With all Judge Joel Pearce's talk of sap, you'd think this was the first epic animated film set in Vermont.
A mysterious prophecy. A journey for freedom. A world of adventure.
Some of the best movies come out of nowhere, created by a small, dedicated crew of inexperienced amateurs who defy expectations and pour years of their lives into a project about which they feel passionately. Unfortunately, more than drive and passion are needed to make a great film. Kaena: The Prophecy should have been one of these films—but a generic plot, some terrible voice acting, and bland animation got in the way of the vision.
Facts of the Case
A small tribe of superstitious people live in this extremely large tree, collecting sap for their gods, who gain their power from the sap. Little do the people know that the gods are really evil, simply forcing them to collect sap in order to prepare for some sort of freaky mating ritual between the queen (Anjelica Houston, The Royal Tenenbaums) and her first-in-command. This is becoming more of a problem, though, because the sap is starting to dry up and the gods are getting angry. The only disbelieving villager is a teenage girl named Kaena (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man) who explores far into the dangerous reaches of the tree, and believes that there is some other answer to their problem—one that involves taking the people away from this terrible place. When the gods convince the leader of the people to travel into their realm, Kaena stumbles over the remnants of an ancient civilization. This new discovery could be the answer to all of their problems, if she is able to save her people in time.
If there has been one trend in the computerized animation industry (Pixar excluded), it's that high tech animators seem to be lousy storytellers. In this case, the story is sloppy and awkward, with tons of science fiction clichés crammed in, seemingly with the hopes that they would somehow come together into a brilliant and refreshing tale. Of course, it doesn't really work that way at all. The notion of ancient and powerful races guiding the destiny of a weak humanoid race is certainly not a new one in science fiction novels and, perhaps more significant here, video games. The action of the story leads the protagonist through a number of physical challenges and revelations in a linear fashion, reaching towards some kind of final confrontation. Each action sequence is designed around some new power or artifact that Kaena accesses in order to defeat her foes. In fact, the story structure of Kaena: The Prophecy feels so much like a video game that at times it's difficult to think of it as a movie. Even the premise—a hero pulled from a small village between two battling forces—seems a little too basic. All of these story elements could have played as classic, but they are done in such a generic way that it doesn't ever approach that feeling of timelessness that other such quest stories have achieved. It has the narrative simplicity of Conan the Barbarian, but none of the scope or power.
The animation fares somewhat better. About five years ago, Kaena: The Prophecy would have looked really good. The animation of the liquid gods is fairly slick, and Kaena has fluid and expressive movements. Some of the texture work is fantastic, and there are a number of details and environmental effects that stand out. Unfortunately, many of the other characters do not move as smoothly, but seem to hearken back to the days before the use of motion capture. At times, watching the villagers feels a lot like watching Lego men move, despite their expressive faces. They also lack the level of detail that we have come to expect in recent offerings. The animation style of the humans is obviously meant to be stylized, but they come out looking more sloppy than cool. The style of the animation, as well as the overall design of the setting (an expansive but simple geography surrounded by an enormous void), are quite reminiscent of the FMV that was produced for video games starting in the late 1990s. Anyone who was seduced by computer role playing games during that period will understand exactly what I mean when they sit down to watch the film. When things get visually complicated, the frame rate often slows down as well, which makes the film feel unfinished.
The voice acting also reminds one of a video game, which is certainly not a good thing. A few of the voices stand out, especially Richard Harris as Opaz. His performance is as pleasantly underplayed, as was the case with most of his recent roles. Other characters do not fare so well. Both of the villains sound remarkably generic, especially considering the voice talents that were brought in. Kirsten Dunst does an acceptable job as Kaena, but she is somewhat obnoxious at times, and never sounds particularly heroic. She is not given much to work with in the way of the script though, so I can't complain too much about her work. The truly terrible performance comes from Greg Proops as Gommy. I found that each time his character said a line, my hand moved towards the remote in a strange kind of knee-jerk reaction. I had to force myself to continue, and it got more difficult each time. In my review of Bastof Syndrome: The Hacker, I described two characters that were fighting for the "most annoying character ever" award. They are no longer even in the running, all thanks to Gommy. The supporting cast is also generally weak.
Watching the segment on the production of the film, I discovered that this comparison to a video game is even more appropriate than I realized. The project was created by a video game team, and was initially planned out as a game. It was only when they expanded their ideas that they decided to create a full theatrical film. I'm still not sure how to react to knowing this about the production. In one sense, I am surprised that Xilam was able to create Kaena: The Prophecy using open source software designed for video game creation. With that taken into account, they should be very proud of the technical quality they have been able to achieve. At the same time, though, it's sad that a difficult nine year project didn't begin with a better story concept. The producers of the film talk as though they have accomplished something that no one else has ever done before in producing an animated feature intended for teens and adults, which is simply not true. The exceptional Corto Maltese was a recent French production that pulled this off, and it is only one of many examples internationally in the past year. The Japanese have been producing great animated entertainment for teens and adults for decades. Perhaps the team was only referring to fully computer-rendered features, which does narrow the field by quite a bit. Still, other film houses managed to produce and deliver Final Fantasy and Wonderful Days while they were still working, two films that serve as far better examples of the genre.
Technically, the disc is far more impressive than the film. The video transfer doesn't look quite as good as it ought to, considering that it is a digital film recorded on a high quality digital medium, but overall it fares alright. Occasionally, on a high quality display, it's possible to see some minor compression artifacts. That said, for the most part the colors are right on, and at times there is a remarkable amount of detail. The sound is also solid, with plenty of action through each channel and clear dialogue. Sometimes frustratingly clear, in fact.
The disc only has a few extras. The first is a digital interview with Kaena about her character. Interestingly enough, this test footage is in French, as opposed to the English that the dialogue was eventually produced in. It is mildly funny, but it does not give us any insight into the development process. Next up is a featurette on the making of the film, which I have already referred to briefly in my review. Understanding the conditions that the team worked under during production is really useful, and it makes it clear that Kaena: The Prophecy was a true labor of love. I only wish that the product had matched the passion that this team demonstrated over the past decade.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some of the animation looks pretty cool.
Seriously, though, I don't think that Kaena: The Prophecy is a disaster; it's just sadly misguided and a bit out of date. Less critical viewers who are still able to get lost in the unfamiliar world and be swept away by the typical story will probably enjoy the film far more than I did.
I can't imagine anyone being happy with a purchase of this disc. While some of the animation is nice, enough of it is far enough out of date that it does not even succeed as pure eye candy anymore. Huge fans of digital animation will want to give it a rent despite my warning, and might not regret it. In the end, though, I think this is one project best left forgotten, in favor of the digital entertainment that came before it and is sure to come in the future. There was a time for this film, but it has long since passed.
I hereby brand Kaena: The Prophecy guilty on all charges, and sentence it to a continued life of embarrassed obscurity.
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Scales of Justice
• Virtual Interview with Kaena
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