With film studios Pixar and Dreamworks seeming to have a never-ending stream of animated output, it’s easy to forget that there is animation beyond what these two big Hollywood hitters produce.
The beauty of animation – and a large part of its appeal for studio executives and distributors – is that it’s easy to make an animated film foreign market friendly. Voices can be recorded in different languages to suit without damaging the viewing experience and actors that appeal to the target market can be cast, maximising box office takings.
Dragon Hunters is an odd little French-made animation, hugely bolstered in the UK and USA market by the recruiting of Oscar winner Forest Whitaker to supply the voice for one of the main characters. Not only does it give the film credibility, it also benefits from Whitaker’s enormous talent, which brings genuine sensitivity to the big dumb dude he plays adding much to the movie’s warmth.
Set in a time when the world exists as a series of disparate floating islands in the sky threatened by a fearsome supernatural dragon creature, this animated fantasy tale is a refreshing change from formulaic (albeit well-executed) Hollywood fare.
When inept dragon hunters Gwizdo (Rob Paulsen) and Lian-Chu (Whitaker) are asked by ruler Lord Arnold (Nick Jameson) to rid the land of the terrible World Gobbler before their world is literally gobbled up, the underhand Gwizdo, seduced by the promise of riches, accepts. Plotting to flee with the gold without completing the mission, his plan is scuppered when his burly kind-hearted partner doesn’t want to play ball, and when young Zoe (Mary Mouser) – Lord Arnold’s niece – decides to tag along, they are forced to carry out the task. Will Gwizdo learn the error of his ways? And can the three of them – with animal sidekick Hector (Dave Wittenberg) – manage to defeat the foe?
Dragon Hunters borrows elements from familiar animated features and rolls them into one to create an intriguing cartoon curiosity. With Shrek-like humour and an Igor-esque tone, the film is also visually reminiscent of anime king Hayao Miyazaki’s films, channelling as it does ideas from both Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away.
But, although it may feel like a mishmash of begged, borrowed and stolen ideas, it actually works well as a whole; there’s an appealing mix of humour, sweetness, darkness and fantasy.
Its strength, however, lies in its ability to tap into a child’s imagination. A child would think nothing of conjuring up a monster made of mutant bats, or throwing a herd of sheep into the mix. Its other strength is that it’s an original screenplay. In an age when fewer and fewer movies are made in this way (most seem to come from pre-existing source material such as novels or comic books), it is laudable that the animated feature still relies largely on original material.
With a relatively high number of scary scenes, Dragon Hunters might unsettle more sensitive children but ultimately Dragon Hunters is a far better watch than many live action movies aimed at the same age group.