By Charles Solomon | Animation Scoop November 1, 2013 at 12:05AM
The Canadian feature The Legend of Sarila is dropped ice cream cone of a film, a lost opportunity for something new and exciting.
The Inuit are the Native Peoples of the far north (they used to be referred to as Eskimoes, an unflattering Algonquin word meaning "blubber eater"). Over the centuries they developed a complex mythology and strong visual arts traditions. During the 1970's, the National Film Board of Canada sent animators to Cape Dorset to train artists, a program that produced a number of interesting films, including Caroline Leaf’s The Owl Who Married a Goose.
The Legend of Sarila grafts a veneer of Inuit culture onto a very formulaic story that borrows heavily from mainstream American animation.
In 1910, a clan of Inuit nomads suffers from a dearth of food because their evil shaman Croolik (Christopher Plummer) has defied the goddess Sedna (Elisapie Isaac). Saya (Genevieve Bujold), the tribal wise woman, says they will find sustenance by sending someone with a pure heart to Sarila, a fabled land of plenty. Aided by his nasty crow Kwatak, Croolik plots to use the expedition to get rid of Markussi (Dustin Milligan), a young man who has begun to manifest great power as a shaman. Accompanying him are the chief’s son Poutulik (Tim Rozen) and the lovely Apik (Rachelle Lefevre). Apik brings along her grotesquely cute pet lemming, obviously added for potential plush toy sales. To ensure Markussi’s death, Croolik gives Poutulik a wolf-mask charm that will enable the sorcerer to control the young hunter.
While the clan scrounges for food, the trio of teen-agers follows the path Markussi discovers by casting magical bones. Sadly, that’s the limit of the magic: The story is as laden with gaps and holes as the rotting ice the young Inuit have to cross. Producer/director Nancy Florence Savard fails to give the viewer any sense of how long or how far the trio travels. Sarila is supposed to be a distant land, but apparently it’s not that far as the crow flies, because Kwatak keeps flapping by to watch them and report back. At one point, they get caught in weak ice and lose one their sleds, although they save the dogs. But the dogs immediately vanish and are never seen again. Although the film is about a quest to find game, the hunting scenes are few, and no one kills anything on camera.
The main characters’ personalities and relationships have even more problems. Apik is promised to Poutulik, the future chief and great hunter, but she prefers the more sensitive Markussi. It's a classic romantic triangle, but there’s nothing new or original in the way it’s handled. Nor is it ever clear why Markussi insists he’s a hunter, not a shaman. He hears the voices of the animals and has visions—that’s Shaman 1A. Yet he continually denies it.
Given the beauty of the Inuit carvings of humans and animals, Legend of Sarila should be a visual feast. But the viewer looks in vain for that influence on the designs, aside from the occasional angle of a cheekbone. The animation is weightless and inexpressive, indistinguishable from countless other recent CG features. As in the recent Russian Snow Queen, audiences are treated to a completely unnecessary roller coaster ride over the ice, when the artists should have been concentrating on moving the characters with weight and individuality.
At the end of the film, Kwatak flies off with the magic wolf mask, setting up the possibility of sequel, which sums up many of the film's problems. Instead of trying to launch a franchise with their first attempt at feature animation, the crew should have concentrated on making a better film.