'Spark: A Space Tail': No future
I kept plugging it quietly in the background all throughout 2015 and early 2016 (and you guys thought I only covered Zootopia that year). I mean, what if 2016 had been a year where we had six wide release, fully anthropomorphic world movies ranging in genre from buddy cop, to martial arts, to backstage musical, to crime caper, to space opera, and also Rock Dog?
As it ended up, we got, by my count, one great movie, one good movie, one movie that was kind of meh, one movie that turned out to not exist, one terrible movie and also Rock Dog.
This movie was more or less dumped into select theaters back in April, where it bombed hard. Really hard. I'm not sure what the plan was, here. It had a limited release with very little publicity, and honestly should have gone straight to video. I guess the surprisingly starry voice cast made a theatrical release seem more feasible, but Patrick Stewart hasn't exactly made the best vocal performance choices this year. And it's not like former captains of the Enterprise haven't gone straight to video in the past.
They definitely overspent on the voice cast and tried to make up for it with unbelievably cheap looking animation. It just felt slow. Which is disappointing because this is the same studio behind the Nut Job movies, and those movies, despite also obviously not working on a big studio budget, really have a sense of movement about them. Yes, I'm not exactly on the same page with that franchise as most film critics, but one of the things I enjoy about those movies is the wonderfully timed slapstick. Now, you have Spark, which even tries to up the ante with scenes that are meant to be exciting as well as funny, and the sludgy movement is just off.
There was a lot of budget cutting. For instance, the majority population of the main world featured, Bana, are monkeys. So, there are a lot of monkeys, and to be fair, they do go out of their way to differentiate the monkeys, somewhat. However, the planet also has minority populations of foxes and pigs, and these are clearly the exact same models as major supporting characters Vix and Chunk (you figure out which one goes with which species), just grey-er. As an aside, I kind of enjoyed that aspect; hey, here's a society with definite immigrant minorities (a few scenes incidentally make clear they originated from different planets) who are treated with respect, and even given missions of utmost importance.
The movie also has tonal issues, like it couldn't decide if it wanted to be Star Wars or Spaceballs. On one hand, the evil villain's plan involves holding planets to ransom with a kidnapped space whale known as the Kraken which can create black holes. Though it's obviously modeled after a whale, it also has very cephalopodian features; the characters describe the black hole generating material produced by the Kraken as slicks, and to get the creature to create black holes the villain uses explosions to scare it. I believe, as originally written, this is a benign squid-like creature that produces a dangerous ink-like substance when threatened; unfortunately, at some point, it was decided that the "slicks" should come from the back end of the creature. It feels like a lack of confidence that the plight of the Kraken is not enough to hold the interest of the audience, so, uh, poop joke.
You may have noticed that, even setting aside the toilet humor, the above scenario is not very original. But this is a major problem with the movie. In fact, it's two major problems. Most of its ideas seem borrowed, and it doesn't seem to know why the ideas it is borrowing worked in the first place. There's a lot of scenes involving the villains talking about dinner plans or something else equally banal, and this is a great source of comedy; space opera is operatic. It's about grand gestures that can be seen across the room, or even across the galaxy.
Undercutting that with a reminder that these people still have to get lunch, just like everyone else, can be funny; but the problem is, it undercuts. Also, it's been done before, and way better, by people who actually seem to know what they're doing. When Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies has trouble connecting to his estranged son, Scott, it's saying something about the James Bond movies (and something about fatherhood). When Spark has Spark pretend to be a plumber during an infiltration mission, it's another poop joke. It also doesn't help that this kind of humor requires good timing, which is not helped by the sludgy animation.
Even the part I liked, Vix the vixen (so if you haven't figured out which species Chunk is yet, I've narrowed it down for you), is basically Master Tigress with Vasquez from Aliens' fashion sense, except for some reason a fox. Which is a great combo, I mean, I don't like this movie, but I like this character. Not bad character design, either (checking in with e621 seems to confirm, yes, she's about the only thing any other furry liked about this movie). But there's a reason Tigress hugging Po is a major character moment in the Kung Fu Panda series, while at the end of this movie, when Vix kisses Spark's head affectionately, it just felt like they needed something for her to do.
An odd thing about this movie is that it seems to have a complete lack of moral or lesson it's going for. At no point is our hero urged to do anything, really. I mean, people like to complain that a lot of these types of movies have the lesson "be yourself", but that's better than nothing. Spark, the protagonist, is the hero because he's a prince. That's our vision of the future. Who says the monarchy's dead? We replaced the uncle with the nephew. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Hey, maybe it seems petty to tackle a silly kid's cartoon for it's support of monarchy as a viable system of government, but if you don't have anything to say, at least make sure you're not not-saying something stupid.