Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, November 20, 2006
      ( 11/20/2006 10:54:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"AH, HE WAS A CLEVER MAN – A TRAIT THAT IS KNOWN TO SKIP A GENERATION!" – The 23rd century Earth of Skyland, the new Nicktoons sci-fi animated series, isn't as solid as the one we know. Broken into millions of jagged "blocks" that orbit around the planet's core, the world is ruled by an evil dictatorship called the Sphere, which uses its robotic military and some powerful telekinetics called Seijins to control the planet's water supply. Niggling against the Sphere, hiding in a cluster of uncharted blocks, is a ragtag group of pirates – the last vestige of the rebellion against the Sphere.

A pretty familiar set-up to anyone who's watched even a smidgeon of sci-fi in the last thirty years (for Seijins-with-telekinesis read the Force; for robotic military read Cylons; for pirate rebels read space cowboys in a Firefly, for water read water, etc.) – though the pleasure, presumably, resides in the details. As produced by Canadian animators using motion capture and a host of other computer generated techniques, Skyland is a visually splendid concoction, especially when its animators focus on the floating blocks and simultaneously futuristic/archaic looking hardware that its heroes and villains pilot. That it's much less impressive focusing on people, all of who appear to have hair composed of solid chunks of plastic, is symptomatic of this genre fare.

Skyland's protagonists are Lena and Mahad, young sibs who are forced to flee when their Seijin mother Mila is discovered found by the robotic Brigadiers. Sphere Commander Oslo, a bald-headed Seijin with a Eurotrash accent (even the 23rd century still has its regionalist speaking patterns, apparently), has a thing for Ma Mila, who he sees as half of a prophecy (oh yeah, we just had to have a prophecy, didn't we?) that foretells of a power of light changing the world. Since Seijins get their power from the sun, Oslo's conclusion makes some sense, but it's possible that he has the wrong Seijin since 12-year-old Lena shares her mother's abilities. He sends out Diwan, his Seijin second-in-command, who looks like Annie Lennox with a red tattoo (or perhaps a forelock of red hair – it's difficult to tell) on her shaved head, to retrieve the brother-&-sister, who have hidden in the territories. Ma Mila, meanwhile, is sent to Kharzem Prison, where she's kept caged away from the sunlight. Her only respite is provided in those necessary expository moments when Oslo brings her back up to fill us in on more back story.

Brother Mahad, a teen, is a fledgling pilot with mad skills that he's not afraid to boast about. When we first see him in the series' one-hour pilot, "Dawn of A New Day," he's racing against a buddy through the canyons in a sequence clearly meant to recall the Star Wars speeder bike races. Later, when our two sibs find a legendary craft called the Hyperion, we know our boy is destined to fly it. He's also adept with a boomerang-y type weapon that is capable of lopping off the heads of a row of robots without losing an ounce of momentum yet safely returns to his palm without slicing his hand in two, so mebbe his arrogance is earned.

Our sibs take refuge with the pirate rebels of Puerto Angel, who prove to be a fairly iconic bunch: there's the gruff fatherly figure who regularly has to be persuaded to do the right thing against his "better instincts," the tough girl pilot who really wants to take Mahad down a peg, the spunky little boy with advanced technical know-how – and the grandfatherly mentor known as Vector who's there to help Lena learn to control her budding Seijin powers. Everybody speaks in declamatory fashion ("I'll never be a part of your evil schemes!") in the manner of really early scientifiction, so that even the occasional quips sound forced. To a young pre-teen viewer, though, I suspect the dialog will do the trick: it's certainly no less clunky than Lucas' was in the Darth Vader trilogy.

MTV Networks, the company behind Nicktoons, is promoting the daylights out Skyland as a "revolutionary animated series," though I've gotta wonder if a generation weaned on animé will really find it all that startling. The visuals are admittedly fun, but aside from the computer-generated faux 3-D effect, they're not much different from the images in such elaborately scaled Japanation features as Metropolis or Steam Boy. The characters – as in much rushed-to-meet-a-deadline computer animation – often move like they're underwater (unless, of course, they're in fight scenes when they get to zip about really speedily). Which, if nuthin' else, made me appreciate the time and resources it takes to make a flick like Chicken Little move convincingly.

Nicktoons Network followed its hour-long origin story Saturday with a half hour regular episode entitled "Manipulations." In it, Oslo – his Seijin powers enhanced by a "solar surge" – takes over the body of the tough girl pilot so he can learn the coordinates of the hidden pirate block. While in control, he forces pilot Dahlia's body to frame Lena for an act of sabotage, a pointless distraction since once he gets the coordinates he plans to send Diwan out to capture the sibs and destroy the pirate city, anyway. Still, it gives the writers a chance to indulge in some X-Men-y alienation when a previously unseen member of the pirate community tries to get his peers to line up against Seijin Lena. That his bigoted calls to arm appear to fall on deaf ears is, perhaps, one small reason to feel optimistic about the 23rd century . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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