November 20, 2006
An interesting aspect of many of the films at the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema is that many of them are culturally specific. That is, unlike the Disney (or is that American?) tendency toward Americanizing stories from other nations, these films tell stories that are specific to the cultures of the people that created them. Currently we experience that with anime—in fact, its "Japanese-ness" is a big draw—but beyond that, the animation we're exposed to (with the exception of short films) is nationality-free.

We saw two such films back to back on Friday. Fire Ball is from Taiwan and is yet another retelling of part of Journey to the West, an ancient story that is constantly adapted and retold in popular culture (some recent examples are Dragon Ball, the live-action A Chinese Tall Story and the futuristic CG Journey to the West TV series).

Fire Ball is about one of the many adventures faced by Monkey, Sandy, Piggy and the monk Tripitaka on their journey to find the Buddha's sutras—in fact, it's based on the same story as one of the first animated features ever made, Princess Iron Fan. In Fire Ball, a feisty kid named Red is tricked into believing he has to kill Tripitaka and grind his bones to cure his sick mother, Princess Iron Fan. As it happens, Tripitaka and his companions are nearby, trying to clear the Mountain of Flames; a feat they can only accomplish using the giant iron fan the princess is named after. Mischief, action and humour abound as the many characters find themselves at cross purposes and play off of each other's weaknesses.

Set in 17th-century Siam (now Thailand), the Thai Khan Kluay is named after its hero, a young elephant whose father had been captured for use as a war elephant before he was born. Overwhelmed by grief, Khan Kluay's mother refuses to speak about her lost mate, which drives him to find answers in a nearby soldiers' encampment. This sets in motion a chain of events that leads to his becoming Prince Naresuan's war elephant, and together they lead the battle that will decide Siam's future.

The two films are put together quite differently. The hand-drawn Fire Ball plays much like its source material, with a rambling structure and digressions that are fun, but would never make the cut in a meticulously constructed screenplay. The CGI Khan Kluay more or less follows the predictable Disney structure (it's directed by ex-Disney animator Kompin Kemgumnird), though with only one musical interlude. However, both films are similar in crucial aspects. For one thing, though the structures as I described them could be considered negatives, they're not: Fire Ball's story is well known to its audience, so its wonky plot progression is actually an asset. Khan Kluay's overall predictability is offset by its loose adherence to modern Disney storytelling. While it has most of the elements (the hero's driving need, the love interest, the loss of a parent and the climactic battle, to name a few) they're not adhered to slavishly, nor presented as mechanically as, say, Brother Bear.

But perhaps most important is that both of these films have children as their main audience, but are genuinely entertaining for adults as well. Rather than trying to keep parents' attention through nods, winks and sly asides, they come by their over-12 appeal honestly. Fire Ball does it by using a familiar story; Khan Kluay does it by crafting characters that resonate (Khan Kluay's mother radiates grief at her mate's disappearance, hope that he might still live, and fear that she might lose her son; on the other end of the spectrum, a recurring gag with a soldier who so longs for his wife he deliriously clings amorously to anything and anyone generated huge laughs from the audience). Meanwhile, they never talk down to the younger members of the audience.

The kicker is that neither of these films is as expertly polished as the blockbusters we're used to seeing, but they're done well enough to properly convey the ideas and emotions the filmmakers are trying to get across. And that's why Hollywood's rabid focus on technique will mean nothing in the face of more films like these. I say, bring it on.

Buy Fire Ball (Region 3) from YesAsia.com

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