This week I decided to try another kids' movie, but in contrast to last week's fluff, this is something dark and serious:
What Did I Know Going In
- It's about robots or something.
- It's a toy cash-grab.
- Actually, they might be people in robot suits.
- This seems awfully self-serious. "Web of Shadows?" That's the title to an extended universe Star Wars novel about rogue Jedis, isn't it?
- It's a full-length movie, so that's worth something.
- What's a "bionicle?"
The Plot, As Far As I Can Tell
Okay, so, a bunch of stuff has just happened that sounds like it was really exciting, but I didn't see any of it. It all involves these five Good Guy robots called "the Toa."
Apparently, the Toa are good friends with some other Good Guy robots called "the Matoran." Unfortunately, the Matoran are stuck in some kind of suspended animation prison thanks to the heinous deeds of a Bad Guy robot called "Makuta." But Makuta is also in a suspended animation prison, ostensibly at the the hands of the Toa. So, you take the good with the bad, I guess.
The Toa are led by a red robot named Vakama. There's also a greenish robot named Matau. I didn't pick up on any of the other Toa's names, but most of them don't really say a whole lot, so that's not a big deal. Vakama is kind of an overburdened boss and Matau is a wise-cracking guy with 'tude, and it seems like sometimes he's got an accent, but it comes and goes too much to know for sure.
The Toa are off to set the Matoran free and restore the status quo. Unfortunately, when they get to the Matoran's planet, they are ambushed by a bunch of spider robots named "visorak." The visorak are commanded by an Evil Lady robot named Roodaka. Roodaka is loyal to Makuta and wants to free him, but needs help to do it. So she's seducing / manipulating another Evil Guy robot named Sidorak to help her. Sidorak looks like the Devil.
The visorak capture the Toa and wrap them up in robot cocoons, which are suspended over a giant pit. Sidorak and Roodaka gloat a bit and Vakama feels really bad about it. The cocoons are dropped into the pit, and while they're falling, a bunch of other robots come out of nowhere to rescue them at the last minute. Fade to black.
When we fade in again, the Toa are all alive, but their bodies are all jacked up. (I'm not entirely sure how this works, actually. I keep calling them "robots," but I think they're all organic things because they seem horrified by how they look. So I guess it's more severe than simply having their hard drives plugged into new hardware.) They've all been transformed and they're not sure why, but a wizened old robot named Noric comes out of the shadows to explain.
Apparently, they've been poisoned by visorak venom that has transformed their bodies, and if they don't get treated for it soon, the transformation will be permanent. Not only that, but they'll lose their minds and become evil minions at the beck and call of Roodaka.
Vakama continues to tell everybody how bad he feels that he let them down, and this parlays into a snotty "I'm gonna go sulk in the corner" sequence, which then parlays into a reluctant "everybody hates me, I'm going to go it alone" sequence. It's a pretty quick transition, actually. Like five minutes ago, Vakama was their leader, but all of a sudden he decided he has to ostracize himself and he's bitter and lonely. Short story short, Vakama leaves the Toa to try to fix things on his own.
The other Toa follow Noric to go seek out the "Keetongu," a mythical thing that can remove the visorak venom and turn the Toa back to normal. This adventure is kind of boring, honestly, because anytime it cuts back to them, they're just walking around while a narrator tells us how intense it is.
The more interesting stuff is happening with Vakama. He gets trapped by the visorak (again) and Roodaka tempts him to come to her side and fight on her behalf. Vakama succumbs to her charms and becomes a Bad Guy robot.
Meanwhile, the other Toa find Keetongu and he tells them they can't turn back to normal until they learn to fight using their new bodies. Noric leads the Toa back to Roodaka and Sidorak's headquarters for a final confrontation, and a giant battle begins between the Toa and the visorak.
At some point in the battle, there's a break and Matau and Vakama have a one-on-one fight. Matau pleads for Vakama to think back on the good times together, and Vakama switches back to being a Good Guy robot. He comes to help the other Toa, and together, they are able to beat Roodaka and Sidorak, free the Matoran, and turn back into their original forms.
Unfortunately, through movie magic, Makuta has been freed. He runs away before anybody can confront him, and the movie ends with Vakama musing that they'll meet him again.
The Things I Liked
Despite having a rich mythology that I don't know at all, the movie was pretty easy to follow along. (It's not exactly a complex plot.) I appreciated that the movie also was efficient with its storytelling. Plot beats come fast and hard, but with enough time to sink in so you fully appreciate them.
I generally liked the character designs. Even though I wasn't familiar with the property at all, it was clear that the Toa had transformed and that it was a bad thing. It wasn't like a Transformers situation where all the robots looked the same - each robot had their own markings and features that made them distinctly recognizable. I also liked that there were different robot ethnicities, and they had distinguishing features as well. You can tell a Toa apart from a whatever-the-hell-Noric-is.
The animation was well done and the action scenes were kind of fun. Plus, the movie had no illusions about what it was or what it was trying to do: it got to the climactic action showdown 30 minutes before the end so the little boys watching would have plenty of violence to keep them riveted.
The Things I Didn't Like
I understand that Bionicle is its own universe and wants to have its own mythology, but I really hated all the names that kept coming up. I guess this might sound like a lame complaint, because you don't really want the lead robot to be named "Jeff." But still, couldn't there at least have been conventions to keep it all together? Like all the Toa could have had names ending in "toa?" Vakatoa, Matatoa, and so on?
They didn't really implement the mythology all that well, either. There's no practical differences that I could see between the different sub-sects of robots and I'm not sure what the political or socioeconomic structures of their world are, so it makes it hard to tell what the source of conflict is other than just general "I'm a bad guy" speeches.
Not only that, but the Toa's powers are kind of bland. I eventually learned - in the last fifteen minutes - that the Toa each have an Aristotlean elemental power: Vakama is fire, Matau is Earth, etc. But you wouldn't know that until somebody told you. Other than being red and kind of pissy, Vakama isn't very fire-like at all. Couldn't he have a flame sword or something? (Hell, Noric has a fire staff.) If you're not going to do something with the elements, you might as well not even have them.
The score was kind of fun, but also crazy dramatic. Every other scene you'd get this really intense violin swell, as if somebody has just died - but all that's happened is somebody walked from the left side of the screen to the right.
Also, they never did explain what a "bionicle" is.
Here Are Some of My Notes While Watching
- There's a lot of drama behind this opening sequence
- Wait, slow down, I don't know any of these words
- Just tell me who the bad guy is
- The yellow Toa is being arrogant about his ability to beat up the bad guys
- Star Wars wipes
- Little tiny baby robots!!!!
Would I Recommend It
Actually, yeah, I think I would. Assuming you have kids and they're of the appropriate age to watch robots beat the shit out of each other.
Bionicle 3 is too overblown and silly for me to genuinely enjoy, but it's not really for me, is it? I bet the target audience would eat it up, and I can't complain too much about that. None of the voice acting was irritating, the animation met a baseline standard of quality, the story was competently told, even if not original, and I actually could follow what was happening for the most part. I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again, but I wouldn't mind having it on in the background.
What Do I Think the Prequels Were About
I think there might be a TV show or something, too, but let's pretend there isn't and say there's only two movies.
If that's the case, then I'm going to guess it goes like this:
Bionicle 1: Vakama is a snotty, independent robot growing up in the country somewhere, but he doesn't know how to control his powers and he's too headstrong to follow orders. He meets some kind of Leader Bot who teaches him that he's a Toa and has an elemental force that destines him to save the universe from Makuta, an evil overlord. Vakama is excited to fight Makuta, but he's reluctant because he has to work on a team with the other Toa. So most of the movie is about him getting over himself and training, and then eventually the Toa come together and imprison Makuta in the end. The universe is happy and everybody cheers because they know they can count on the Toa to save the day if there's ever any problems in the future.
Bionicle 2: The Toa get a distress signal from some far away planet. The signal is coming from the Matoran, a peaceful people who are being threatened by some holdouts from Makuta's army who want to free him and restore him to power. The Toa go to the planet and beat up the holdouts, and in the end it seems like they've saved the world - but there's a shocking twist ending! Actually, the Matorans were imprisoned and secretly sent off the planet already, so the Toa are too late to save them. Vakama looks up at the night sky with narrowed eyes and says, "Don't worry, guys. We'll come to save you." Cliffhanger ending!
I'm assuming Makuta is one of those villains who, like the Shredder, never actually succeeds at any of his schemes, but always comes around to try another one each week. It's a shame I didn't get to see any of him in this movie, because these types of villains are always cool when you see them in action, but out of context they just seem like abject failures who have only the most superficial understanding of the term "determination." Seeing a movie where Makuta is just a loser in the background gives me no sense of dread.
I wonder how bad a guy he actually is. So... let's say the TV show is about him committing genocide against a specific subset of the Toa that believes in a slightly different robot God. That at least makes him reprehensible, so now I give a crap if Vakama catches him some day.