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Stefan Says So: Sing to the Dawn Review

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I believe this animated movie could be crowned as arguably the most expensive local movie ever made. After four long years since the idea was mooted to adapt from one of Singapore literature’s most widely read books (thanks to secondary school literature lessons), and S$7.5 million to produce, it finally marks its release in the theatres this week.

singdawn.jpgI wonder why the filmmakers and investors were brave enough to plough so much money into this production, given that the largest ever one-time box office gross for a local film was only about S$6 million dollars for Money No Enough, with no film in recent years ever getting close to that kind of amount.

Also, it’s more than 2-3 times the amount of the Singapore Film Commission’s grant for 9 films to be made next year, where each of those movies will get about S$250,000 to help them get made. So S$7.5 million does raise some eyebrows, and put this production under scrutiny if it was money well spent. Sadly, the verdict is no. And I can say that we should steer away from trying to make 3D animated movies, because we don’t have the knack for it at this stage. Think of the laughable efforts to date with Zodiac: The Race Begins, and Legend of the Sea, all of which (including this one) are funded by the Media Development Authority (MDA). I’m not trying to put down local productions (contrary I’m very much a supporter), but that kind of serious money could be money well spent to fund other budding productions, to spread the risk of investment so to speak, rather than enter an arena where the bar is set so high because of the availability of both technical and storytelling skills not on our shores, yet.

While I have only read the novel by Ho Minfong once a very long time ago, I certainly can’t recall that it had talking animals who assisted the villagers in their ordeal, or having a character who’s a Mr Technological Fix-it. Talking animals are very passe in animated movies already, so we certainly do need another local production trying to ape their overseas counterparts thinking that it is a rule of thumb rather than an exception. The story itself is strong enough to be made either in an animated fashion or live action, but this version of the story just dumbs it down so many levels, it’s hardly recognizable.

Dawan is a young village girl who harbours the dream of getting out of her village in the lure of the bright lights in the big city, and to do so, has to fight customs and tradition that girls are meant to be betrotned away early at a young age to someone they loathe, and schools for them are an unnecessary part of life. In order to fulfill her dream, she has to go against the wishes of her dad, as well as irk her brother as she out-scores him in a local examination to clinch a scholarship. Also, their village is under threat of an unscrupulous landlord trying to bulldoze his way into profits by driving everyone out of his land.

That’s the gist of the story, and I don’t see how animals, and a grizzly bear at that, could fit into the whole picture. Yes animated movies have been popular with talking animals, but if it’s not in the story, then please don’t force it in, along with spectacle wearing monkeys.

Being a musical, the songs are less than inspiring, and while the lyrics don’t have to rhyme necessarily, it came off more like not knowing how to sing it further that it gets slapped with some words in an anyhowly fashion. Some tried to pass off as humour, though the effort is seen to be as too trying. The songs also don’t seem to carry the narrative forward, and instead, stagnates when the characters break off into song and dance.

But of course we judge an animated movie by the quality of the animation, and here’s where it really fell short. The characters are still too stiff, without the necessary detailed facial expression to represent emotion. Movement was rigid, and seriously, the audience could have been watching a bunch of robots perform with much more conviction and emotion than what you get here, and get more satisfaction out of that, unless you count walking on air a novelty. Everything was plain stiff, and unless the characters had plenty of starch on their clothes, they’re really wearing rigid sacks. Don’t get me started on the animals too, as they could have been animatronics. But the biggest shortcoming exposed in the film, was the lack of a colourful palette. Granted there’s the word “Dawn” in the title, but to intentionally (or otherwise due to technological and imaginative limitations) set everything during that period of time, just shows questionable quality. For most parts, there’s always this orange hue which tells us that the animators could have tried to get away with level of detail that is required – just paint everything orange.

Voice acting too needs some getting used to, and I suppose it will take time to build up a credible pool of talent in this area. It’s kind of strange as well to be hearing real life couple Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin play opposite each other (grand)mother and (elderly) son, though credit must go to Celina Rosa Tan in the lead role of Dawan, and her adequate vocals when launching into song.

My friend at movieXclusive.com likened this movie to a yawn, and I share the exact same sentiments. There’s nothing new nor refreshing in this piece of work, and worse, the story’s pretty boring as you’re always ten steps ahead, knowing just what will happen, and which character will do what. It also didn’t help that the poor storytelling techniques like jarring transitions and throwing of characters around without their motivation clearly constructed mar the overall production. It may be the first movie for director Philip Mitchell, but certainly it’s by no means a reason to throw so much money at it for such miserable returns.

One thing’s for sure, is that we need to take a closer look at local animators works in the next Animation Nation showcase (I missed tihs year’s), as I’m quite certain there are worthy filmmakers in that arena who deserve some budget to get their films made, and not big budgeted ones like this that clearly has a lot of work left unpolished.

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2 Comments

  1. 9 November 2008 at 5:20 pm

    I can see many valid points for people to contest against Sing To The Dawn’s production.

    I didn’t think very much of it until I started to learn that Infinite Frameworks didn’t have the relevant expertise to begin with, yet they took on the project with alot of courage.

    Nevermind that it’s made in Batam – no one minded that your Nikes and Adidas and everything else is made in China.

    The key winning issue for me is that MDA and Raintree’s investment is for the long term.

    It’s not 7.5 million for a film – It’s 7.5 million to build a studio with the prospect of a decent product at the end of the day.

    And that very same studio can only improve – with more jobs for animators; both local and imported.

    We may be quite a distance away from the likes of PIXAR and DreamWorks but we’ve made the first step. It’s the first step that is the most difficult, catching up will be relatively easy.

    The industry is definitely very exciting now.

    This is the time for everyone to come together to make it happen; Creatives, Administrators, Consumers alike.

    Give it a go, make the first step!

    nic

  2. 8 November 2008 at 4:27 am

    Sing to the Dawn was animated in Batam. Indonesian animators did the work, not Singaporeans. To the untrained eye, Sing to the Dawn’s animation might look terrible and robotic. However, if you take a closer look you will notice there are minutes of Hollywood-quality animation littered throughout the show. This goes to show that the animators who worked on Sing to the Dawn were NOT lacking in skill but lacking in TIME.
    Yes four long years were spent on this project, but due to complications, most of this time was wasted on pre-production. The animators had only about a year to get the film ready. Compare this to the Pixar animated films we are used to and we immediately realize the Sing to Dawn animators had a huge disadvantage from day one. Furthermore, Pixar has an army of more than 50 animators. Most of Pixar’s animators have many years of experience under their belts working on animated films. Compare this again to Sing to the Dawn’s 10 or so animators who are probably all working on their very first feature film. Also remember that Pixar films were made with funds more than 10 times the budget of Sing to the Dawn. So after putting things into perspective, I am amazed by the quality of the animation I saw on screen. The animation isn’t Pixar quality but definitely light years ahead of animated features like Zodiac, Legend of the Sea, Hoodwinked and at least comparable to The Clone Wars feature film!
    However, what made this Sing to the Dawn movie so disgustingly awful was the SCRIPT! What makes or breaks any feature film regardless of whether it is live-action or animated is the freaking script. If the script is bad why bother starting production? Reading Minfong Ho’s interview in the papers I could tell she absolutely hated what they did to Sing to the Dawn. She sounded like she was trying her best to be nice about the whole thing. Being a huge fan of her novel and Dick Lee’s musical, I would like to declare that Philip Stamp’s rewrite of Sing to the Dawn was the most amateurish piece of “professional” writing I have ever come across. Why bother paying some foreigner to re-write Minfong’s story? I sure any Singaporean film-student could have done a superior job for free. Philip Stamp obviously read nothing more than the back cover synopsis of Minfong’s book and spun his own incoherent tale.
    When they first announced that the Sing to the Dawn film was going to be a musical I was so excited. I thought they were going to use the songs Dick Lee composed. Needless to say I was devastated when I heard the new Sing to the Dawn songs in the cinema. The new songs made my ears bleed.
    In conclusion, I believe the talented individuals we need to produce Singaporean’s Academy Award winning animated feature are already out there. We just need to get the right people together. The producers of Sing to the Dawn failed to do that miserably. If only they used a Singaporean director (eg. Royston Tan who made two successful musical films), used Dick Lee’s Sing to the Dawn musical as a template and simply grabbed one of the local film students (these kids are probably already fans of the book) to write the screenplay in close collaboration with Minfong Ho, the movie would have been at least entertaining. The way it is now, I find it barely watchable.

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