Canuck Cartoon is Family-Friendly Fun

The Legend of Sarila (La légende de Sarila)
(Canada, 80 min.)
Dir. Nancy Florence Savard; Writ. Roger Harvey, Pierre Tremblay (English adaptation by Paul Risacher)
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Dustin Milligan, Rachelle Lefevre, Geneviève Bujold, Tim Rozon, Sonja Ball, Elisapie Isaac, and Natar Ungalaaq.
Animated features are rare in Canada. They’re almost as few and far between as stories on Canadian screens about First Nations people. The latter have seen stronger representation this year compared to others, with films such as Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Empire of Dirt, and Hi-Ho Mistahey! telling notable Canadian stories. It’s fitting, then, to see a film like The Legend of Sarila offer a story of First Nations’ folklore that can be appreciated by the whole family. (The aforementioned films are strong, but they might not appeal to kids.) This animated adventure from director Nancy Florence Savard takes audiences to the tip of the Great White North for one of the few films depicting Inuit culture since 2001’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. The Legend of Sarila offers a tale that is at once both specific and universal, and it is fun for viewers of all ages.

The Legend of Sarila features an impressive roster of all-Canadian talents lending their voices to the colourfully animated film. (The film is released in both English and French language versions with different actors providing the voices.)  Veteran actors Christopher Plummer and Geneviève Bujold voice two of the elders of the Inuit tribe seen in the English version of the film, with Plummer playing Croolik, the evil shaman, and Bujold playing the kind and wise healer, Saya. Playing the tribe’s younger generation are Dustin Milligan, Rachelle Lefevre, and Tim Rozon, as Markussi, Apik, and Poutulik, respectively.

The film also includes the voice work of Atanarjuat star Natar Ungalaaq as Markussi’s spirit owl Ukpik and Elisapie Isaac as the Goddess Sedna. (Isaac also contributes several original songs to Sarila’s soundtrack.) It’s good to see Ungalaaq and Isaac in the roles most strongly connected to Sarila’s folklore and spirituality, although a stronger presence of First Nations actors in the cast might have been appreciated. (Even an audio track in Inukitut might have been fitting since Sarila is available in both of Canada’s official languages.) However, it’s hard to find fault with the casting since the performances by the film’s impressive ensemble are both respectful and entertaining. Plummer is especially fun in the larger-than-life role of Croolik, and the accessibility of The Legend of Sarila offers fair headway for teaching children about Inuit culture.

Croolik works his tricky magical on the tribes’ three teens when the youths are called upon to correct a plague that he cannot. An error the shaman made years ago has let the tribe go hungry, so it’s up to Markussi and his two friends to feed the tribe. Saya foretells of the legend of Sarila, which would lead the three hunters to a land of bountiful riches, and she sees Markussi as having the ideal leadership qualities and, moreover, the powers of a shaman that could provide for the tribe. Croolik feels threatened by Markussi’s strengths, so he casts a shadow over the trio’s expedition with hopes that they will not survive.

Markussi, Apik, and Poutulik are joined on the ride to Sarila by a lemming named Kiki (voiced by Sonja Ball). Kiki, far too cute to eat, is a squeaky sidekick whom young viewers will adore. She’s like Canada’s answer to Scrat from Ice Age.

The Legend of Sarila is also notable as Canada’s first feature-length 3D animated stereoscopic film. Canadian films might seem to have a way to go to match the likes of Pixar, but Sarila looks impressive for Canada’s first feature-length effort, especially since Canuck productions enjoy resources of relative modesty in comparison to Hollywood productions. (For example, Sarila’s reported budget of $8 500 000 is less than 5% of the $200 000 000 that was reportedly pumped into Monster’s University.) The effort made by Savard and her team (reportedly a ten-year passion project for the director) is appreciated: Sarila shows that Canadian animators have the skills and passion to meet top international standard at a fraction of the cost. It’s a shame, then, that no theatres in the National Capital screened the film so that audiences could appreciate this milestone for Canadian cinema in the form in which it was intended to be seen. The animation of The Legend of Sarila is still striking in its 2D rendering nevertheless.

Especially remarkable among Sarila’s visuals is the passage into Sarila itself. As the trio of hunters sleds into the magical land, buoyed by the excellent score by Olivier Auriol, The Legend of Sarila transports the viewer through a fantastic passageway in which the dark tunnel is ringed with glowing markings and symbols. The most visually compelling aspects of Sarila appear when the animation brings out the elements of Inuit culture within the tale. Like the vibrant cave markings of Sarila, Ukpik the owl is a beautifully rendered sight that remains faithful to the images of Inuit art.

The Legend of Sarila packs a lot into its quick eighty minutes as Markussi learns to harness his powers and return his tribe on the correct path. The Legend of Sarila has thrills and laughs, adventure and mysticism, and a poignant, relevant morale about working for the greater good of the community. Dialogue might not be the strength of The Legend of Sarila—perhaps something is lost in translation—but it’s still rollicking, family-oriented fare. Young viewers should enjoy such a film that’s been far too absent from Canadian screens and their parents will have just as much fun when they go along for the ride.

 Rating: ★★★½  (out of ★★★★★)

The Legend of Sarila is now available to rent/own on home video.
Update: The Legend of Sarila screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on March 16 at 2:45 pm as part of  DiverCiné.