Look at this thing. Just look at it. When we say we want our children's movies to have more imagination, this is what we mean.
The film is "Dragon Hunters," a CG-animation adaptation of the French cartoon series of the same name, and it's swimming in a sea of visual invention, a fairy tale that begins in familiar territory but quickly expands to bold new worlds. The kingdom here consists of a series of floating islands, villages, chunks of rock. Dragons abound, of wondrous designs and infinite varieties. Flights of fancy are allowed to fly higher and higher, guided by exceptional animation and unbound creativity.
The series followed Lian-Chu, a gentle warrior whose undersized legs support an oversized torso, as he wanders the countryside with Gwizdo, his fast-talking conman partner, and Hector, a sort of rabbit/dog/dragon creature. They roam in search of dragons to slay - which Gwizdo hopes to turn into a profitable enterprise by charging the locals for their services. Lian-Chu, meanwhile, is more honorable and peaceful. He'd rather be knitting.
For the movie, our heroes have caught the eye of Zoe (voiced in the American release by Mary Matilyn Mouser), niece to the coldhearted king of a land threatened by the World Gobbler, a monstrous dragon that awakens every twenty years and devours everything in sight. Our small-time champions are certainly out of their league here, but they agree to the task - Lian-Chu (here voiced by Forest Whitaker) out of honor, and Gwizdo (Rob Paulsen) out of greed for the piles of gold promised to them.
The story, by Frédéric Engle-Lenoir and series creator Arthur Qwak, is rather simple, your typical warrior's-journey type adventure, and the leads' conflicting motives result in the same pay-offs you can predict right now. But the script also infuses the characters with great charm, and the story with great heart. We come to care quite quickly about this oddball family, the writers allowing them to be "types" without being plain or undeveloped. The added details are uncomplicated - Chian-Liu's parents were killed by the World Gobbler; Zoe has childhood delusions that the real hunters will behave just like the heroes in her favorite stories - yet are treated with such intelligence and wonder that they work brilliantly.
Added to this is a terrific sense of adventure. The suspense is legit, the thrills properly earned. Directors Qwak and Guillaume Ivernel use their various art department backgrounds to provide the film with a certain visual excitement. Everything moves at a terrific clip, exciting and fun, fast-paced without feeling rushed.
And then, of course, there is the animation itself. The filmmakers have crafted something truly special in this film. Each scene bursts with fanciful delight, like fairy tale pages bursting to life. Character designs are quirky and captivating (especially that of the blind king, a wonderfully creepy old man), as are the dragon concepts, each one more stunning than the last.
"Dragon Hunters" ran theatrically for a mere week in Los Angeles last December, to be eligible for last year's Academy Awards. It then failed to receive a wide release, and now arrives with what is essentially a direct-to-video release, where it's likely to go as unnoticed in the States as the television series that inspired it. Can word of mouth save this film from obscurity? I hope so. "Dragon Hunters" is an astounding work of the imagination that deserves to be discovered, shared, and loved.
Video & Audio
"Dragon Hunters" looks nearly perfect in this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, which beautifully captures the rich, complex animation. Detail is astounding, as is the vibrant color scheme. It's gorgeous all around.
The soundtrack is listed as 5.1 surround on the packaging but is in fact merely Dolby 2.0. No matter - the track is crisp and lively, with terrific depth. No subtitles are included. (Note: While the Blu-ray release features both the French and English soundtracks, the DVD offers only the English version. Whitaker is so perfect in his vocal performance, however, that I'm not complaining much.)
"Interview with Forest Whitaker" (4:25; 1.33:1 full frame) actually features interviews with both Whitaker and Mouser, mixed in with some behind-the-scenes footage showing the voiceover process.
"Character Biographies," "Dragon Gallery," and "The Universe of Dragon Hunters" are click-through text pages detailing the heroes, monsters, and locations seen in the film.
The film's trailer (1:01; 1.78:1 anamorphic) rounds out the set.
The extras are slight, but the movie more than makes up for it. "Dragon Hunters" is a gorgeous, thrilling adventure - witty, heartfelt, exciting, and wonderful. Highly Recommended.