WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Produced by Xilam, a French graphics company known primarily for video-game work, Kaena: The Prophecy is a strange CG-animated concoction that will conjure inevitable comparisons with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, if only for its stabs at computer-generating realistic human characters in a fantasy setting. You might also find yourself unable to stop comparing Xilam's efforts to those of American CG giants such as Pixar. And, true, Kaena's look suffers noticeably in the face of its stylistic forbears—as you'll see immediately as this strangely gawky film begins unfurling before you. Xilam doesn't command nearly the budget freedom of a company like Pixar, and for that, you might find yourself forgiving a lot. What can't be forgiven, however, is the fact that the animators seem to have forgotten the all-importance of character and story. (I suppose it shares more in common with Final Fantasy than I thought.)
The film tells the story of Kaena (voiced not-quite-right by Kirsten Dunst), a teenaged, barely clothed nymph-humanoid who lives on a giant tree floating in ether. It seems to be its own planet, and soon we learn that its inhabitants depend on the sap that the tree produces. Their gods are sapgods who demand ritual offerings—except that the supply of sap is dwindling, and the people are growing desperate. The tree-world, see, has undergone some kind of catastrophe, separating it from its source of nourishment. It falls to Kaena, who yearns for adventure and excitement and exploration anyway, to break out of the confines of her existence and discover a way to save her people. Her journey leads her to some decidedly strange regions among the foliage—we meet wise Opaz (Richard Harris, delivering probably the film's best voice work), who offers an important clue to Kaena, and the threatening Queen of the sap-happy Selenites (Angelica Huston). Fortunately, sprinkled generously throughout this rather wonky story are some slam-bang action sequences, you know, just to keep everybody on their toes. Most of the action scenes don't necessarily add anything to the story at hand, and most of the time, you're more aware of the animator's hand at his mouse than you are of the sense of the scene.
Still, Kaena is a very different animated film from what we're used to, so we should at least try to celebrate its unique qualities, right? The film is the first of its kind out of France, and as such, it brings some cultural baggage with it, even though it's subtle. The bleakness of backgrounds, an almost whimsical strangeness, and a certain studied quality to gestures sometimes seem distinctly French. But such cultural underpinnings are mostly buried beneath the animators' desire to at once carry forward their experience in action/fantasy games and emulate others in the CG-animated film genre. The result is a glossily cheerless film without much personality. Its plot, in the end, becomes needlessly complex, and the characters have no real depth.
The CG animation is frustrating, mostly in comparison with what we're accustomed to, thanks to studios such as Pixar. You'll behold the careful computer stylings of Kaena, and more than once you'll wince at the primitive facial expressions, the way many of the characters and props and settings look like claymation miniatures, the static nature of backgrounds, the not-quite-rightness of lip movements, the plasticine appearance of flesh, the lack of complexity in blocking and choreography, and so on. You might find many of these characters just…weird looking. One of them looks like Quentin Tarantino, and even Kaena has a strangely unattractive face, with her high forehead and seemingly blackened French teeth. Much of the animation here looks like the flat interstitial elements on video games, which is understandable, given the backgrounds of the animators. Often, particularly during pans, you'll notice a jittery degradation of the image that will remind you directly of video games. If you can get past the relatively primitive nature of the animation, however, you can see that the project is truly a labor of love and that, in itself, is quite an accomplishment. It took a lot of guts to make this film, given the inevitable comparisons with other films.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia/TriStar presents Kaena: The Prophecy in a very good anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Detail is predictably spectacular—superbly sharp and clean—like most CG animation on DVD, letting you pick out fine detail with little effort. I did notice some graininess here and there, and the transfer doesn't boast quite the depth I hoped it would. It's a bit flat in places when it should pop from the screen. I noticed no edge halos, but I saw a few instances of aliasing. Colors seem accurate, although Kaena isn't the most vivid film around, in terms of color.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track (the only option) is quite aggressive, particularly in the surrounds, which you'll notice right away in a dramatic opening sequence. It's a hugely spectacular scene, in which loud, crunchy effects rattle around you, occasionally giving way to distortion. The soundfield is so dynamic that you can imagine the sound designers moving their levers—and that's not necessarily a compliment. This is a sound presentation that calls attention to itself. I would even say the surround activity is too strong.
Most of the film, however, boasts a nicely mixed combination of clean dialog, Farid Russlan's score, and bright sound effects. It's a very immersive experience. Bass is powerful, and the high end is largely free of any distortion.
One aspect of the audio presentation that fascinates me is the fact that its English track seems to be the originally recorded audio track. Lip movements match the dialog almost perfectly, leading me to question whether this is just a perfectly matched dub or a reanimated effort to support the second language. I would be very curious watch Kaena with its original (I assume) French track.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The supplements on the disc are slight but there's at least one illuminating feature. These are of the watch-once variety.
The first is a cheeky 3-minute Virtual Interview with the "digital actor" who portrays Kaena in the film. The CGI character talks (in subtitled French) about the physical training she had to go through for the role, and what she things of the character. It's mildly entertaining.
Next is the 14-minute Making of Kaena: The Prophecy, a subtitled French-language behind-the-scenes piece in which we learn about the origin of the story and the many computers involved in the production. Most of the principal crewmembers are interviewed. They talk about the challenge of launching a feature film, when their primary experience is creating video games. They used no existing American models for the CG animation and essentially started everything from scratch. They talk about the challenges of animating a few key characters.
You also get Previews for Kaena: The Prophecy, as well as the anime titles Cyborg 009, Memories, Osamu Tezuka's Metroplis, Mirror Mask, Steamboy, Tokyo Godfathers, and Everquest II.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Kaena is a bold experiment, but the animators have sacrificed story and character in their efforts to achieve gorgeous animation—and as much as I admire their efforts, the resulting CG work leaves something to be desired. The video presentation is good, and the audio track is terrific. The supplements are merely okay. Give this one a rent.