To be fair to the computer-animated kids’ flick Spark: A Space Tail, George Lucas lifted elements of everything from Flash Gordon serials to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey when he was writing Star Wars. But Lucas had the sense to be subtle about it. This South Korean-Canadian co-production, meanwhile, takes no such precautions, telling the tale of a restless teenager dreaming for adventure outside of the desolate space backwater where he grew up who discovers that he’s part of a lost royal lineage that must be reclaimed from a power-hungry relative in possession of a weapon with the power to annihilate entire planets at will. He even has a clunky speeder made of scrap metal he rides around on while brooding about his fate, like a simian Anakin Skywalker. Yes, the main character is a monkey. So that’s different, at least.
Said monkey, Spark (Jace Norman), is condemned to grow up in hiding on a trash rock orbiting the devastated planet Bana—you know, “Banana” minus a “na”?—with two space pirates, martial arts expert/literal fox Vix (Jessica Biel) and porcine tech wizard Chunk (Rob DeLeeuw). Having just passed his 13th birthday, Spark is no longer content to stay home and drink warm milk with his grandmotherly robot caretaker, Bananny (Susan Sarandon)—you know, “nanny” with a “Ba” in front of it?—and longs to see some action. Or so he tells us in an exposition-heavy monologue, the first of several information dumps that pop up whenever the plot requires forward movement.
After a few minutes of long-winded sulking, Spark sneaks away on an adventure leading him to the castle of the tyrannical Zhong (Alan C. Peterson), a diminutive monkey with a Napoleon complex who seized power from his benevolent brother 13 years earlier by flinging him and his royal guard through space on a “slick,” an invention that’s part wormhole and part black hole. Spark’s guardians Vix and Chunk soon follow, and when their meddling is discovered, they’re also sent into exile on a desert planet, where Spark discovers that the birthmark on his paw matches perfectly with—surprise, surprise—the seal of the ousted king.
It’s a testament to either the pull of this film’s producers or the relative ease of recording a voice-over part in an animated film that this movie was able to score the cast that it did: Along with Biel and Sarandon, Spark: A Space Tail features Patrick Stewart as a grizzled monkey space captain and Hilary Swank as a Princess Leia-esque monkey space queen. This star power is especially puzzling juxtaposed against the film’s stock character design, which is so software-demo stiff that everyone’s movements and facial expressions give the impression of being dubbed from another language. (They’re not.) Backgrounds and non-speaking characters are rendered with a little more love, with highlights including a whale-insect hybrid called a “Kraken” that vomits black holes and a race of friendly flying cicada-type creatures.
As far as animated films go, the script for Spark: A Space Tail is clunky but inoffensive, falling far short of your average Pixar production creatively but largely sidestepping attempts at tongue-in-cheek “adult” humor in favor of groan-worthy puns à la the title. The whole thing seems designed to play to as wide of an international audience as possible, taking elements of the Western (Star Wars) and Eastern (Journey To The West) cultural canons and blending them together into a varied yet oddly flavorless storytelling smoothie. Even the soundtrack hedges its bets, alternating between a marginally stirring orchestral score and cheerfully generic, practically wordless dance pop. A lot is happening at any given moment, but none of it really stands out, for the right reasons or the wrong ones. If you were the writer of this movie, you might say it lacks a certain… spark of inspiration.