BIONICLE: Mask of Light Review
Monday, September 8th, 2003 at 4:11am by Kelly, BZPower Co-Owner
The long-awaited movie: stellar or stinker?
So you've waited for LEGO's first movie since it was first announced a year and a half ago. You've bought the toys, read BZP, collected the comics, played the online games. Now here it is, the moment of truth: is BIONICLE: Mask of Light stellar or a stinker?
This 70-minute, fully computer animated feature, LEGO's first full-length movie, is essentially a buddy picture. Jaller (strangely pronounced as his original name "Jala" through the movie) and Chronicler Takua, who should both be familiar to Bionicle fans, embark on a journey to find the foretold seventh Toa, the Toa of Light. Together they brave adversity and visit many of the environments of Mata Nui in search of the fabled hero.
And if you're a fan of Kopaka, you'll almost certainly enjoy the movie.
Before getting into the details of the movie, it's important to understand why LEGO decided to make this into a movie, and who their audiences are. Millions of canisters of Toa, Bohrok, Toa Nuva, and Rahkshi have been sold over the years, so there's a huge fan base who at least know the word "Bionicle" and can follow some of the storyline. On one end of the audience spectrum is a kid who may or may not have ever played with the toys and knows little about them. On the spectrum's far end are the people like hardcore BZPower readers, the ones who know almost more about the mythology and minutae of the story and toys than its creators. The movie has to entertain both ranges and everyone in between. No small order.
Since this is, after all, the home of thousands of the most knowledgeable Bionicle fans on the planet, I'm assuming most people reading this are the second category - big time fans. So I'll go in-depth on just the things you'll want to know about the characterizations, how well the movie follows What Has Gone Before, how well the animation and voices work, and so on. But first, a quick "Non-Bionicle Fan" review.
For Anyone Not Immersed In Bionicle Lore
The glittering DVD jewel case is enough to attract attention, and the colorful screen shots on the back should more than appeal to most 12-year-old boys. Pop in the DVD, and after the requisite promos for upcoming movies, a lush musical score introduces some sweeping views of a huge Kolhii stadium. There are quite a few extras on the disc (more about that in another story), and some nice features that help explain some of the Bionicle-isms, including "Wall of History".
A quick, self-contained explanation of the Bionicle legend opens the story, a nice addition for anyone who's never handled a Toa or other Bionicle toy. (The content will be familiar to anyone who has played one of the Online Games.) Important note here: no previous knowledge of LEGO or Bionicle are necessary to enjoy or follow the film. The filmmakers did an admirable job keeping the story and characters self-contained without ignoring the years of rich storytelling leading up to Mask of Light. The characterizations are concise, the individual characters quickly identifiable and easy to remember, and the plot straightforward enough to follow without a scorecard or having to follow a lot of jargon. For example, you don't need to know the green Rahkshi is named Lerahk to follow the plot. In fact, none of the Rahkshi are named in the movie, they're just known by their powers, such as Anger, Poison, and so on.
As a 70-minute diversion, this is a fun family picture. It's rated PG for scary moments, undoubtedly for the Rahkshi, who are truly frightening. But most youngsters who have been raised in an era of "the scarier the better" won't bat an eye. And who knows, maybe some people will pick up a Rahkshi or Toa Nuva next time they're strolling past the toy aisle...
Now For All You Fans
Story: Takua and Jaller searching for the fabled 7th Toa. Traipse through Mata Nui: check. Face scary foes: check. Meet and charm the local wildlife: check and check. Argue, tease, and act heroic: check again. Give the Toa Nuva a chance to strut their stuff: you bet.
It's pretty much all here.
Screenwriter Henry Gilroy knew the fans would be looking for their favorite Toa or Matoran, and he's given them all a chance to shine. Even though the movie truly is about a couple of Matoran off on a quest, the Toa each have their moments in the sun, so to speak. Some get hurt, some are incredibly cool, some just like to bang fists and talk like a couple of good ol' boys. Gilroy also took the opportunity to show some of the fantastic locations of Mata Nui, especially Ta-Koro (Jaller and Takua's home village), but we also see Ko-Wahi, Kini Nui and Onu-Koru. Art Director Michael Rose has imbued the entire landscape with incredible hues, texture and detail, ending up with a rich depiction of the tropical island.
And as for the ending, well... we're not talking about the ending here. It's just something you'll need to see for yourself, especially if you are interested in following Bionicle into 2004 and beyond.
Now for some specifics:
- Characterizations - The characters, for the most part, are true to the continuing Bionicle legend as shown in online games, comics, and so on. The personalities seem a bit more exaggerated here, perhaps; Tahu a bit more fiery and uptight; Gali a tad more nurturing; Kopaka even more tightlipped and icy. Onua, perhaps one of the Toa with a less-defined personality previously, is a more verbose miner who wouldn't seem out of place at the local watering hole after a long mining shift. Lewa's personality is still impetuous and generous, and now he's using treespeak exclusively, which is probably the biggest change from his joking earlier incarnations. In fact, the treespeak and actor Dale Wilson's voice are reminiscent of an Irish brogue. It's pleasant to listen to after you get used to it. As a bonus, we get the final "official" pronunciation on several words and names. For instance, Hahli is pronounced "hol-LEE".
- Character Designs - Some of the most vibrant discussion on BZPower after we saw the first set of pictures had to do with changes made to the Toa for this movie. In a nutshell: they worked. The different Kanohi alterations, the addition of hands, "fleshing out" the bodies with different layers all helped make the Toa, Matoran, Rahkshi and Makuta all much more "believable". In fact, after a few minutes you'll probably forget all about how different Jaller's mask is from the plastic version, or how Tahu can grasp his magma swords across his chest and shoot flame out the front. Even Turaga Vakama's massive eyebrows fade into the story so you simply accept that person as Vakama, rather than some anonymous villager with a Huna on his face.
Yes, the look of each is noticeably different than the plastic version, but then again, remember the comic version is different from the online game version is different from the video game version is different from the plastic version... and they're all the same Bionicle. For the medium of video, a Toa having hands and moving mouth is the most appropriate depiction of them. I couldn't imagine this trying to work with stiff masks and no hands. It would've been a parody.
- Rahkshi - The Rahkshi are every movie's favorite kind of bad guy. They are menacing, voiceless, and seemingly unstoppable. Humanoid enough to be familiar, but with wriggling, disgusting "faces" that wave tentacles at their prey, the Rahkshi are easy to root against. And since at heart they're really nothing more than slugs, defeating them doesn't even go against LEGO's own "Play Well" policy of limited conflict. They hiss and yell and chase and fly. And once you see the movie, you'll understand a little bit more about the design of the plastic version, especially the face.
- Voices - How accurate do the voices match the characters? Makuta's the easiest one to imagine, of course. Deep, menacing, slightly electronic. Lee Tockar did a great job of providing a menacing yet just-this-side of sympathetic tone to the bad guy. The Toa are each grown-up voices in their own way, and each seemed to fit well enough to the character. The Matoran were more of a change, sounding more like teenagers than adults, but I concede the smaller characters needed to sound different.
- Plot - If you're looking for something complex and multilayered like "The Matrix" then Mask of Light might disappoint. It's an action-adventure buddy film that's aimed at a young audience. Toys, right? So it needed to be straightforward, and it is. I can tell it worked - my own built-in audience (kids) were able to follow it the first time through without a problem, and it held surprises for them. The Kolhii match was a favorite of theirs, and apparently of the filmmakers as well if you listen to the directors' narration version. It's got humor, it's got action, and it doesn't talk down or assume you know everything about Mata Nui, which is a fine line to toe. The interpersonal conflict is limited, however, most likely due to LEGO's policies. At any rate, the plot won't make many people scratch their heads (except perhaps the very end), but neither will it disappoint unless you're expecting something from Ang Lee or James Cameron.
- Music - The best movie scores are ones that are "invisible" and you don't even think about, but they provide audio cues to tell you what's going on. This one works great. Nathan Furst, up-and-coming composer, created a symphonic accompaniment that adds immensely to the detailed and panoramic views of Mata Nui's varied locations. Furst's score is actually nothing like the music from the two Mata Nui Online Games or the Power Pack - but it provides the same sense of scope and individuality that the previous Bionicle music had.
- Animation - Apart from the character designs, how is the animation quality? Overall, very good. The characters become believable through their smooth movements. The rendering is smooth, and the backgrounds are more often than not simply awesome. My only nit is the occasional jerky movement that reminds you it's a computer animated movie, and a habit for characters to reach for a tool that almost appears in their hands without having been there moments before. Those are minor complaints in an otherwise impressive feat of animation.
- Use of previous Bionicle incarnations - OK, the big question: how well does the movie flow with everything that's come before it? Here's that fine line again - too much reliance on previous storylines will spoil it for newcomers, not enough will upset existing fans. In the end, the filmmakers did a good job balancing the two needs. The internal logic of the entire film is obviously based on the whole Bionicle body of work, such as using Masks of Power to translate, shield, and so on. At times the film refers to specific events that happened in a comic or online. For example, when Lewa asks if Jaller or Takua has ever flown a Gukko bird, Takua replies, "I've been a second, but never flown myself," an obvious reference to a MNOLG episode. There are undoubtedly many little references like that buried throughout the film - and I'm sure a BZP forum thread will sprout to list each and every one.
- What's new? The film does introduce several new concepts: Kolhii as a major event; the use of "Toa" as an honorific, such as "Toa Tahu" or "Toa Gali" whenever they're addressed; the new theme of "Unity, Duty, Destiny" is really hammered home; there's much more of the "biological" in Bionicle, they're far less robotic. And of course we get a whole new Toa. There's more, obviously, but half the fun is finding it yourself.
Now to answer some questions:
Does it live up to the expectations of fans?
I think it will. It's well produced and well worth watching.
Will it entertain fans and non-fans?
Does the movie remain true to the the Bionicle theme?
It does. Despite the changes in design, it's unmistakably Bionicle, and it furthers the storyline by a long way.
Is it "juniorized"?
Nope. It's definitely aimed at younger children who play with the toys, but it doesn't talk down or cater exclusively to that audience. There are references that'll be entertaining to Bionicle fans of all ages.
Is the movie just a capitalization of a popular toy line?
No. This movie exists for more than just to sell toys. It's easy to think it might have been made as an hourlong commercial, as other toy lines-turned-movie franchises seem to be, but Mask of Light would stand on its own even if there were no toys.
Who's the coolest Toa?
Kopaka da man. I need that Kanohi Akaku.
Is it worth buying?
If you can swing it, yes. At least rent it, and if you consider yourself a true fan, you'll watch the DVD extras.
Hey! What about the DVD extras?
That's a whole other story, coming soon.
B+. For a film that has to please so many different audiences, it does a darn good job on all fronts.
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