[Atlanta Film Festival] Yamasong: March of the Hollows (2018) - Reviewed

Yamasong screened at ATLFF

Few films so deftly and thoroughly build a world as Dark Dunes Productions / Sam Koji Hale’s Yamasong: March of the Hollows. A strange, steampunk fairytale weaves its way out of the ashes of a history so twined within its characters and setting, it’s difficult to believe the entire thing is made up of live performed puppets using 8-9 puppeteers and fabricated sets. There is a delicate balance to the lore of this beautiful world, and while patchy in a few scenes, the animation is so visually unique that it’s easy to become drawn into the lives of the unusual creatures that populate the story.

Toby Froud and Heather Henson serve as executive producers, so it’s no surprise that Yamasong as a world seems reminiscent to that of Thra, brought to life so gorgeously in The Dark Crystal; the mystical undercurrents of the Terrapin clan, a tortoise-like reptilian people, and the brutal warrior culture of the bison-like Ovis tribe enslaved by the mechanical Hollows immediately call to mind the symmetry and symbiosis of Jim Henson’s masterpiece. But the heart of Yamasong lies within the unlikely friendships and alliances between its protagonists.

In just over ninety minutes, this film builds an entire system of folklore for a planet filled with incredible creatures, including literal fish that fly and enormous, insectoid creatures that serve as mounts for the Hollows in battle – the queen of these, Yari (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg with plenty of hammy gusto), is either a villain or a well-intentioned extremist, as she seeks to replace the organic life on Yamasong with her own kind to “protect” them from a species of sinister Tricksters who use fiery soot-magic to eradicate other creatures. Yari and her fellow Hollows, created by galactic traveler P’Torr the Exile (Bruce Davison, as a narrator and spiritual presence used sparingly throughout the story) and summarily imprisoned inside a mechanized moon orbiting the planet, are not built to be evil – and certainly, the questions of free will and the supposed nobility of suffering arise as they escape to re-conquer their world. Indeed, it is the “Hollow with a heart” who frees them from their prison, setting the gears of the action in motion. It is she who symbolically links all of them to the world below, and it is through her eyes that Yamasong comes alive.

The soul of this tale is the unity of an improbable band of heroes who hope to stop the Hollows, using their peoples’ various legends as guidance. Nani (Abigail Breslin) is a Hollow created by Yari herself, whose bond with a Terrapin traveler called Shojun (Nathan Fillion) has gifted her with a literal patchwork heart that causes the gyroscope within the Prison Moon to fail, sending the Hollows crashing back down to the surface. When the Ovis, who venerate Yari as a goddess, lose most of their number to her army, warrior-conjurer Geta (Freida Pinto) escapes to find salvation for her people in the name of her brother Brujt (Peter Weller), who has become a favorite slave. The trio seek out the Creator P’Torr’s tik-tok assistant, Lord Geer (Malcolm McDowell) for help in defeating the mangled clockwork soldiers, awakening within themselves their truest destinies – and a power so ancient, legends cannot contain it.

Yamasong: March of the Hollows features some genuinely gorgeous puppetry, although there are moments that stagger or lag slightly; it wisely balances show-and-tell in its action sequences and focuses on its characters during quieter moments. There is clumsy grace in the imperfections of movement that actually lend the creatures onscreen an even greater depth of realism, particularly those that have mechanical bodies and are meant to move like clockwork toys. Nani, in particular, is extremely expressive – despite her lack of a mouth, so much is conveyed through the merest movements of her eyes, even when she is reduced to a bodiless face. She is the literal patchwork heart of the film, but Yamasong focuses on so many details of each of its characters that she doesn’t need to carry it all by herself.

Themes of moral ambiguity, the importance of storied tradition, and the possibility of change following times of crisis permeate this lovely fable, with its richly imagined planet full of hopes and sorrows. While it falters in some small, stylistic ways it is an impressive work, proving that fully-realized fantasy worlds don’t have to come in the form of polished CGI effects. Sometimes, scrappy puppets and human timing are enough to sew together a patchwork heart that really beats true magic.

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-Dana Culling