Spark

Courtesy of ToonBox Entertainment

April 21, 2017

Not Enough Spark

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Spark: A Space Tail, written and directed by Aaron Woodley (with additional written material by Adam Rotstein, Robert Reece and Doug Hadders), has been a mystery to me. I didn’t know what to make of the film. It premiered nearly a year ago at the Toronto Animation Arts festival. There were no advance reviews, and only a nebulous plot synopsis. All I knew was that it was a Canadian-Korean production from ToonBox and Redrover, the same people who brought us The Nut Job. Maybe that should have been my warning. Spark: A Space Tail is bland and uninteresting, featuring clichés that left me rolling my eyes, as well as lackluster animation.

The movie opens on the planet Bana, which is ruled by a kind monkey king. However, his evil brother harnesses the power of a Space Kraken to open a black hole, which shatters the planet into shards. Our hero, Spark (Jace Norman), escapes to a distant shard, avoiding the tragic fate of his parents, who perish in the black hole. He lives a quiet life with his guardians: Vix, voiced by Jessica Biel, and Chunk, voiced by Rob deLeeuw. Spark yearns to join them on adventures, but instead has to stay home with his robotic caretaker Bananny (Susan Sarandon). Meanwhile, the evil Emperor Zhong (Alan C. Peterson) has plans to discover another Space Kraken and harness it to create a reusable weapon to destroy entire planets. The queen, voiced by Hilary Swank, steals a crucial piece of his plan and calls for Vix to come take it. However, Spark gets the message instead and arrives in Vix’s place, meaning that the fate of the universe rests in his hands.

This brief synopsis sounds like the beginning of a typical story: boy out in the far reaches of an evil empire dreams of doing something more and avenging his parents’ death. We’ve seen that dozens of times before. Spark is going to bring a fresh new perspective to that pattern though, right?

Wrong!

I can’t remember the last time I watched such a dry, soulless movie. Everything we see has been done before in other movies, and done better for that matter. It’s honestly difficult writing this review because I feel more effort is being put into this than the script for Spark. So much is wrong on so many levels. From the beginning, we open with narration — a LOT of narration — clearly violating the “show, don’t tell” rule. What is especially irritating is that in the end credits, we see wall paintings showing the story of how Spark got moved to his home shard and how he grew up. It would have been nice to have that in the actual film for some, I don’t know, character development! None of the characters really left that much of an imprint on me because they’re all so bland. Spark’s only personality is “hero,” but he doesn’t do that good a job at it. For example, when the queen gives him the Kraken Finder, she tells him to take it far away so Zhong won’t be able to summon another Space Kraken. So what does Spark do? He finds the Kraken and brings it home, only for Zhong to end up capturing it! There is a moment where he thinks, “I can use the Kraken to do to Zhong, what Zhong did to me.” It’s a moment where I sat forward a bit, thinking that they were going to blur the lines between good and evil, justice and revenge… but that went nowhere. Vix is the stereotypical tough fighter girl, Chunk is the fat nerd who spouts techno-babble and Zhong… Zhong is a pathetic villain. He’s too outlandish to be taken seriously, he’s too sniveling to be stylish and fun. In any kind of half-rational universe his empire would have imploded after a year. Even his main muscle expresses discontent multiple times throughout the movie. How this guy stayed in power, I don’t know, and the movie doesn’t care. By the way, that main muscle for Zhong is an ape wearing drag. I just felt it was worth a mention.

Moving from characters to the plot, we find a host of tropes ripped off from other successful movies to nail a nonexistent “formula” for success. Guess what? Spark has a birthmark on his hand that means he’s the true heir to the throne! It’s never mentioned until halfway into the movie, which means that revelation comes out of left field. Also guess what? The evil space emperor wants to build a device that can destroy planets, that’s never been done before! And guess what else?! When Spark talks to his dead father, his father appears as a ghost and tells him to assume his destiny as the true king, totally not ripping off The Lion King in any way! Then his birthmark glows, and a staff floats into his hand that turns out to reveal an energy blade hidden in it, a saber made from light… alright, enough sarcasm here. You get the idea. Now, I know that movies rely on tropes to tell their stories. A good contrast here would be Moana, which essentially followed the Disney Princess formula to the letter. However, because Moana and Maui were good leads, and the film’s visuals and music were stellar, the tired plot still came alive. Since Spark doesn’t have those endearing characters, a clichéd plot stands out all the more painfully.

But what about those visuals? Could it be like The Good Dinosaur, which had a tired plot but still showcased the cutting edge of animation’s potential? Sadly, Spark can’t even do that! Heck, it falls short of average. The characters look like they come from plasticine clay, and the character animation doesn’t show expression or movement very well. Vix seems to be in a perpetually moody mode, for example, and her face barely changes when she’s happy, scared or angry. There’s also the constant movement that gets simply overwhelming. The action moves too fast to follow, and the timing gets way out of whack. There aren’t many jokes in the movie, but those that manage to be funny still get their wings clipped because the camera needs to get somewhere else. What results is a mess that’s difficult on the eyes and offers animation that would have been decent in the early 2000s, but subpar now.

Spark feels like the filmmakers took The Lion King and Star Wars, saw that they were popular and successful, and decided to smoosh them together. The problem is, they forgot to give the movie a personality. Star Wars doesn’t have the most thought-provoking writing, but because it has endearing characters and fantastic visuals it’s still a great movie. Spark insists that it has an important story to tell, but it doesn’t let us care about it. It doesn’t offer anything new. Just like the movie came in quietly, it’ll leave the same way.

David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at djg284@cornell.edu.

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