Written by Caballero Oscuro
The Blue Elephant succeeds as a showcase for the animation techniques of its original Thai animation studio but fails to connect as a meaningful motion picture. It’s perfectly pretty to look at, but there’s just not much substance or cohesiveness going on under its trunk. At its best, it announces to the world that Thailand has some significant CG animation talent, while at its worst it exposes the short shrift given to plot and character development. It’s also somewhat derivative of Disney animated hits such as Dumbo, The Lion King, and even a touch of Mulan, which isn’t necessarily a detraction but definitely doesn’t win it any points for originality.
The film focuses on the adventures of a young elephant named Khan as he learns the ways of the world, longs to meet his absent warrior father, and eventually befriends the human prince of his land. His main quest leads him to attempt to locate his father, a mighty warrior for the human army of Siam whose last known whereabouts placed him on the frontlines of an epic war against Burma. Khan eventually becomes the prince’s main steed, placing him firmly in the military path chosen by his father. There are subplots about his budding romance with a female elephant and his separation from and reunion with his mother, but ultimately the story follows Khan’s quest for and emulation of his father.
As a kids' movie, the later portion is surprisingly barbaric, exposing what appears to be a centuries-old rift between Siam/Thailand and neighboring Burma. The human and elephant armies go to war in a massive showcase that ends with Khan’s showdown against a much larger and devilish opponent. That’s not to say the scenes are particularly gruesome or frightening, just that this historic Siam vs. Burma conflict seems far more adult and functions as such a central theme that the film eventually feels more like political commentary rather than lighthearted entertainment. The kids might not even notice, but this focus on Thailand’s nationalistic pride really doesn’t translate well here.
As for the animation, the characters are almost too super-deformed, falling way too far to the side of cartoons rather than embracing any naturalistic traits. It’s always a difficult choice for animators to pick a happy medium between goofy animation and physical reality, and this time they tipped too far to the fantasy side, especially in light of the very real war theme embraced later in the film. However, the backgrounds are exceedingly lush and densely populated, the characters are mostly animated well, and the camera movement and blocking is generally up to Hollywood standards, although there’s noticeably a bit too much reliance on perfect CG pans that have fallen out of favor in US productions in recent years as animators attempt to inject virtual jitter to make films seem less like they’re on CG rails. In short, there’s nothing all that objectionable about the animation, as it nearly approaches the quality of an Ice Age or Madagascar, so any fears of a cut-rate project can be put to rest.
The vocal talent is another matter. For the US release through The Jim Henson Company and The Weinstein Company, the producers recruited a few recognizable names to give the film some local credibility and marketability, namely Martin Short, Carl Reiner, and Miranda Cosgrove. However, the entire cast is uniformly abysmal, making this reviewer long for the absent original Thai audio to accompany the included English subs. The performances could possibly be chalked up to poor direction in the localization effort, but whatever the cause, the vocal cast does the film no favors. Also, there’s little attempt to marry the US script to the Thai character speech, so the film constantly seems to have an audio/video synch problem.
The Jim Henson Company is to be commended for including this film under its “Discoveries” banner, apparently an ongoing effort by them to expose US audiences to little known animated films. However, while it’s great to see this project emerge on US shores and it’s exciting to discover the animation talent present in Thailand, this isn’t a film most viewers will want for their permanent collections. The kids may enjoy it once or twice, and you won’t mind watching the attractive CG work, but it’s far from an essential purchase.