Written by Pierre Tremblay and Roger Harvey
Directed by Nancy Florence Savard
For all the diversity and vibrancy one can easily find in Canadian culture, from ‘coast to coast to coast’ as the uniquely Canadian saying goes, the stories of the First Nations are the least shared in film, theater, television and music. Whether the brunt of the responsibility for this equally diverse culture’s lack of presence in traditional media lie with collective disinterest, some unwritten and unspoken stigma or even both, the fact remains that their history and stories remain mostly a mystery to the populace at large. In fairness, there have been exceptions to the unfortunate rule, such as the memorable film Atanarjuat from 2002 and the hit television series North of 60 which lasted several seasons. For the most part, it simply does not seem like First Nations culture ‘sells’ for lack of a better term. Under these circumstances, almost any attempt to shine the proverbial spotlight on, for example, the Inuit, is worthy of mention. However, the old saying of ‘A for the effort’ can only carry a film so far. Truthfully, in the case of La légende de Sarila, from director Nancy Florence Savard, even the effort itself is of dubious quality.
In this latest animated feature to join in on the computer generated 3D craze, audiences are transplanted to the Great White North, literally, in a small Inuit community. Their elderly shaman, the vindictive conniving Croolik (Mario Saint-Amand), insults the deity that manages the coming and goings of the wild animals in the region. As punishment, the goddess has all the livestock disappear. Despite the best efforts of the clan’s hunters, famine is quickly catching up. As such, the community is compelled to heed the advice of an old sage, Saya (Dorothée Berryman) who speaks of the legendary Sarila, a place where fawn and flora grow and hunting prey is aplenty. Sent out on this ambitious expedition are the clan’s best hunter, Poutoulik (Maxime La Fleguais), his fiance Apik (Mariloup Wolfe) and Markussi (Guillaume Perrault) a soon-to-be shaman and the bane of Croolik’s existence. While the clan hopes for their safe return and bearing provisions, Croolik has other plans in mind.
Few would deny the fact that home grown, talented Québec artists interested in the Inuit culture and wanting to produce a family film about it is an interesting proposition. True enough, it is somewhat disappointing to learn that the film’s credits feature no names other than those of Quebecois. A bit of input from artists with some background in the community concerned would have added some extra legitimacy, but even half victories should be appreciated. The unfortunate part is that…nearly everything about the entire endeavour. Despite participation from such names as Mariloup Wolfe, Guillaume Perrault and Rémy Girard, La légende de Sarila is as bland, uninspired and tepid an attempt to showcase Inuit themed culture in quite some time. From the script to the production values, the film is a failure on practically every level, which is all the more frustrating because the potential for something pertinent exists, waiting to be taken advantage of by talented filmmakers. That does not imply that those involved lack talent, far from it in fact, only that the project is a gross miscalculation, even for a kids movie.
Watching La légende de Sarila brought back some memories of a film which was reviewed almost exactly a year ago, Un monstre à Paris. That film’s story was ripe with plot holes, boring characters and below par animation. Similar issues plague Nancy Florence Savard’s animated picture, although the same problems are even more glaring than in the aforementioned French film. There is something undeniably annoying about a feature length animated film which is intended for theatrical release for which parents will be paying full price, plus additional 3D ticket costs, yet looks like it would have been handsome as a television special about a decade ago if not more so. The mere fact that the filmmakers opted to go for computer generated animation despite the obvious cost issues and limitations in how they could utilize the technology is actually baffling. Even though much of the Inuit sculptures one can admire at the National Arts Gallery in Ottawa, just to highlight one example, do indeed have a plain, round look to them, that does not mean that virtually everything in the world of an animated film need imitate that style. More can be done. If computer generated imagery proved too tall a challenge, why not employ the craftsmanship of more traditional hand drawn 2D animation? Were the pressures of delivering a product that corresponded to the aesthetics of nearly ever single modern feature animated release too great? Well, if such was the case, then the filmmakers still failed, because Sarila looks egregiously worse than anything that has been released on the market in easily ten years. No detail, no depth, pitiful dynamic interaction between the physical features of the characters and their environment (for example, people who should look wet look completely dry, including their hair). And, lest it be overlooked, the three-dimensionality of the picture adds strictly nothing, although that should not come as news for anyone who regularly goes to see these movies.
Perhaps if the script were solid, then the paltry animation could be forgiven, not entirely, but at least to a degree. Alas, the story is another crucial department for the success of the film which fails to live up to its potential. Now, fair is fair, and is fair to claim the script does not stumble with the same degree of ineptitude as the animation. In the case of the latter, it is a matter of spectacular failure. In the case of the former, it is more an incident of the filmmakers playing their cards far, far too safely. No chances are taken with regards to character arcs, plot points are predictable and there is a sense that the pre-production phase never accomplished anything beyond a common desire to make a movie about Inuits using magical powers in a quest to discover a tropical land in the middle of the arctic. Oddly, there are little subplots dropped into the overall story every now and then which are left hanging high and dry (such as Markussi’s ‘dilemma’ about using his powers for either selfish or altruistic purposes) and even some of the major character arcs are dealt with so cheaply by the conclusion it is enough to wonder why bother at all. There is a feeble try at redeeming the shaman Croolik yet it literally feels like the filmmakers lacked enough time to pull it off and therefore went for an embarrassingly rushed and halfhearted attempt. Even the action set pieces lack an iota of logic. At one point fire spurts out of the snowy, icy ground and the smoke suffocates the protagonists at one point. The fire is not the issue (magical powers, after all), but where in the world is the smoke emanating from? Is smoke not the result of fire burning something? There is only snow and ice for miles!
La légende de Sarila is everything a new animated feature need not be. It is unoriginal, not particularly well written and it looks terrible. Last summer, people complained that Pixar’s Brave did not live up to the studio’s lofty expectations. This year, there are some tempered expectations about Monsters University. Observing the current landscape of animated 3D films in this winter season, that prequel cannot arrive soon enough.