Saturday, February 14, 2009

Review of West and Soda

It’s hard for me not to approach any old western parody with skepticism (I’ve seen so many not worth the hype), but an animated spaghetti western parody is another matter. Much of the appeal of spaghetti westerns comes from their ability to push genre conventions over-the-top and take glorified violence, vigilante justice, frontier resourcefulness and elegiac existentialism to extremes. What better way to take things up a notch than to abandon live-action limitations entirely?

Indeed, “West and Soda” (1965) is at its best when it pulls gags that wouldn’t be possible outside of animation:

Slim and Ursus, a pair of sadistic henchmen, walk into a bar and everyone freezes in fear, including a card shark’s deck as it arches through the air.

Cattivissimo, the land-grabbing villain, tells time with a clock that fires bullets at his birdcage to mark the hour (the poor bird obligingly cuckoos in terror as it dodges lead).

Clementine, the beautiful rancher who owns the only square of green (literally) in the otherwise barren desert valley, gets up in the morning, walks over to her cow and opens a refrigerated compartment in its stomach to get a bottle of milk.

Johnny, our taciturn hero with eyes perpetually hidden under the brow of his cowboy hat and posture so laidback he’s ever on the brink of falling backwards, puts on a final shootout performance that would shame most circus acts let alone gunslingers.

These quick one-off jokes are gimmicky, impractical and borderline non-sense, in short, everything a good cartoon comedy should aim for. “West and Soda” doesn’t apologize for introducing cleverness for its own sake and is frequently willing to venture into the absurd to get a laugh.

Where “West and Soda” is at its worst is in the same places most novelty and comedy westerns flag: story and delivery. The typical pattern is to set up some obvious old west cliché, only to “subvert” it by changing one aspect (in this case, by animating it) or “defying our expectations” at the last minute. In theory, this is supposed to be a surefire formula for hilarity, but in practice this means that we sit through 90% clichéd rehash for 10% payoff, with the payoff usually all too obvious far in advance. I know “Destry Rides Again,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Cat Ballou” have a lot of fans out there, they spend so much time retreading familiar territory on their way to punchlines.

That’s not to say “West and Soda” is boring, but whenever it tries to move the story along one can see straight through the coat of paint and right through to the bare bones skeleton. I appreciate that Westerns often rely on simple stories, and that’s fine, because it’s a genre that usually distinguishes itself through performances, setting and cinematography. However, those elements are hard to simulate in animation and often less satisfying. Director Bruno Bozzetto does try, and he makes up some lost ground with his ingenuity and sense of humor, but he doesn’t go far enough.

The voice acting and character designs take advantage of revisionist western templates: underplayed protagonists vs. overwrought villains. But personality is missing, especially for the female characters caught in between, like virtuous rancher Clementine and barroom hostess Esmeralda.

The background animation is also pretty lacking, though it emphasizes the emptiness and desolation of the landscape. The color palette sticks to brown earth tones, sometimes with a suitably muddy watercolor texture rather than a solid hue, but the painted terrain rarely musters the majesty of a Ford or Mann movie, or even a good painting. One exception is a sequence of shots pulling outward from a jutting rocky pillar where Cattivissimo is raving his maniacal plans. The series of cuts diminishes him to a distant fly speck and silences his tirade as the desert canvas overtakes him. Ultimately the low-budget intrudes further than one can ignore (the final chase is particularly flat), and it becomes tiresome to look at images with no detail, variation or beauty.

Even in the most minimalist westerns, formerly unimportant details (the wind blowing dust across dirt, a bead of sweat running through the hero’s unshaven bristle, weathered planks of knotty wood creaking under the villain’s leather boot as he rises from his barstool, etc.) move in to fill the vacuum. Without details, “West and Soda” doesn’t have that atmosphere or sense of place that it needs. It feels too much like a Saturday morning cartoon: amusing, but forgettable and interchangeable.

So I found myself experiencing a continuous conflict in enjoying “West and Soda” between the crazy little inspirations that made it funny and different and the big overriding issues that made it dull and typical. In some ways I just wish it had just been more ambitious; more aggressive. Some of the money could have been diverted away from filling in the classical story and put into spinning off into its intricate tangents. This is exactly the tactic Bozzetto would later take with his most famous film, “Allegro Non Troppo” (1976) a pessimistic parody of “Fantasia” as envisioned by a profiteering hack.

So is “West and Soda” funny enough to be worth seeking out? It depends on your tolerance for comedy westerns and your expectations for animation as art. I’m not a big fan of classical westerns or comedy westerns, but I’d say overall this one nudged my thumb upwards.

Walrus Rating: 6.0

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