I know, I know, I've been greatly remiss on reviews recently, in particular reviews of local films. Which is why I wanted to catch this one, if only for its significance - despite the fact that The Hunger Games opened this week and I'm itching to watch it. Seefood is made by Silver Ant, a local animation studio that mostly does commercial and TV work, and this is its first full-length theatrical feature film produced in conjunction with Al-Jazeera Children's Channel. It's not Malaysia's first animated, or even CG-animated, movie by any means; I believe that'd be the Upin & Ipin movies, of which I think there are at least two. But since I missed those, I figure I'd better catch this one. Gotta check out what homegrown talent can do in the field of animation, hey?
And now that I have seen it, I can firmly tell you that you don't need to.
Pup (Diong Chae Lian) is a young bamboo shark living on a reef, and his best friend is a whitetip shark named Julius (Gavin Yap) who has a band of "assistants" - pilot fish Larry (Jason Daud Cottam), Moe (Andrew Susay) and Curly (who doesn't speak) - helping him stick to a no-fish diet. And there's also Mertle the turtle (Christina Orow), Octo the octopus (Kennie Dowle) and inventor, and Spin the stingray (Jay Sheldon) who resents Julius for trying to eat him. When two human boys from a nearby seaside village steal the eggs, Pup ventures onto land to try and save them - and promptly discovers that he can in fact breathe out of water. But when Julius and his retinue attempt to rescue Pup, they need Octo's invention - an exoskeletal suit for aquatic creatures. They'll encounter a band of none-too-friendly chickens, a restaurant owner who wants to serve Julius up as shark fin soup, and a somewhat friendlier coconut crab. But in the meantime, a nasty moray eel named Murray intends to lead an army of crabs in an invasion of the reef, riding a wave of sludge from the nearby industrial waste-spewing factory.
It will likely be argued, by fans and supporters of this movie, that comparing it with Pixar and DreamWorks productions - especially Finding Nemo - is unfair. To which I say: fair is for losers, sucka. Said argument might fly if this were North Korea or some other country with a trade embargo on foreign films. But this is Malaysia, where every CG-animated movie gets a wide release during school holidays (and where cinema distributors are canny enough to only release them during school holidays). You're targeting the same kids and parents and audiences who already watched The Adventures of Tintin, Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2 last year, and it's not like you're charging a lower ticket price than those films did. There's no avoiding the fact that your movie will be held up to the same standards - and by those standards, Seefood sucks.
I knew the movie was in trouble by the opening scenes. There's no proper establishing of key story points: what exactly is Pup's and Julius' relationship, and why is Julius protective of the former? Why is Pup concerned about the batch of eggs? Why does Julius have an entourage of three sycophants following him around all the time? If Julius is on a "vegetarian" diet, then why is he offering up a bunch of other - live, and terrified - reef denizens to Pup as snacks? (And in lieu of fish, Julius has been eating tyres?) And then we're asked to swallow Pup being able to breathe on land - which is actually true, bamboo sharks have been known to survive up to 12 hours out of water, though I highly doubt they can run and jump and push trolleys while they're at it. It's just that the information isn't presented in a way that makes it halfway plausible.
There's a weird thing going on with Jeffrey Chiang's screenplay here. The movie contains long stretches without any dialogue, and it's like director Goh Aun Hoe cut out a lot of Chiang's lines because he thinks his "visual storytelling" can do the job better. This would seem like a wise decision, because Chiang's dialogue is terrible. There isn't a single funny, witty or clever line, just cliché after cliché; Chiang is literally writing at a kindergarten level of English literacy here. None of the characters are interesting or fleshed-out - in particular the one-dimensionally nasty human villains - and its attempts at an ocean conservation message are trite and perfunctory. Its one clever idea, the fish mech suit, shows up only a good halfway through the movie, and even then neither Chiang nor Goh do anything clever with it. Even for a CGI cartoon movie for kids, its lack of respect for its audience's intelligence is evident. Just look at the character names: Chiang names an octopus Octo. Bet it took him weeks to come up with that one.
I said it would seem like a wise decision, because frankly, Goh's visual storytelling skills are equally awful. I swear to God, he never wastes a single opportunity to ruin the comic timing of a visual gag. What passes for action scenes during its climax are also mind-numbingly lethargic. It's dull; the pace is interminable, making its 92-minute running time feel like 2-½ hours, and Chiang's screenplay probably takes up all of 50 pages. Also, the movements of the human characters are ugly and unnatural (the fish and chicken characters fare better, because anthropomorphic characters are at less risk of falling into the uncanny valley). It's embarrassing that this movie was made by one of Malaysia's top animation studios and this is the best they can come up with. Its only saving grace is the visual design of what looks like an idyllic Malaysian seaside village - but even this is undercut by the villagers speaking in perfect American accents.
There's no getting around it: Seefood is not funny, not thrilling, not heartwarming, not engaging, not imaginative, and just plain not good. And now that I have so brutally trashed it, you may be more sympathetic to the position that comparing it with Hollywood CG-animated films is unfair. To which I say, again, no. How is it unfair? The only really unfair advantage they have over Silver Ant is their multi-hundred-million-US-dollar budgets - which isn't something that Goh and his animators can't overcome, since Seefood looks perfectly decent from a technical standpoint. Where it fails is in character design, animation direction, storytelling, and basic imagination. If you're going to claim a mulligan for all these - if you think you deserve a pass because you're just not as good in these areas as Pixar or DreamWorks - then why the hell did you even make this movie??
NEXT REVIEW: The Hunger Games
Expectations: pretty excited, yo