Director: Derek Hayes
British animated features are rare enough, but an entirely Welsh animated feature? There’s a novelty, isn’t it? Actually, Otherworld employs the well-worn device of a live-action framing story with our main characters becoming animated about ten minutes in (cf. The Water Babies, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Pagemaster, James and the Giant Peach...).
Dan (Daniel Evans), Rhiannon (Jenny Livesey) and Lleu (Mathew Rhys: Deathwatch, the BBC Lost World) are three Welsh teens going diving on Lleu’s 18th birthday. Below the boat they see a magical floating island and dive down to it, where they become three characters in stories from the Mabinogi, a book of Welsh legends (and the film's Welsh language title). The idea of the floating island - lush meadows just beneath the sea - is explained in an 1896 newspaper report right at the end of the film. It’s really just a way to take us into the legends, but occasional live-action reflections of the characters remind us (and them?) who they are, and their adventures reflect their real situations (especially Lleu, who discovered that morning that he was adopted).
The main story is a tad confusing, not least because we have several legends conflated together and we switch pretty much at random between our three stories. Keeping track of characters is tricky because everyone wears cloaks and beards and has Celtic names that sound like they’re choking: Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Gronw Pebr, Bendigeidfran. Efnisien... The stories themselves are already well-known in Wales, but for the rest of us there’s a bit too much to take in during this surprisingly long (about 105 minutes) animated film.
Nevertheless there is a lot to recommend this film, not least a non-patronising, adult attitude which belies its 12A certificate. There’s a fair bit of bloody violence - this being animation, it costs no more to show a sword actually going into somebody’s chest and the blood welling up in torrents as they fall. About an hour in there’s a cracking battle which pulls no punches and though the actual reason for it wasn’t clear to me - something to do with a marriage that seals a union between Wales and Ireland - the action is top notch. There is also a certain amount of female and (briefly) male nudity - again it’s not the salacious appeal but the kudos of a film that doesn’t water down a legend by being coy. The highlight is undoubtedly a sort of giant wickerwork demon which appears about half an hour in, which is absolutely terrifying.
The animation (largely done in Eastern Europe) is painted - which takes a bit of getting used to, but is much more appropriate to these sort of stories, landscapes and characters than traditional cell animation, and there is effective use of CGI in some places, such as the wicker demon. A roster of notable character actors provide voices - Philip Madoc, Rhys Ifans, Ioan Gruffudd, Paul McGann - while the visuals are well-served by former Velvet Undergrounder John Cale’s excellent score. The live-action bookends - directed by Marc Evans (My Little Eye) - have just enough narrative to show that the messages in the Mabinogi stories are still relevant.
After the crushing disappointment of the awful Christmas Carol: The Movie, Otherworld restores confidence in the ability of British animation to make good feature-length productions. (Unfortunately, two years later this film remains apparently unavailable on video or DVD anywhere...)
MJS rating: B+