A Rousing Good Romp in a Film that Somehow Manages to Defy the Odds
If you have any experience in the realm of animated feature films, you’re already aware of a simple reality: The good ones are generally really good. Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, Sony; they’ve all spoiled us with massive budgeted, butter-smooth animated, touching storied works of art. The bad ones, on the other hand, are typically very bad. How can one tell the good ones apart from the bad at a glance? The bad ones are direct-to-dvd affairs and you’ve likely never heard about them before happening upon them in the Redbox, on Netflix etc.
So what makes the bad ones so bad you ask? Simply this: 99.9% of the time they are actually foreign films, created for a foreign market that the rights are bought up for and shipped over here to the US of A as a direct-to-dvd deal. They are then slapped with an English dub voice track, given a name similar to something you have heard of (Know of Frozen? Meet Frozen Land. Familiar with Kung Fu Panda? How about Chop Kick Panda? Like Happy Feet? Perhaps your kid will be confused into picking up Tappy Toes.) There are literally dozens of these on the market and more released on a weekly basis.
So what’s the problem with that? Well simply this- timing. Since the viewer expects the mouth to actually move with the dialog, this puts the English dub crew into a terrible predicament. More often than not, dialog becomes ridiculously simplistic, redundant, and you can forget comedic timing; or for that matter even natural conversational flow. Scenes feel disconnected, the pacing of the film feels somehow off, younger viewers get bored. Older viewers start to contemplate the meaning of existence. In short, it’s ugly.
All of this brings us to Tad the Lost Explorer from Studiocanal and brought to the US as, you guessed it, a direct-to-DVD affair from Vivendi. Yes it’s a foreign film imported (originally Spain’s 2012 Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones). Except here’s where things become a shocker: It’s actually good! Good for an import? Nope, just good period.
The story, in my spoiler-free summary, follows the adventures of one Thaddeus “Tad” Stones; a Chicago bricklayer with aspirations of becoming a world-renowned archaeologist. One fateful day, however, a series of events result in his being mistaken for a real professor of archaeology and our hapless hero (and his dog Jeff; short for Thomas Jefferson) find themselves on a flight to Peru in search of the Lost City of Paititi.
There he expects to meet with the genius Professor Lavrof and his beautiful daughter Sara to unite two sections of ancient tablet believed to be the key to the fabled city. Factor in a robotic-handed German accented villain names Kopponen and the shady Odysseus corporation who seek the riches of the ancient city for themselves and it’s high adventure in the steamy south the moment Tad steps off the plane.
If the setup sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones film, rest assured, that’s exactly what it intends to be (do keep in mind the original character’s last name was even Jones, changed to Stones here presumably to avoid legal trouble). And while the concept has enough merit to be cute, the film actually manages to play out like a genuine big-budget Indy adventure rather than a silly spoof. They even cleverly integrate an Indy reference when Tad receives his trademarked hat and careful viewers may even catch a hint of the Indiana Jones theme song (used with permission) during one of the action sequences.
The visuals are gorgeous, the animation spot-on and even the pacing, usually the biggest faux pas of foreign films turned domestic, is flawless. I came into this one expecting a lot of silly slap stick visual gag comedy and pun-filled dialog but was pleasantly surprised to find neither being the case. The humor is, at times, quite layered to appeal to audiences of all ages. Some of the subtle stuff is the best stuff.
Now the bad news, yes there is a little of that too I’m afraid. The film makes use of a couple inappropriate words/ phrases on occasion. Words like “crap” and “hell” work their way into the dialog so if these are things you wish to prevent younger viewers from exposure to, be advised. Additionally it seems the rather buxom proportions of the female lead Sara have managed to offend more than a fair share of female viewers in particular though in all fairness, it’s no different from anything you’d see on primetime television these days, on the cover of the tabloids or the latest issue of Cosmo. She’s always fully clothed and drawn in at tasteful angles.
All in all, this is perhaps the first film I’ve encountered in my travels that actually manages to succeed in an area where I previously didn’t think possible: It’s that rare foreign animated film that comes off so spectacularly in action that it’s easy to mistake it for an inflated-budget domestic piece. While the intricacies of the plot and the dialog will keep more mature viewers interested, the pair of pets (said dog Jeff and a parrot that uses signs to communicate like Wile E Coyote) should keep kids involved. Factor in a cleverly done mummy at the end and all of the ingredients are preset for success.
With the price of the DVD release of late in bargain-bin territory and a hardy 80-minutes of genuinely entertaining CG animated action, it’s very easy to recommend this one.