Friday, 9 October 2015

Blinky Bill: The Movie (2015) - Movie Review

In the canon of iconic Australian children’s television, there’s a lot more to us than Skippy the Kangaroo; hell, I still haven’t seen an episode of that show and I’ve lived here all my life. You’ve got the surreal and boundary-pushing morality tales of Round The Twist, the endlessly imitated artistry of Mr. Squiggle and the latest addition to the CGI hostile takeover Bananas In Pyjamas, just to name a few. Amongst this collection of oddities is the hallmark animation franchise Blinky Bill, a series of adaptations of the Dorothy Wall book series about a mischievous koala bear and his friends; yeah, it turns some stereotypes surrounding Australia ended up being true.

Brought to the big and small screens by the Aussie Don Bluth Yoram Gross, it made for a very environmentally-vivid part of many a childhood including my own. I still remember a competition at my primary school where I won a stuffed kangaroo because I knew one of the character’s names off-by-heart. Of course, considering the aforementioned decline of the dressed bananas, is this character capable of surviving in today’s Cartoon Network-influenced market? Time to find out with this latest cinematic iteration of the series.

The plot: Blinky Bill (Ryan Kwanten)’s home of Greenpatch is being taken over by Mayor Cranklepot (Barry Otto) and in danger of being shut off from the outside world entirely. In order to stop him, Blinky goes on a journey to try and find his father Bill (Richard Roxburgh), who went missing years earlier looking for the ‘Sea of White Dragons’. With his mother (Deborah Mailman) and his friends trying to keep things stable with him gone, and the help of fellow koala Nutsy (Robin McLeavy), Blinky has to find his father and bring him back before they all lose their home.

The voice cast is full of good Aussie voice talent: Ryan Kwanten is a likeable and mildly inept mischief-maker as the titular Blinky, Robin McLeavy creates a good platonic foil for Bill as Nutsy (of course, they’re supposed to end up as adopted siblings so I’d hope that they would be platonic friends but well done Twilight for making the alternative viable), Toni Collette makes for an okay double act as the emus Beryl and Cheryl, David Wenham may get annoying in places as frill-neck Jacko but points to him anyway given how he delivers probably the best joke in the movie. Richard Roxburgh is acceptable as Bill, Barry Humphries works surprisingly well as the lonely-to-the-point-of-insanity Wombo, Deborah Mailman imbues Blinky’s mother with the strong and kind-hearted air to make for easily the best character of the film, and Barry Otto as the slimy Mayor Cranklepot creates one of the more sharply-written characters of the film. The one foreigner in the cast, Rufus Sewell, is suitably cast as the very British cat that chews and scratches at the earthen scenery and giving the other best joke of the film involving a deliciously cheesy pun about Jacko’s frill-neck.

Back when I talked about Leviathan, I made mention of a writing trend largely present in 80’s-90’s Australian media. Yes, writing trends in Australia while discussing a Russian film laden with political commentary; it’s that kind of blog. We have a habit of writing stories involving families being forcibly removed from their homes by real estate tycoons and/or wealthy businessmen. Now, given how we aren’t one to shy away from our past, it’s easy enough to see it as a means to translate the plight that befell the Stolen Generation and the First Settlers’ treatment of the Aborigines overall in a way that can make it hit home for white audiences. If it seems weird to bring this up in a family film about an anthropomorphic koala, bear in mind that the original books/cartoon were probably one of the few examples of natural conservatism in media that doesn’t readily patronise the audience; Ferngully, anyone?

Also, there seems to be a surprisingly subtle bit of commentary here concerning Australia’s policy on boat people, with Cranklepot planning to close up the borders of the village to outsides and making up awesome-but-still-ridiculous sounding creatures that live in the outback as his excuse for it. It may only take up a short portion of the film, but still it’s kind of miraculous to see a film made for kids that is written with that kind of intelligence behind it that’s still subtle enough to make for younger audiences. It’s kind of a shame that this serves only as a side plot, while the traditional hero’s journey to find his lost father takes precedent; not to mention being wrapped up rather hastily at the end.

Outside of the events in Greenpatch, the film’s road trip plot is done better than *ahem* other films of late and focuses on the main ingredients that make such a story work: Engaging characters, interesting locales and not letting side quests completely override the reason for the trip in the first place. The characters may enter into annoying territory at times but still create a good cast that legitimately make the upcoming TV series look like an entertaining prospect. The locations look pretty damn good, ranging from the human-inhabited areas like the truck stop and the zoo enclosure to the more natural scenes like the desert outback and the Valley of White Dragons. That latter one has a surprisingly eerie atmosphere and feels like something plucked right out of an Aboriginal Dreamtime story. What helps the locales is that the animation, while a bit plastic-y given our mostly furry cast, really works at giving scope to the desert setting; it also makes for some nicely energetic chase scenes. The story, thankfully, never feels like it’s dragging its feet nor that the main purpose for the trip is an inconvenience for the characters taking it; seriously, it’s kind of ridiculous how often this happens nowadays.

The music feels like it is where the majority of the budget went towards, and no that isn’t a slight against the rest of the film. It most likely the most expensive part of the production because it feels way too lush for the rest of the film, what with it being done by the Prague friggin’ Philharmonic Orchestra and all; it clashes with the frankly cheaper production values, particularly in the animation department. Probably the point where this stuck out the most was in the Cat’s introductory scene, where the soundtrack incorporates an operatic choir of all things into the equation. Don’t get me wrong, it adds an element of grandeur to the proceedings, but it ventures slightly into a little too much effort. Then again, given the other animated kids’ films I’ve seen in the name of critical thought, I’d rather too much effort than too little.

All in all, this turned really well. The characters are fun, the voice acting is fitting, the animation may show the film’s budget but still fulfils its purpose from scene to scene, the music goes above and beyond for a family film and the writing hits funny, dramatic and even a bit of political commentary as well; not bad for a film that regularly employs bodily humour gags to get laughs. Honestly, the only point that I could actually call "bad" is when Jacko encounters his arch-rival, complete with silly and over-the-top bickering between them; if I’m thinking that it gets too dry, I hate to think how the kids felt while watching it.

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