Thursday, August 16, 2012

Review: Echo Planet

  • Directed by Kompin Kemkumnird
  • Starring Nuengtida Sopon, Atipitch Chutiwatkhajornchai, Noppan Jantarasorn, Kongdej Jaturanrasamee
  • Released in Thai cinemas on August 2, 2012; rated G.
  • Wise Kwai's rating: 5/5

A historic triumph for Thai animation, Echo Planet (เอคโค่ จิ๋วก้องโลก, Echo Jew Kong Loke), is an entertaining and handsomely rendered tale with an environmental message.

The first Thai animated feature to be released in 3D, Echo Planet is the latest effort by Kantana Animation and Kompin Kemkumnird, a Cal Arts graduate and veteran of Disney and Blue Sky Studios in the U.S. who made his debut as a director with 2006's Khan Kluay, a nationalistic tale of a plucky little war elephant in old Siam.

Echo Planet should appeal to a broader international market with its story of environmental doom and three children who are on an adventure to save the world.

It's also distinctly Thai – something that sets it apart from the Pixars, the Dreamworks and other outfits that feed the Hollywood machine – tapping into traditional folk wisdom and spiritual beliefs, but not in ways that are preachy or boring. Along with sumptuous background scenery of the Thai jungle and stunning rock formations, there's also wildlife that's native to the region – this is probably the first movie ever made that features the tapir, a pig-like jungle mammal, as a comic-relief character.

The environmental message is simplified by turning the phenomenon of global warming into a monster, actually a bunch of little monsters that invade our gadgets and machines and turn them against us. Acronym-loving scientists in the movie call these things Biologically Unified Carbon Threats, or B.U.C.T.s for short.

It's while the sky is cracking and the B.U.C.T.s are starting to invade when the World Scout Jamboree is being held in Thailand. One of the star attendees is Sam, the son of the president of Capital State. The country, the most advanced in the world, is a thinly veiled stand-in for the U.S. In a satiric nod, the red, white and blue flag of Capital State has a UPC symbol instead stars in a blue patch on a field of red and white horizontal stripes.

On a hike, Sam's GPS gadget goes haywire and he gets lost. He's rescued by a brother and sister from the Karen highland tribe. The little boy is Jorpe who can talk to animals and trees by touching his forehead to them. His tough older sister Norva wears the traditional Karen neck-stretching rings, giving her a distinct ethnic appearance. Wielding a bamboo staff, she's also a fierce fighter, bringing to mind the Thai live-action heroine Jeeja Yanin.

First, the kids have to get past their differences. The Westerner Sam is typically arrogant. He doubts the Karen ways and shows ingratitude for the smelly folk remedies they use on him after he plunges to what should have been his death. The Karen kids are suspicious of the foreigner and his high-tech gadgets.

Eventually, the three of them, plus Jorpe's pet tapir – a spin-off possibility – set off on an adventure in which they have to stop a project that will cause environmental havoc. Under the president of Capital State's leadership, the U.N. and the world scientific community plan to combat the B.U.C.T.s with a device called the Cool Bomb. But Jorpe, having talked to the trees, discovers that the cool bomb will cause even greater destruction. The only solution is to switch off the power and stop feeding the B.U.C.T. critters.

Partial credit for the script, which should appeal to little kids as well as their hipster parents, goes to Kongdej Jaturanrasamee, one of several scribes listed. Kongdej is also roped in to voice the president of Capital State and is able to draw on his experience as a film director himself to project that god-like authority.

Other voices include actress-singer "Noona" Nuengtida Sopon from Hello Stranger as Norva, kid actor Atipitch Chutiwatkhajornchai as Jorpe and Noppan Jantarasorn is Sam.

It should be a no-brainer for a Hollywood studio to pick this up, put some big names in the voice cast and give it a good release in the U.S.

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