Ilene Hoffman reviews Warner Bros. Feature Animation's highly-anticipated first fully-animated feature film, Quest for Camelot
It is a glorious time when talented filmmakers are taking the art form to new and exciting heights, where anything one can imagine is possible.
But not for Warner Bros. Their newest animated feature, Quest for Camelot, cannot seem to find a seat among the knights of the industry's round table. Like many a young but inexperienced squire, Quest fights hard to claim a rightful place among its more memorable peers, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and now, Anastasia. However, instead of journeying out on its own to conquer undiscovered realms in animation, it merely imitates its predecessors and ultimately, falls short of them.
Ye Olde, Familiar Tale
The film, directed by Frederik du Chau, takes place during the heyday of King Arthur's rule when knights were brave, victorious, trustworthy and well, men. One of these knights, Ruber (voiced by Gary Oldman), is definitely a man but not so trustworthy. A hater of all that is good in Camelot, which means just about everything, the wicked Ruber plots to overthrow Arthur by capturing the king's powerful sword, Excalibur. He nearly succeeds when his fumbling sidekick, Griffin (Bronson Pinchot), accidentally drops it.
Out to stop Ruber is our heroine -- a high-spirited, plucky young woman named Kayley (Jessalyn Gilsig). Kayley is bright, beautiful, and physically a dead ringer for Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Like her Disney counterpart, she believes that women get shortchanged, especially at Arthur' s Round Table where they are not permitted. Despite these utterly Medieval gender restrictions, Kayley's dream is to be a knight like her late father, Sir Lionel, killed ten years earlier by Ruber. To avenge her father's death, save the kingdom from complete ruin and prove her knightliness, Kayley sets out to find Excalibur. She also plans to reach Camelot in time to warn an injured Arthur and his surprisingly passive wizard, Merlin, of Ruber's evil plan.
Splendor in the Forest
A veritable Dorothy traveling to Oz, Kayley is soon joined in her quest by a host of reluctantly helpful outcasts. The most attractive is Garrett (Cary Elwes), a young blind man and would-be knight who becomes Kayley's love interest, for no other reason than he is human and the only eligible suitor present in the film. Believing no one would want a blind knight seated at the Round Table, he has elected to live a hermetic life in the Forbidden Forest, an enchanted place where a host of strange flowers and other plants come to life in a very bizarre and unreal fashion. It's a kind of Dark Ages Fern Gully that seems to exist only to boost the animation potential of the film.
Like the fabricated forest through which they venture, Kayley and Garrett's relationship appears contrived. It's a formulaic love story that lacks a powerful reason for these two to get together. Prior to meeting Garrett, the highly independent Kayley prepares to make the journey on her own. However when she meets someone who is relatively handsome, she suddenly decides it would be a good thing for him to be her guide. One gets the impression that if he weren't so attractive (to her, at least) and available, the fearless damsel would get along fine by herself. At first, Garrett refuses to help her, stating that he doesn't need anybody leeching onto him, especially Kayley. Though what she has done to offend him so strongly we'll never know. Kayley pleads and pleads, and eventually, Garrett gives in with a simple shrug and an, "Okay." Can you feel the electricity? I couldn't.
The hermit eventually falls in love with the girl for her courageous and headstrong ways, though he wishes she would stop yakking all the time. Kayley falls for him when she learns to appreciate the world through his eyes, or rather, his heart. So far, their romance is fairly standard. However, one of the nicer moments in the film is the tender and melodic love duet they share, "Looking Through Your Eyes," in which Kayley and Garrett, now totally in love, blend into the beauty and harmony surrounding them.
While Kayley can see the world through Garrett's inner vision, unfortunately, we can't. A blind character in animation is definitely unique, and it's a shame the filmmakers did not explore his vision more creatively, offering very surreal and experimental views of the world he sees in his mind's eye. It is also a shame that Garrett's blindness does not create any real sexual tension or function as a believable obstacle between him and Kayley. Their relationship, one can be sure, will not become one of the most memorable romances of all time.
Lumbering awkwardly behind Kayley and Garrett is a comical two-headed dragon named Devon and Cornwall. Delightfully voiced by Eric Idle and Don Rickles, Devon and Cornwall are one of the better features of the film. Simply put, they embody the familiar comic team of tall, sophisticated, slim guy versus short, crude, fat guy -- Abbot and Costello in one body. Self-deprecating, whimsical and full of attitude, the grotesquely-formed dragon utters the best line in the movie: "We're the reason cousins shouldn't marry." Constantly disagreeing, Devon and Cornwall lack the two things that make other dragons so fearsome the ability to fly and breathe fire. Only by working together, can they achieve their powers. It's a wonderful theme, simply illustrated and readily accessible for kids. Plus it is commendable that this sidekick does more than look cute and provide enormous merchandising potential.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers cannot leave well enough alone. Rather than allow this refreshing character to evolve on its own, Du Chau and his crew fashion him after Aladdin's Genie in his anachronistic zaniness. The musical number, in which Devon and Cornwall fantasize about being physically separated, echoes Genie strongly in the frenetic shape shifting and pop references. At one point, the two heads imagine themselves as Sony and Cher. This animated wackiness is fun, but also jarring and unfaithful to the more reverent tone of the rest of the picture. It's a cheap, imitative shot at humor that just does not belong. We can only assume that the sequence is present because the filmmakers knew audiences loved that kind of schtick in Disney's Aladdin, and therefore they'll be sure to love it here. Don't they know audiences expect more?
Ruber - Demented Villain
Outnumbering Devon and Cornwall's weaknesses are those of Ruber. As a villain, he lacks a convincing motive, a workable plan of action, and an overwhelmingly sinister presence. He is as boringly evil as King Arthur is boringly good. Moreover, Ruber's motivation is mishandled. Why does he wait ten years after killing Kayley's father to seize Camelot? Moreover in pursuing Excalibur, he always remains a convenient three steps behind Kayley. From the moment we meet him, we know Ruber is going to lose just as we know Kayley is going to win. Their stories are utterly predictable.
Below The Bottom Line -- Story, Production and Song
Predictability would not necessarily be a bad thing if Kayley's journey both her physical and emotional quest were more compelling. Screenwriters Kirk De Micco, William Schifrin, Jacqueline Feather and David Seidler tell an essentially clunky tale that takes a long time to begin. It isn't until we meet the dragon about halfway through the film that we become moderately engaged. The structure is entirely formulaic: present a problem, go on an episodic journey, defeat the bad guy, win the girl and live happily ever after. Nothing new here. Nor are there any interesting subplots, twists or turns. While most animated films should be simply structured to allow room for gags and elaborate sequences, Quest is a little too linear to be thoroughly intriguing.
Throughout the journey, numerous musical numbers do their dutiful job of forwarding plot and enhancing character. But with the exception of the love theme, very few of veteran composers Carol Bayer Sager and David Foster's songs leave a lasting resonance. What's worse, the composers make us suffer through two numbers of the already over killed Celtic "River Dancing." In live-action this is painful enough. In animation it is pure torture.
In addition to a mediocre story, the film manifests an average production value. Essentially flat character designs blend into their pastel backgrounds. Ruber and his mechanical henchmen make for cool television animation but fall far short of feature quality. And while Arthur's castle shines brilliantly during one nighttime shot, it reveals its lackluster quality during the day.
The most ambitious and successful visual effect in the film is a computer-generated Ogre -- massive, haunting and thoroughly spectacular. Unfortunately, state-of-the-art technology is wasted on a minor character. Though more expensive, it would have been better to computer animate Ruber's evil sidekick, the Griffin.
Besides good battling evil and women asserting themselves against a patriarchal society, Quest offers few unique themes. We can't help but ask the question, `Why does this story need to be told?' For Warner Bros. Feature Animation's first produced, fully animated feature, it is curious that they would choose Medieval England as the subject of their film. After all, the Dark Ages has already been exhausted by Disney in much earlier and better films such as Sleeping Beauty, Robin Hood and their own tale of Camelot, The Sword in the Stone. Maybe WBFA thought a "dungeons and dragons" film was a safe bet for younger audiences. Undoubtedly, the video release will become a reliable baby-sitter.
While Kayley and her friends ultimately achieve their quest for Camelot, the filmmakers fail to achieve their quest for a successful animated feature devoid of the clichéd devices of its predecessors. Perhaps in the future, they should learn from their own characters that taking risks especially in filmmaking is a worthwhile adventure.
Ilene Hoffman is a freelance writer who served as director of development for Turner Feature Animation and as manager of development for Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. She is currently pursuing her Masters Degree in English Literature.