Review: ARJUN - THE WARRIOR PRINCE Artfully Straddles Grownup Themes and Disney Sugar
In his recent piece about the trailer, Josh Hurtado accurately described one of these central conflicts without having even seen the film: "The main obstacle I see standing in the way of Arjun's success is the fact that India lacks a domestic market for children's films. The vast majority of successful children's cinema in India is imported, and even then, most children simply go see whatever their parents are seeing." And so though I know next to nothing about UTV's previous Disney-like efforts, I am a bit familiar with how tricky it can be for animated flicks to approach, authentically, the idea of making kids and adults happy. Often they'll go the typical Hollywood route of having inside jokes and references for adults in what is basically a bland kids' movie. Or, of course, they can go the route of most theatrical anime releases, which is to veer toward the adult and older teen market, not presuming for a second that "animation = kids' fare." Arjun - The Warrior Prince doesn't really employ either of these strategies, but aims squarely at a middle ground -- although this could be my cultural bias speaking since I have no idea, really, of what a twelve-year-old Indian might find appealing. I do know that there's enough action and imagination in Arjun for my twelve-year-old American son to find it quite diverting.
What's nice is that all this entertainment value doesn't come with any glaring "Disneyfication." Let me explain that, drawing special attention to the word glaring. After all, I'm pretty certain that liberties are taken with the story elements borrowed from the Mahabharat. I can't comment on that directly as I know Arjun the character mostly from a long-ago reading of a section of that epic, the Bhagavad Gita, and he's not an adolescent there. However, I can report that, despite ample opportunities, Arjun the movie doesn't go in for the usual tropes one is likely to encounter at an American multiplex. There are no annoying, wise-cracking sidekicks to provide comic relief. The princess role is neither glammed up nor infantilized. And most importantly, the title character is complex rather being made squeaky clean. In keeping with the latter, the warrior themes are not glossed over in a juvenile way, as if one could become a real warrior without actually shedding blood... or without a movie featuring that theme actually showing this blood (the climactic battle is pretty gory).
Does this make the film less kid-friendly? Maybe -- it probably depends on what kind of kids we're talking about. I think the sharper ones will appreciate the maturing-warrior storyline, which, granted, is hardly a new one, but is handled here with more somberness than usual (e.g., the mentor/student relationship is far more interesting than one might expect). Still, it should be noted that the film does provide a certain amount of hand-holding in the form of a framing story, wherein a young boy who imagines himself a warrior-in-training is told of Arjun's exploits as a quasi-cautionary tale. Even there, though, what initially seems like a simple, even overused, device right out of The Princess Bride is deceptively thoughtful, as the eventual merging of the frame story and the core narrative is done in a way that is both surprising and highly satisfying.
Which brings us, finally, to the sweeping ambitions of the narrative. Quite simply, Arjun tries to cover a lot of ground in its internationally-friendly runtime of 96 minutes. While I'm not sure that "condensed-feeling" or "disjointed" would be fair to apply, the plot certainly doesn't conform to the rhythms of most American or European animated features. Although for long stretches the pacing really does hit a groove, we'll then suddenly get a vast jump in time. In general this works, but I happen to like that as it gives things more of a novelistic feel. But an epic feel? Not really. I think the runtime needed to be closer to 2 hours for that. What's missing: Arjun's relationship with his brother and with his wife -- both could have been fleshed out more. Also, possibly my favorite section feels somewhat shortchanged. That occurs when Arjun undergoes additional training in "the land of the gods." There he must fend off all kinds of fantastical creatures who spew green blood and -- well, I just wanted more of it. But before you know it, he's returning to the human plane with his mighty bow, and you're left wishing that the film could have incorporated a tad more magic since it's so imaginative when it does decide to.
The animation itself is, overall, impressive to these inexpert eyes, but I will not go as far saying that it is consistently so. Going for a more old-fashioned look is not the problem, nor is the execution in that department; with only a few exceptions the action seems fluid, and the characters are decently expressive. The problem arises when more new-fangled approaches are introduced. The leaves on trees in several shots seem mass-produced from a CG template; they don't look terrible per se, just fake when contrasted with the other vegetation we see in the painterly backgrounds. Much worse is the rendering of flames. These look like they were done in the way one often encounters in low-budget DIY indies, where explosions are clumsily added in post. Mechanical-looking rather than the organic, these flames represent a real backfire (um... no pun intended). To make matters worse, a key scene involves a house fire. Still, almost as if intentionally compensating for this, all the scenes involving water are stunning, often memorably so.
Arnab Chaudhuri's direction is very solid, and in some of the set pieces it's a lot better than that. The emphasis is on scale throughout, which would be ostentatious or repetitive if it weren't pulled off so spectacularly nearly every time. A chariot race through a massive fortress, pageantry galore, and lots of landscapes dripping with detail... yes, all of this is eye candy but it rarely feels gratuitous. Even when there are outright visual clichés, Chaudhuri somehow manages to make them feel new and energizing. A good example has Arjun striking poses on a lonely mountain peak while a carousel shot captures him from every angle. We've all seen this before, but the combination of the majestic, snow-covered range in the background and the rousing music works wonders nonetheless. As a matter of fact, the score is terrific no matter what it's asked to do, whether that means turning martial arts-style sequences into something resembling dance numbers, or just being big and propulsive.
Indeed, the entire film is so determined to present its grandness that it may be easy to miss the many quiet things that take place and all its thoughtful touches. So I guess I'll have to screen Arjun again at some point -- this time, with kids in attendance.