NYFF 2011: ‘The 99 Unbound’ introduces an intellectually ambitious comic universe

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The 99 Unbound

Directed by Dave Osborne

The 99 Unbound, the first animated feature to be derived from comic series The 99, opens with these lines: “It is said that all the darkness of the world could be shattered by the light in just one pure heart. Imagine then, the hope that would spread if 99 of the pure-hearted came together as one.” This dual focus on togetherness and individuality adds to the thematic resonance of The 99 and lends it widespread appeal.

The origin story for The 99 reaches back to the 13th century when Mongol forces raided Baghdad. In their malicious desire to eradicate an entire culture’s hope for the future, they targeted Baghdad’s greatest library, a center of knowledge and education for the civilized world. The Guardians of the library knew their books could not be saved, so they came up with an unusual solution. They mixed an alchemical potion called “king’s water” and transferred the spiritual essence of the books into 99 gemstones specially crafted to absorb this mystical energy. They called the gems Noor stones and used them to adorn the dome of a new monument to scholarship, what they called The Fortress of Knowledge. But then a different adversary emerged from within the ranks of the Guardians themselves.

This adversary’s name was Rughal, and he devised a plan to capture all the knowledge contained in the Noor stones and to absorb it into himself. His foolhardy mission ended in catastrophe, and the Fortress was destroyed. The Guardians collected the Noor stones from the rubble and scattered them across the globe.  Centuries later, in our own time, the Noor stones have begun to reemerge, and with something near to sentience they seek out those individuals with the inner qualities to compliment their powers.

The 99 derives much of its mythos from Islamic teachings and tradition. The 99 to which the title refers stands for 99 heroes who embody the 99 attributes of Allah. The film introduces us to five of them: Jabbar the Powerful, Darr the Afflicter, Mumita the Destroyer, Jami the Assembler, and Noora the Light. This animated feature tells the story of how they come together as a team and help each other discover within themselves the potential every individual has to make a positive change in the world.

The heroes of the 99 discover early on that the Noor gemstones increase in power when they support one another and focus their collective energy. They call this power-boosting conjunction a “triad link,” and it helps establish a recurrent theme of the benefits of cooperation. Members of the 99 hail from countries all over the world. They bring a variety of background experiences, personality quirks, and skill sets to the group, and every addition makes them stronger and more fun to watch. One very memorable scene in the movie involves a team discussion over dinner as the heroes work out what they hope to accomplish. Will they be a “superhero clean up crew, tidying up the world’s messes”? Or will they work towards solving the problems that create the messes in the first place? Essentially, can they bring about world peace? In the spirit of cross-cultural collaboration no goal seems too lofty.

But The 99 isn’t only impressive for its emphasis on globalistic ideals, but it also deserves recognition for underlining the importance of internal struggles the characters must face. Noora the Light, for example, exhibits remarkable powers. Her Noor stone enables her to blind enemies, become invisible, and see the truth of things. She is capable of overcoming a great many obstacles, but her greatest challenge is identifying her self-worth. Her greedy father instilled this insecurity in her when he refused to pay the ransom kidnappers demanded after they captured and held her hostage in a dark cellar. She rescued herself through perseverance and her own ingenuity, but her father’s lack of concern made her wonder if she was worth saving and if she deserves the incredible power she’s inherited. These self-doubts threaten the outcome of a dangerous mission. Of course, she eventually proves to herself and her enemies that she’s a powerful force for good, but not before she conquers the uncertainties holding her back. The creators of The 99 have devised fully rounded characters complete with relatable flaws and exciting back stories.

Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa invented The 99 as a comic book series in an effort to give Muslim children role models they could identify with and to correct a skewed image of Islam he perceived in its representation by the media. Dr. Al-Mutawa is the perfect example of a triple threat, having earned degrees in psychology, history, and English literature. His Ph.D. is in clinical psychology, which probably explains his uncanny knack for character-building. The 99 Unbound represents these Muslim heroes introduction to the realm of animation under the direction of experienced British animator Dave Osborne.

The 99 demonstrates exciting storytelling with intellectual depth, a perfect mingling of entertainment and edification. Though the pacing of the film flows pretty seamlessly, it is easy to detect the episodic structure. And that’s exactly what Dr. Al-Mutawa intends.  He is planning the release of an animated series for The 99. This feature film is a starting point, and its open ending thankfully promises the possibility of more adventures with these captivating characters.  The New York Film Festival presents the premiere of The 99 Unbound on October 2.

Kenneth Broadway

Visit the official website for the New York Film Festival


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