The Emperor of Hebalon is dead, apparently murdered. The Hebalions’ hereditary foes, the Zeriths, are chief suspects, and martial law is declared. The gates of the city are locked, and no outsider can gain entrance. Encouraged by his uncle, the young Prince and heir to the throne, Hal Tara (NcEvoy), swears to avenge his father’s death and, disguising himself as a slave, sets forth with his squire Erito (Harewood) to seek out the Zerith stronghold.
Hal is shocked when, emerging from the heart of his father’s empire, he discovers that Hebalon is not the happy land of his imagination. Years of warfare have left the country devastated; people cheer to hear of Hal’s father’s death, and widely regard him as a despot and a tyrant. As Hal and Erito near the Zerith camp, Hal’s fear and hatred grow – a web of treachery surrounds him, and he can no longer tell friend from foe.
I was a bit worried by the concept of Strings – the first fully integrated Marionette feature film – but was pleasantly surprised. It’s a bit odd that the puppets don’t have mouths – at least, they have lips, but their mouths don’t open and close when they’re speaking – but they are surprisingly expressive nonetheless and you quickly get used to it. The film doesn’t attempt to pretend that these aren’t puppets, their strings are integral to who they are and are a key part of the story. Cut a string, and you can maim or kill someone. Life comes to a baby when its strings are attached. They are also as a visual metaphor for the idea of the interconnectivity of living beings.
Strings is a classic quest and coming-of-age tale, but it’s also surprisingly savvy and clever in the points it makes. The pointless devastation of war, dispossession of a people, bondage and liberation are interesting themes for a film that many may see as a cute family movie. It is a cute family movie, but its also very timely. It’s a rare fantasy story that has the young princeling realizing that his father was in fact a cruel and bad ruler, and vowing to change his ways, unite the kingdom and bring peace; really growing up, and becoming his own man. Of course Hal still cuts down the baddies with a sword – he’s not actually Ghandi – but the film makes an important point about overcoming unreasoning learned behavour, hatred and prejudice.
The story draws from a number of sources (a little Hamlet, a bit of Lord of the Rings) but everything is given a fresh feeling because of the puppetry. It only occasionally feels awkward – Hal and Zita' (McCormack) first kiss, bought back unhappy memories of Bride of Chucky – but there’s some wonderful photography and for the most part you forget that you are watching pieces of wood. There are also the problems of working with puppets – I wondered why, in the first scene, the Emperor was writing a letter in the rain, but then realized that of course, with strings, you couldn’t have roofs on buildings. These little details are fun and the production design is gorgeous.
Children of all ages should love it and there’s enough to keep parents engaged too. It really isn’t like anything you’ve seen before.