The rare independent animated film that wears its influences on its sleeves.
- Narrative Feature
- Director: Denver Jackson
- Screenwriter: Denver Jackson
- Producers: Daniel Hogg, Denver Jackson
- Cast: Grace JY Chan, Shawn O’Hara, Ariel Hack, Alain Williams, Morgan McLeod
Premise: An action-adventure set in the retro-futuristic world of Esluna. After her mentor is abducted by a renegade monk, a relic hunter and her crew must find the Crown of Babylon, an ancient artifact rumored to have the power to bring back the dead.
It’s pretty rare for an animated feature to premiere at a film festival. It’s even more rare for that animated film to be from an independent studio. And it’s almost unheard-of for any animated film to come, literally, from the hand of one person. But such is the feat that writer/director/animator Denver Jackson has done with Esluna: The Crown of Babylon, a sci-fi fantasy adventure that heavily wears its influences on its sleeves.
The film plunges us right into a fantastical world where Maeve (voiced by Grace Chan), a lone relic hunter, meets up with Bataar (Shawn O’Hara), a mysterious friend with supernatural powers. They’re in pursuit of a Macguffin called the Crown of Babylon, which supposedly gives its wearer the ability to bring back the dead. Of course, a bad guy named Sparrowwood (Morgan McLeod) wants it for himself to resurrect his son, and some other nefarious purposes. Jackson infuses Esluna with plenty of invigorating details but before too long, the narrative begins to feel over-stuffed. Despite a runtime similar enough to most Disney fare – and shorter than a majority of Hayao Miyazaki’s films – the onslaught of character and story beats begins to bog down the action.
The film is clearly an homage to a few of Miyazaki’s films, Castle in the Sky especially, and Jackson is able to pull off a decent imitation of the Japanese master’s aesthetic. Indeed, the visuals throughout Esluna are spectacularly rendered and bring Jackson’s unique vision to life, especially in the taut action sequences. To know that Jackson drew and animated the entire film by himself (another nod to Miyazaki) makes it all the more impressive, as the film looks like a cross between traditional anime and modern cel-shading animation from the early 2000’s. The worlds throughout Esluna are beautifully unique; a sequence around the midway point show a completely submerged cityscape that I’d love to see Jackson return to in the future. But Jackson probably could have used some help dubbing the movements of the characters’ mouths better. Based on available press materials, it’s unclear if the original version of the film was dubbed in a non-English language. The mouths seem to only have one open-and-close movement that remains indifferent regardless of the tone or intensity of the dialogue. Sure, most anime doesn’t concern itself as rigorously as American animation with this aspect, but it almost distracts from the beauty of the rest of the film.
Many filmmakers have tried throughout the years to ape the beauty of Miyazaki’s films, and Jackson mostly succeeds. But where Miyazaki’s characters are uncomplicated and memorable, Jackson tries too hard to give each character an intricate backstory with too much interpersonal conflict. We don’t need Maeve’s relationship to everyone she meets to be bogged down with years of emotional baggage, we just want her to succeed and realize something about herself in the process. In fact, the best relationship in the film is between Maeve and her BB-8-like robot Mochi (Olivia Martin).
It can be easy for an independent animated film to get lost amongst the shuffle throughout the fall film festival season. It’s clear that Jackson has creativity to burn, and the work ethic to back it up. If he can hone into his storytelling sensibilities and streamline his characters, he’ll be a unique voice to reckon with amongst the animation world.
Esluna: The Crown of Babylon will be screening virtually throughout Heartland Film Festival, and in-person on October 17. Tickets can be purchased in advance here.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.