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Legend Of The Dragon
writer: Rick Ungar

88 minutes (PG) 2005
BKN DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Joshua Rainbird
Essentially a hybrid pastiche of Chinese martial arts movies from the 1980s and 1990s, and American cartoons like He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe and Thundercats, with the emphasis heavily on the former, Legend Of The Dragon is an animated series that tell the story of twins, Ang and Ling, living in modern Hong Kong who have spent their lives in a dojo training to become guardians of the Golden Dragon temple. In their world, a guardian, a martial artist who uses a power band in order to transform into an anthropomorphic demigod, protects each of the signs of the Chinese zodiac. In the first four episodes we meet four of these: the snake; the golden dragon; the tiger and the monkey. But to every light there is darkness and this comes in the wonderfully wooden villainy of zodiac master Woo Yin, a Steven Seagal look-alike with a penchant for power-posing, evil laughs and only fighting easy-battles. In this BKN Home Entertainment release each action-packed episode is 22 minutes long. Only one disc with four episodes was available for review.

Following in the footsteps of Jackie Chan adventures, Legend Of The Dragon adopts a Chinese trend in modern animation; therefore, it lacks the visceral gore and sexual undertones typical of the Japanese manga/ anime tradition. If one forgives the shockingly poor paintwork this is a good family cartoon, with interesting characterisation, long story arcs, intriguing eye-candy and a strong moral undertone.

With an emphasis on the cosmic balance between yin and yang, each of the characters have shadowy flaws in their characters: Ang, an archetypal reluctant hero, for all his boyish bravado lacks confidence; Ling, who has too much girl-power for my own comfort, is tempered with a sentimental streak; even Master Chin, their mysterious and mildly intolerant tutor, has a sinister side - hidden beneath all that esoteric wisdom an aura of Palpatine seems to prowl his omniscience. But my favourite character has to be the ever-mocking monkey guardian who hyper-antics steal every scene he appears in. I'm surprised Master Chin hasn't considered spiking the bananas with Ritalin!

The storyboarding is slick and intelligent allowing the characters to take full advantage of the surroundings, rather than relying on a host of improbable gadgets that seem to be too conveniently placed in other cartoons. These guardians use their wits, environment and timing to gain advantages. We find Ling fighting with the sun behind her back to dazzle her opponent, mobile phone signals used to locate abductees, and a well-trained snake always comes in handy. Nothing too hi-tech, even the transportation is a junk. So it's east meets west, ancient meets modern, just as yin meets yang.

The music too seems to carry a catchy blend of the orient and the occident, with a traditional undertone of Chinese strings supported by earthy western power chords. It has a strong sense of full orchestration that gives the series a commanding presence. But be warned, if you watch all four episodes back to back, it gets as repetitive as seeing Xuan Chi's bare feet tiptoeing down a flight of stone steps.

Alas, where this series fails miserably is in its animation. Whilst the characters move fluidly, unlike the stiffened gaits found in Marvel's Ultimate Avengers, they seem badly drawn and their cell-work mismatches the backgrounds. It's like someone has cut out a picture from a glossy mag and stuck it on a faded watercolour. What's worse is that highly stylised CGI graphics interrupts with glitteringly crisp clarity, whereas the rest of it is like an early version of Scooby Doo. Have a few cheap reasonable effects been thrown in to show potential? The overall result is quite frankly appalling with some good ideas ruined by a host of poor. The animators' darkest yin is unleashed and trumping all over this otherwise acceptable show.

In episode one - Trial By Fire 1: we are introduced to the rivalry between Ang and his sister Ling. Only one of them can inherit the honour of being the Golden Dragon guardian. There are some nice Gothic touches when the animation- transforms lightning forks into the shape of a dragon quickly followed by another silhouette echoed in a tree all adding to gathering tension. Furthermore the Snake Guardian, who slithers and stretches like a green Mr Fantastic as she fights off the unwelcome intrusion of the zodiac master, infers a sense of treachery in the longer story arc of the missing Golden Dragon.

In its sequel - Trial By Fire 2: we are introduced, at just the correct time, to the comic-relief character, as in sneaks the amazing Xuan Chi. He is all monkey: walking on tip-toe; swinging from trees; eating bananas; and generally aping around. Not only is this harlequin parodying himself and everyone present, he is also contributing a unique form of wisdom by twisting the meanings of Master Chin's homilies. But he is out of his tree, particularly where technology's concerned. Now that his temple's been plundered with all its possessions scattered across the world, he tags along in the hope of mutual support. Therefore, the second long story arc is 'collect the tokens' to restore the monkey guardian's status which is a smart contrast to the revelation that the zodiac master's token collection does not require a complete set of amulets to defeat the Golden Dragon. A sleek piece of split-screen sharpens the rivalry plot shared by the twins as they head to head, hinting at a tie-in PSP game release.

Episode three - Eye On The Tiger is the weakest of the first four. It expands the character of Beingal, who briefly appeared in episode one. We are told that a tiger's stripes give natural camouflage yet the animators choose to paint her in vibrant terracotta and have her 'concealed' against a backdrop of dark emerald. Not even the shadows of the night forest conceal her presence. Are they even bothering to read the script? This episode serves only to reveal a fickle nature in Ling's loyalty.

The fourth episode - Hero Worship is probably the best written. In this, Ang tries to protect an action hero, only to discover that his inspiration is really a thorn in his side. Whilst we see the actor redeem himself we get a glimpse in the shadow-side of Xuan-Chi as he teases their captive guest whilst roosting in a nearby tree. During this episode Master Chin is found practicing Tai-Chi amongst shafts of prismatic lights, a moment which reminded me of Jean-Michel Jarre playing a laser harp in the China concerts. However, there is another slip - a minor continuity error: in his escape the actor is running away unbound only to turn a corner with his wrists tied again.

So in the balance of things Legend Of The Dragon carries mixed blessings. It has a magical nostalgia with an interesting blend of influences from 1980s animation and 1990s' martial arts movies. It has a moral spine of loyalty, respect and self-belief that thankfully lacks any of that preachy nonsense that belied the He-Man series and its clones. It is funny and quirky, because the characters are well written and unexpectedly mischievous, particularly Master Chin. And whilst it is a reasonable production somewhere, out there, working in an animator's studio, someone needs a good talking to.

The region 2 DVD release is a two-disc set with 13 episodes, and a total runtime of 285 minutes.

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