. Who is the shadowy man-woman-spirit who poisons Allen's mind? Why is the war happening, exactly? Who sent in the kamikaze Shadowlander spy? What does the tree do? You may not know what I'm talking about, but that's okay -- neither do I.
This isn't to say that Once Upon A Time is bad, necessarily. It is simply too far removed from the original concept. The animation has a classic and substantial feel, like moss-grown castles with bright banners whipping in the breeze. There's no hint of computers or zany special effects. In terms of sheer animated presence, Once Upon A Time fares well. Snippets of the music properly set a mood of tragedy. Certain characters were nicely rendered (others were too simple). If you enjoy deep tragedy and don't mind a trumped-up atmosphere of melodrama, Once Upon A Time may move you.
The transfer is remarkably dirty, with many nicks and lots of dust. I don't mind grain and scratches if their presence preserves the integrity of the film; I'd rather see dirt than pixelation any day. Still, the transfer is not impressive. The colors are relatively punchy, though the black levels are unstable; the problem is that the colors tend to wander around. Since the transfer wasn't cleaned up, it is not a surprise to find no extras. The menu practically screams "old" and "bare bones."
Once Upon A Time might have worked with the original voices, scenes, and themes intact. As it stands, Once Upon A Time is an antiseptic amalgamation of concepts that periodically connect, but mostly frustrate the viewer's sensibilities. The court recommends that you go right to the source and watch Nausicaä of the Valley of Winds.
Review content copyright © 2004 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated