There’s a lot to like in Thaumatrope Animation’s first film, RPG: Metanoia, the first full length computer generated animated film to be both created and commercially released in the Philippines. It’s also the first animated film to be produced in 3D, but since I only caught the 2D edition (not a huge 3D fan anyway), there’s not much I can say about that aspect of the film.
What I can say is that it’s a pretty good movie (note the absence of the patronizing “… for a Filipino film” addendum) that those of a specific target audience will enjoy–if they can get beyond the film’s implied message, but more on that later. You can find a plot synopsis at the Wikipedia page, so let me jump straight into the review.
The animation is the most notable feature of the movie, and while the frame rate is a bit choppy (especially in the very first scene) I have few complaints. It gets too dark in places, the colors dull, and the real world environments are somewhat sterile, but the animation gets the job done in the real world, and there’s enough attention to detail that even without hearing the characters speak in Filipino, you’d be able to infer that the real world segments take place in the Philippines, from the tricycles to the type of chairs used in Nico’s front yard. Where the animation and design excel, however, is in the in-game sequences, particularly the character design and during the fight scenes, which I found to be well choreographed as a whole, showing a lot of simultaneous movement and yet preventing the melees from becoming too confusing for the viewer. While I wasn’t as enamored of the soundtrack as other viewers, I found the music to be well done overall, and most importantly, the vocal songs were appropriate and/or subtle enough that they didn’t pull me out of the story when they played.
Fancy aesthetics aside, it’s always the story which makes or breaks a movie for me–and games too, for that matter–and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the story of the film cohered. Make no mistake, the story is geared toward children (and children who are versed in the mechanics and vocabulary of MMORPGs), but Thaumatrope Animation spent four years creating this film, and from the way the pieces of the story fit together, it’s clear that the story was no mere afterthought. One thing that many films lack is good foreshadowing, elements introduced earlier in the film, so that they can be used later on to advance the plot or resolve a conflict without seeming to come out of the blue. Few things take me out of a story more than to have a hero triumph by deus ex machina. RPG: Metanoia takes great pains to ensure that even when the hero “lucks out”, it doesn’t feel like a cop out, and that means a lot. Also, the film even goes the extra mile in trying to explain with science (or at least pseudo-science) the mechanism by which the online world impinges on the real world. Yes, this is done by an infodump, but the fact the writers even made the attempt places it above many other films (and there was an attempt to keep things visually interesting as well).
The film also goes the extra mile when it comes to the characters, at least with regard to the boys who constitute Nico’s barkada (well, okay, four of the five boys–is it too late to call a moratorium on the Chinese-looking kid being the token martial artist and math lover? I went to Xavier School and trust me, 90% of us suck at martial arts–though our math is pretty good). Their banter is authentic, even if the delivery is at times too formally enunciated. It was refreshing to see that characters other than the main character were able to develop over the course of the movie–Mark and Bryan both have their moments of maturity (Mark’s comes late in the movie, but Bryan’s is much more subtle, and happens at the end of a round of patintero). Nico, the main hero, is also presented as someone more complex than the typical underdog-victim-type that too frequently serves as the hero of children’s movies: he does hog the limelight, and the fact that he actually is the focus of the film makes it almost a form of meta commentary when he’s called out on it. There are other elements in the film which point to subtexts beneath the main, child-friendly plot: the fact that the artifact which causes so much trouble is a helmet with the face of a colonial era Spanish soldier (one which allows the bearer to create copies of himself, creating a veritable 16th century Spanish army) is hard to miss. Somewhat more subtle is the name of the Internet café where Nico and his friends spend his time: the Bomb Shelter, which is symbolic of the role the place plays in his life, as a refuge from toxic reality. (The fact that Nico’s father actually describes his schedule as “toxic”–which is a common euphemism for a very heavy workload, but usually one used with one’s peers and not with one’s child–fits in nicely with this.)
However, it’s this opposition of the real world with the virtual world that I found to be the most off-putting element of the film. For a movie that requires, for maximum enjoyment, a certain familiarity and love of gaming in its audience, it paints a more negative picture of gaming than I would have expected. While I understand that an obsession with online gaming can be detrimental to the well-being of children, the same can be said for anything else. I wish that the scenes showing how Nico becomes happier and healthier when he plays outside (instead of online) were balanced by others that illustrated the benefits of gaming and a healthy imagination. The only time that anyone tries to talk about what makes gaming important comes in a scene where Nico is acting like a spoiled brat–and he’s quickly rebutted by May, who says he needs to gain more experience in the real world, instead of in the game. Granted, Nico did need to get some sun, but even when his gaming skills help save the lives of real people, gaming itself is not redeemed, and Nico’s ride off into the sunset simply reinforces the idea that physical play trumps gaming (especially when you consider what “metanoia” could mean). While this may be an unintended message (I certainly hope so), there is nonetheless an implied indictment that stands unanswered, and this bothers me not only as a gamer, but also as a reader (as “bookworms” were scapegoats long before games came along, admonished to get their noses out of their books). It’s fine to call for a balance between the physical and the mental, but balance means airing the benefits of both sides, and it’s ironic that a film so obviously targeted at gamers fails to give gaming a fair shake.
Reservations with regard to the portrayal of gaming aside, I do recommend this movie, which is not only a milestone in local animation, but more importantly a well told story. Throughout the movie, there were children in the audience breaking into spontaneous rounds of applause, and that’s a high compliment for a film that didn’t feature any previously known character, so make sure you catch it in cinemas during the film fest. I’m looking forward to seeing more films from Thaumatrope Animation and Louie Suarez in the future (hopefully, sooner than four years from now).