Monday, March 01, 2010

Clerks III: Dante's Inferno

DANTE SLASH!

Much like Dante Alighieri's epic poem which inspired this mess, DANTE'S INFERNO: AN ANIMATED EPIC is a miserable torment the viewer can't turn away from. It's just a shame the reasons for my revulsion are pretty far removed from what the father of modern Christianity could have ever dreamed imaginable in the mid 19th century.

Unlike in the original work, here Dante is a simple crusader who begins this saga by returning suddenly from the Holy Land, still stained in blood from the crusade. He arrives home only to find his father, and lover slain. Filled with shock and rage, he watches as Lucifer himself appears to snatch his lovely bride-to-be's soul, and Dante rushes head-long into the maw of the damned, guided by the spirit of the ancient poet Virgil on a crash course with every demon the 9 circles can throw at him...

If the original L'inferno poem was the Travelogue of Hell, then Dante's Inferno is the cliff notes pamphlet, played out in the style of Frank Miller's 300 whilst butt-fucking the life's work of Hieronymus Bosch. Picking apart the story and characters would be redundant; the whole thing is based almost word-for-word on the Visceral Games/Electronic Arts title now available in retailers everywhere, so any and all complaints of this thing being a silly mess are to be taken up with the game's writer, Will Rokos.

As is typical of any video game trying like mad to rip off the God of War franchise, character development is completely optional: Dante has the nasty habit of killing everything in his path before the audience even gets a good peek at it, and while flashbacks reveal that he was a weak man in life, once in Hell he becomes a one man Ninja Master Prep, sticking the business end of his stolen Hellscythe into the squirming guts of every critter that blocks his path, farts in his general direction, or has the gall to ask him for directions to the bus station so he can pick up his mother from chemo. Dante's a massive ass, is what I'm getting at - It's amazing he doesn't hack Virgil in half the moment he appears, or simply plummet to his untimely death with the nasty habit he has of running off in random directions, seemingly knowing that he'll reach the 9th level if he just keeps going in the same general direction the entire time.

I guess it works, since he does face off with the Prince of Darkness in the frozen creamy center of Hades, but it doesn't make his exploits any less... stupid. There are points in the feature when you can practically see the HUD and feel the controller vibrating in your hands, begging the viewer to press X not to die riiiiiiight... NOW! Wither this is a movie or simply an atrocity, it still feels like a video game, and for all the cinematic strides that gaming has made over the last 15 years, games still make much better games than they do anything else - books, action figures, comics, breakfast cereals, marital aids, and above all else, movies.

Seriously now, when Paul W.S. Anderson's
Mortal Kombat is the single best cinematic
adaptation your medium has to offer, you
should probably quit while you're ahead.

With the animation being based fairly closely on an American video game based oh-so loosely on a massive story about the horrors of Hell, I guess I should be grateful that the film even makes as much sense as it does. The fact that the hero is a chowder-head who thinks that molesting foreign women and slaughtering heathen children is forgiven in the eyes of The Lord is something I have to live with, and expected as much going in. But it's still frustrating to see how badly the storyline itself is handled - Neil Gaiman managed to do a pretty good job of making the CG Beowulf an interesting screenplay, despite having a similar action oriented and post-modern approach to the epic source material... I guess the difference was Beowulf wasn't a cowering poet in the original, and Grendel wasn't a bloated Oedipus symbok with a talking throat-vagina.

While I'll be the first to admit the archaic Italian translated into dull English has never made La Divina Commedia a personal favorite of mine, I'm still familiar enough to say that this story has as much to do with L'inferno as, say...

...close enough, right?

The English dialog is saddled with a god-awful script that's regularly a mess even before it wipes its' ass with the single most important and memorable bit of Christian literature... so let's just skip on to how the cast itself handled it. Graham McTavish does his damnedest to sound just like Gerard Butler in the title role of Dante, and I'm sure several outtakes include "THIS... IS... CHRIST'S LOVE!" I wish I could say anything nicer than "he sounds a hell of a lot like Leonidas" since that is kind of an impressive feat unto itself, but seriously, there's nothing else to add.

Anime dubbing regular Steve Blum plays Lucifer in a performance that's certainly adequate on all levels, but damn, if Tim Curry wouldn't have been more amusing in the role on a number of levels... any of you who saw Ferngully in your repressed childhood memories will know exactly what I'm talking about.

Peter Jessop - best known as Wesker in the Resident Evil game franchise - costars as Virgil, and manages to put out the best performance of the bunch by way of him being one of the few characters who isn't either an asshole or given something jarringly moronic to spew out. He's basically just walking exposition, but a little class was still a breath of fresh air in this murky pool of machismo.

Vanessa Branch, however, is dead as dirt playing Dante's hell-bound lover Beatrice. Seriously, there isn't a stick pointy enough to make her scream with conviction. Why the fuck would you ever even think of casting a chick who sounds like-

Oh...

Sure, she's hot. And British. But what part of being quality spank material *EVER* equated to being a good voice performer? (Seriously, have you ever seen Megumi Hayashibara?!) Suddenly putting Jennifer Connolly in 9 seems like a stroke of casting brilliance.

Mark Hamill also hits a new low by playing Dante's monstrous father. I'm sorry Mark, but you've done so much better in the past. To be fair, I don't blame you for phoning this one in... it's been a while since anyone's had to say it, but Luke Skywalker, you're above this crap.

Nay, much like other psuedo-anime co-productions like Highlander: The Search for Vengeance and Halo Legends (and no, I'm never watching that), my sole interest here is in the visual execution. Unlike most projects that feature multiple directors, this one isn't a series of stand-alone vignettes that let the director's own personal style shine through. No, the only thing that happens is the character designs and animation quality changes every 10 minutes or so...

It was probably a good idea on paper, but in execution you watch the project go from fugly to gorgeous to mediocre, and the story and atmosphere never shift dramatically enough for it to feel justified.


So, how does each individual
"chapter" production hold up?


* THE ARRIVAL/ENTRY INTO HELL (Film Roman): Victor Cook's segment is - as with most over-budgeted American animation - competent, cinematic in a broad sense, and has a lot of smooth movement. But what it makes up for by meeting Hollywood expectations it loses by lacking in style or personality. It really does resemble a Saturday Morning feature that grew a pair of hairy balls, and while I can take that on its' own merits and try to have fun with it, it just looks dull compared to everything else around it.

Daisuke NISHIO > Bruce Timm.
That's right, I said it: DBZ > BTAS.

It's quite gory and even features a tit, which I guess is more than I can say for Avatar: The Last Air Bender, but if all I needed to be impressed by the average Cartoon Network production was some NC-17 content,I'd be a far happier man and worship Ralph Bakshi as the One True God. I guess Cook's clunky introduction isn't awful, but it sure isn't memorable either.



* LIMBO (Manglobe): Shukou MURASE's segment is probably the pick of the stunted litter, full of horrifying abortion imagery, freakish giant monsters, and absolutely gorgeous production values and design sensibilities.

Even Dante himself couldn't stand to watch
the other directors' entries after this...

I couldn't stand Witch Hunter Robin personally, but I'll admit that Murase's realistic character designs and gothic-horror aesthetic works into the material's favor, and this segment is... well, expectations be damned, it's actually pretty good. The animation quality never dips to cheap flash tricks, and it remains grim and dark in tone from start to finish without any jarring flaws to take you out of the experience. It's very dark visually, too, but making the monsters black things that peek out of the black void of Hell works into its' favor, particularly when coupled with the sense of depth given to this 2D production. The terrible hack-and-slack-and-repeat script is still evident, but it's so goddamn purty that I could almost ignore it totally.



* LUST/GLUTTONY/GREED/ANGER (Dong Woo): Jong-Sik Nam's entry is... fucking weird. First of all Dante becomes a Peter Chung sketch on acid, but I can forgive that (sorta). What's less permissible is the segment's fantastic and shockingly kinetic style is quickly hampered by its' severe lapses in animation continuity and general budget constraints. You need a dramatic close-up? Hey, let's just zoom in on the guy's face from that medium shot - that works, right? The two chapters covered - Lust and Gluttony - had a lot of potential, but before you get your hopes up know that the succubi have giant Wicked City not-quite-human-vagina school of design. And while Dante does indeed get shoved up Cerberus' pooper as the producers promised, he's not quite what the legendary poet had described...

And here I was with visions of a
massive dog-anus dancing in my head...

I never expected "An Animated Epic" to have a sequence comparable to a bad acid trip set to a Slayer album cover, and that description brings with it both very great and terrible things. The execution of this segment as a whole is bizarre and - dare I say it? - often downright lulzy, but it never quite surpassed the level of "fascinating train wreck" into an outright work of mad genius.



* CITY OF DIS/HERESY/VIOLENCE (JM Animation): Lee Seunggyu at least created a stylish looking piece that screams "Look, I'm that exciting azn animotion!", and strangely enough features character designs that LOOK vaguely like Yasuomi Umetsu's... if Umetsu had ever directed a weekly TV adaptation of Bastard for the Shounen Jump crowd.

Wait. Why is he shirtless DURING the crusade?

The animation ranges from mediocre to quite excellent, and it could be the most exciting section of the film, yet it's all relatively cliché in execution, and is to Eastern "Anime" what the Film Roman section is to Western "Cartoons". When I heard that "Dante's Inferno: The Game" was getting a co-produced "Dante's Inferno: The Game ~ The Anime", this is exactly the sort of thing popped into my head. Much like the first chapter, wither or not this is appealing or horrifying will come down to personal taste rather than competency. It's just a shame that it relies on constantly using blur filters and ridiculously fast cuts when the animation hiding underneath isn't bad... it's like when it just starts cooking, it can't ever let itself be good for fear of kicking too much ass. Once more, we have a mixed bag that's more frustration than entertainment.



* FRAUD (JM Animation):Kim Sangjin may have created the single ugliest piece of animation here. To be perfectly fair the background and monster design was at times stellar, and the actual movement was better than average for this mess - lots of quick movement that would have been jerky at a lower framerate, but manage to look deceptively smooth at full speed. The nuts and bolts consistency is utter crap though, and the character design work is the real problem here.

Except that part.
That was cool.


Dante himself looks like a constipated chimpanzee, background human characters are undefined blobs of goo that would make any real character designer weep tears of blood soaked cartoonist rage, and we're even given a goddamn nipple-free titty. Come on now Sangjin, even the Avatar asshole gave us full-on nips! For every legitimate moment of brilliance, there's at least two that are pitiful, so perhaps it's for the best that this one clocks in at less than 8 minutes.



* TRECHARY (Production I.G.): Here we go... directed by Yasuomi UMETSU, the name for which I endured this monstrosity. Man, I was hoping they had saved the best for last. The "epic" finale is anything but: It's actually quite restrained, and Umetsu chooses to play up the cold atmosphere over monsters shouting "boo!" and then getting sliced in half - which would be fine if only this weren't the final 15 minutes of the otherwise pulse-pounding program. It's not that it doesn't work in and of itself, just that it's out of place in the work as a whole - but I'm not convinced the sluggish pacing on display is all Umetsu's fault either.

...oh fucking hell.

Much more troubling than the leisurely strolling is the fact that Dante now looks like bastard lovechild of Tolkien's Gimli and Dale Keown's Pitt - checking the credits it turns out the chara designs were from KOTOBUKI Tsukasa, the designer behind Saber Marionette J, Battle Arena Toshinden, Cyberteam in Akihabara and Marriage of God & Soul Godannar.

The only other show he's worked on in the last decade.
No, I'm not kidding - Godannar was it, man.

1) Why bother hiring Umetsu to animate something so devoid of his own unique style - realistic hands, shiny eyes, pretty girls, kinetic gunplay and hard boiled urban decay - that any and all of his positive qualities, other than being a generally competent animator, disappear?

2) Kotobuki's specialty is creating hot gravity defying women, NOT blocky Rob Liefiend-esque antiheroes and Bleach-monster knock-offs. What was the goal here? To trick people who liked Battle Arena Toshinden into watching this nonsense?!

As if this titanic clash in identity weren't already a miserable mistake, it's obvious that the producers decided to add a bunch of additional dialog to the final stretch, so get ready to see a lot of repeated animation and poorly constructed freeze-frames to give a half-hearted try at matching the voices to the animation. There's clearly some sloppy editing on all of these segments, but this is the only one with frozen digital grain. Augh.

I will say that I.G's animation is consistently polished, looking technically better than even Manglobe's moody segment, but it's just so awkward looking that I just can't drum up much excitement for it. It's no Mezzo Forte that's for sure, but unlike Liberator I don't feel like it's really his fault. He was hired to bring some bad script and bad character designs to life, and at that, he excelled... too bad they didn't just let him co-write and design the thing himself.

I'm sure I'm being awfully hard on this production. It's clearly got a decent budget, and every animation director does their damnedest to put a unique visual spin on the material... and let's be honest, I like crappy animated train-wrecks. So why am I so bitter about this one? Probably because most epic abominations of animation have a singular, honest vision behind them, no matter how ugly or nonsensical the miserable results are. A show like Blassreiter, Super Heavyweight God Gravion or even Dance in the Vampire Bund may not be "good" titles in the conventional sense, but at least they still FEEL like genuine works of commercial art, spreading visual experiments, propaganda and entertainment to the very best of the staff's abilities.

Dante's Inferno: An Animated Epic isn't an original story, or even an original take on a familiar story, it's just the video game without the benefit of user interaction. It's the laziest and most uninteresting sort of cash-in for fans who should be interested to its' connection the franchise, not because it is the entire franchise. The directors weren't allowed to write their own material, cast the lead voices, or make it their own in any way beyond the general art design, so the only appeal this feature has is in having pretty animation... so in effect, if the animation isn't pretty, this title literally has nothing going for it.


For "An Animated Epic" to be anything less than a cavalcade of gorgeous eye-candy means it's a failure by default, and when this production falls on hard times, it falls hard. I can easily accept intentionally ugly animation like Tokyo Tribe 2 and Kakugo no Susume, and I don't mind when the title tries to look "stylish" like a vintage etching or what have you (as "An Animated Epic" is want to do from time to time). What I have trouble swallowing is inconsistent and poorly planned animation, and I feel like this production features both out the Hellish wazoo. I know that picking and choosing which standards to hold a consistently changing and unique production like this is damning for any critic, but screw it, I've come this far...

If you can't even match the likes of Hellsing Ultimate and Afro Samurai - for better or worse, the gold standard of 200X action-pornography animation - and you've brought nothing else of interest to the table, then don't bother animating it at all. The goddamn game it's based on looks more impressive than "An Animated Epic", making this animated version of the same exact material largely redundant.

In the end, I'm sure that Dante is a massive step up from EA's prior stab at making an animated game tie-in: DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL. But that doesn't make it particularly good. Compared to other American-Japanese co-productions designed to appeal to a Western audience, including SIN: The Motion Picture, Lady Death, and Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, ol' Dante comes out looking pretty watchable.

If, however, you compare it to more successful short-subject minded compilations with a similar staff mix-up, like The Animatrix and Batman: Gotham Knight, well, even then it starts to feel broken. There's a little bit of fun to be had for any fans of extreme gore, freaky monsters and hilariously bad editing and design choices hiding in what's clearly a high budgeted project with lofty aims. The execution may still be a loud, bloody mess, but in the scheme of shitty direct-to-video American funded animation, this is purely middle of the road entertainment. Had Murase directed the whole feature, we might have had a minor masterpiece with a shit script... as it stands, his is about the only part worth renting it for.