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Monday, February 8, 2010

DANTE'S INFERNO: AN ANIMATED EPIC -- DVD review by porfle

Four separate anime studios were brought together to collaborate on DANTE'S INFERNO: AN ANIMATED EPIC (2010), and the result is a non-stop visual feast that takes us through all nine levels of Hell without spending quite enough time on the emotional level.

When young warrior knight Dante goes off to fight in the Holy Wars, Lucifer makes a bet with his beloved Beatrice that Dante will betray her. Figuring it's a sure thing, Beatrice takes him up on it and the next thing you know, she's in Hell. Dante returns from the war to find his loved ones dead by an unknown hand, and sees Beatrice's soul rise from her bloody body only to be dragged down into the pit.

Dante enters in pursuit and finds that he must fight his way through the nine circles of Hell--limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery--in order to rescue Beatrice's soul from eternal damnation. With guidance from the ghost of Roman poet Virgil, Dante slices and dices his way through hordes of infernal minions, only to find that Lucifer plans to wed Beatrice and make her Queen of Hell.

As this is based on a videogame from Visceral Games, both of which are to be released at the same time, Dante's journey through the nine circles of Hell mirrors the progression from one level of gameplay to the next. Upon his arrival, animated by Film Roman studio, he and Virgil sport big, impossibly muscular superhero bodies and little heads, and Dante tends to fly around doing aerial flips just to emphasize certain lines of dialogue. When Charon, the demon boatman who transports newly-arrived souls to their destinations, orders Dante to begone, he hops about thirty feet in the air and does a somersault before telling him no. Charon, incidentally, gets to deliver the famous line "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" before doing battle with Dante.


This film is interesting to look at from start to finish although the frequent changes in character design and direction can be a little disconcerting. My favorite segments are the ones by the Manglobe studio, who give the characters a classical dramatic style and a beautifully baroque look. Manglobe handles the "Limbo" section--that ring of Hell which is home to virtuous pagans and unbaptized babies, souls which did not sin but lacked the required faith--which often looks like illustrations from some classic volume brought to life.

Here we're treated to the haunting sight of a hall of damned rulers and philosophers such as Caesar, Plato and Aristotle, their ghostly shells still endlessly engaged in pointless theological debates and the like.On this level Dante battles Minos, who judges souls and "sorts them out" to the various circles for their appropriate punishments. He also must flee from a bizarre, scuttling army of demon-babies with scythelike arms.

The most comic book-looking artwork and animation, which resembles stuff you might see in Marvel Comics or Heavy Metal, is done by Dong Woo studio and it's very dynamic. If I'm not mistaken, Dong Woo handled the "Lust", "Greed", and "Gluttony" segments, which take Dante through some of his most fierce and emotionally taxing confrontations. One of these involves his own father, Alighiero (Mark Hamill), whom Lucifer has promised a thousand torture-free years and endless gold if he will kill his son.

Flashbacks show Alighiero as a greedy, violent abuser who will eventually drive Dante's mother, Bella (Victoria Tennant), to suicide. Later, while traveling through the circle known as "Violence" (via JM Animation's lush, classic anime-style artwork), Dante discovers her in the Wood of Suicide, where, to his horror, her soul has been banished for doing violence to herself. "You must look into your deepest sin to save Beatrice," she tells him.


Also on this level he encounters the damned souls of fellow Crusaders including Beatrice's brother, Francesco, who lashes out at Dante in classic anime-style battle. Francesco blames Dante for his own damnation, and in some ultra-downbeat flashbacks we find out that Dante committed quite a few rather deadly sins during the Holy Wars--any of which would earn him a place in one of the circles of Hell through which he's just passed. In fact, the more we find out about his past, the more we're convinced Dante is destined to remain there for eternity unless he can redeem himself while he still lives.

The "Fraud" level is where the brimstone really hits the fan. Beatrice, who has maintained a staunch faith in Dante through her many tortures, discovers at last how utterly he betrayed her trust while in the Holy Land and gives herself over to Lucifer as his bride. With JM Animation at the helm, Beatrice's transformation into the fearsome Queen of Hell (with an awesome rack) is pretty cool. This finally leads to the "Treachery" level (by Production I.G. studio), an icy wasteland which is "the furthest place in all of creation from the divine light of God." In the final showdown, Dante must face Lucifer on his own and discover the shocking truth behind his whole ordeal.

Through it all, DANTE'S INFERNO is an endless display of incredibly rich and dense artwork and imaginative animation. The subject matter gives the animators license to indulge in the most outlandish visuals they can muster (the "Lust" level, for example), with lots and lots of over-the-top action. So much so, in fact, that it tends to get a little tiresome after the umpteenth bloody-bladed battle with some raging behemoth or angry spirit.

The "acting", as it were, is a little hokey at times, especially in the introductory passage with its melodramatic line readings and character expressions. And for all of the drama and passion it strains to evoke, the story just isn't very emotionally involving. Mostly it's a lot of sound and fury, strident declarations and curses, blood and thunder, sex and ultra-violence--neat stuff, to be sure--without much going on underneath. But it's fun to look at.

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 surround, with English and Spanish subtitles. Extras include some animatics and a game trailer.

While not a total success, DANTE'S INFERNO: AN ANIMATED EPIC is still a pretty dazzling achievement that really does manage an epic quality. If you're a fan of animation in general and anime in particular, it's definitely worth checking out. But not quite worth going to Hell for.

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