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Legend Of The Sky Kingdom (2003)
Director: Roger Hawkins

review by Amy Harlib

The 11th New York African Film Festival 2004, at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Centre screened a unique feature, Legend Of The Sky Kingdom, the first stop-motion animation production ever from that continent and from Zimbabwe in particular. Making this effort more special, the intrepid filmmakers, on a bare-bones budget and through sheer devotion and determination, constructed all their sets, props and characters from the flotsam and jetsam of found objects and the discarded detritus of urbanisation - creating what they call 'junkmation'!
   Based on a book both written by and adapted for the screen by Phil Cunningham (who also co-produced with his spouse Jacqui), director Roger Hawkins, art director Minali de Silva, and animation director Brent Davies pooled scarce resources, struggled with limited technology and employed maximum ingenuity and cleverness to bring their cinematic labour of love to the public albeit in limited festival distribution so far.
   Using English dialogue and set in an invented world, Legend Of The Sky Kingdom concerns three orphans who, along with their fellows in the orphanage of an industrialised underground city ruled by an Evil Emperor, get treated like slaves, suffering abuse while labouring in dangerous gold mines. The trio - Blockhead (Jason Linforth), Squidge (Miriam Hamblin) and Lucky (Gabriel Phillips) - after hearing about a legendary 'Sky Kingdom' and its ruler Ariel, decide to escape from their misery by trying to find this place. They soon discover unexpected allies, a pair of friendly vagabond adventurers Italiano (Wiina Masonati) and Badza (Rodney Newman). Now a quintet, the protagonists stumble upon a discarded TV, now a sentient, talking device named Telly (Eyahra Mathazia). Telly's advice proves most helpful while the five heroes, evade the Authority's guards and their deadly, bloodhound-like hyenas, while seeking the surface and freedom.
Legend of the Sky Kingdom quest
Out in the wider world, the companions' journey really begins and proceeds thanks to another guide, the quirky Gugolethu bird nicknamed Gugu (Irene van Niekirk). The travellers find themselves in an unspoiled wilderness visually filled with wonder, beauty and danger. They will need all their resourcefulness and some friendly monkeys' gifts of magical weapons, to survive obstacles including: the Jungle of Despair; the Desert of Desolation; a ferocious crocodile; and a volcanic eruption. Here the influence of Christian missionaries becomes all too apparent for the story as, African-flavoured surface ambiance notwithstanding, it's obviously modelled on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (right down to the contrived allegorical nomenclature) and devolves into a blatant sermon.
   Too bad, for Legend Of The Sky Kingdom really dazzles and astounds with its imagery created by the most ingenious use of odd bits and pieces of everyday junk - electronic parts, small household objects, scraps of cloth, metal, wood and plastic, etc. - to create environs and characters of astonishingly clever and witty invention. Words fail to describe the delightful experience of looking at this film and listening to its perfectly complementary, bouncy, lively, Afro-pop soundtrack and songs. Unfortunately, the in-your-face evangelical message of the plot does not match the imaginative production design.
   Enduring Legend Of The Sky Kingdom's preaching proves well worth it for the unique visuals the likes of which have never been seen before. For that alone, the filmmakers deserve recognition and praise and to have their efforts be widely seen and appreciated. One can only hope that in the future, such inventiveness could be used to tell riveting, truly original, authentically African-derived tales filled with the richness and glory of that vast continent of cultural treasures (largely untapped), waiting for eye-popping, entertaining projects to bring them to the rest of the world.
   Legend Of The Sky Kingdom, making the rounds of the festival circuit, thus not readily accessible, is one to look out for.
Legend of the Sky Kingdom

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