In 2010, writer-director-puppeteer-actor-producer (and other multi-hyphenate) Sam Koji Hale released a nine-minute film starring puppets. The dialogue-free short Yamasong follows Nani, a ‘Hollow’ robotic patchwork girl, and Shojun, a Terrapin warrior from a fishing village. They’re chasing a shooting star, and their journey sees them go far across the titular world of Yamasong.
Hale is now revisiting that fantastical world for the feature-length follow-up, Yamasong: March Of The Hollows. The first two minutes of this new movie recap the events of the original short. Things begin properly with Nani (Abigail Breslin) back on the mechanical prison that the houses the Hollows. They were imprisoned after they attempted to transmogrify every living being on Yamasong into a mechanized abomination. Her new quilted heart starts beating so hard that it interrupts the engine keeping the moon-esque penitentiary in orbit around the planet, causing them to plummet to the lands below.
This crash frees the Hollows, and they set about their cruel deeds once again. Nani sets off in search of Shojun (Nathan Fillion), hoping that together they can find a way to put an end to the Hollows’ tyranny. They are aided by Geta (Freida Pinto), who is an Ovis; a race who worships the old machines the Hollows left behind. Her brother, Brujt (Peter Weller), has sworn fealty to Yari (Whoopi Goldberg), queen of the Hollows. With his impressive combat skills at her beck and call, little seems to stand in the vast automaton army’s goal of ultimate domination. Will the recently exiled Shojun and Nani find the ancient relic, which may hold the power to defeat the Hollows, in time? Or is Yamasong doomed?
Ever since I was old enough to have a favorite movie, probably around 5 or 6 years old, it was Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. Thra, the world its characters inhabit, is so well realized, so believable and vibrantly alive, that it seems like you can reach through the TV and touch it. Ever since then, one of my main criteria for being engaged with any story, no matter the medium, is how believable is the world its presenting feels. For example, my favorite book since around that same timeframe has been James Gurney’s brilliant Dinotopia.
“…they attempted to transmogrify every living being on Yamasong into a mechanized abomination…”
Yamasong: March Of The Hollows occupies a similar space as those two titles. As visualized throughout the film, the world is a living, breathing, organic place that feels as realistic as the computer on which I am writing this review. As a film exclusively starring puppets, the production design is of the utmost import. Sam Koji Hale served as production designer as well and the detail on these puppets and the scenery is incredible. The coloring on Shojun’s scales is very impressive, giving a very lifelike sense to the tortoise. Nani’s inner gears move in a beautifully intricate fashion, that is a joy to look at.
It’s in the small details that really make it stand out, such as the little sprites that are conjured up by Geta; or large, fuzzy toads if they lived in Fraggle Rock, called cloudbreathers, who after inhaling deeply can create a mist of fog to hide them from predators; there are flying fish, who sadly were subjected to the Hollows’ original experiments. Every inch of Yamasong is filled with such creative touches, all set to the gorgeous dreamscape setting that is the planet’s cavernous mountains and quaint seaside villages.
The rod puppets move wonderfully, with each character walking, riding, and fighting very authentically. That last point is quite important, as there are many action sequences throughout the film; the absolute highlight of these being when the Hollows raid Shojun’s former village. Seeing these mechanical monsters fight the warrior-based Terrapins is a delight. The punches and kicks have a real visceral impact when a character hits another person (or creature). This not only ramps the intensity but ensures the audience knows that the stakes are high. Working in tandem with Alex Griffin’s magnificent cinematography, the movie is a visual wonder to behold.
On a related note, leaping looks a bit odd throughout the film. Not enough to pull one out of the story, but enough to notice.
While on the subject of flaws, the biggest problem with Yamasong: March Of The Hollows is the recap that takes place in the very beginning of the movie. I have yet to see the original Yamasong short but found that all the information given during those first two minutes is repeated in a more organic nature later in the film. After a disheartening discussion with Yari, Nani is lying down on a catwalk over the engine, recalling her initial journey. The differences in her behavior are made evident by that conversation and this more intimate, personal moment.
Mind you, this happens almost immediately after the recap, so it feels a bit redundant from the get-go. Other details such as how Nani got her heart, Shojun’s changes (his eyes are different now), and a few story specifics are referenced or talk about throughout, but it is never jarring or confusing for those that haven’t viewed the original; such as myself. I understand why it would seem necessary to summarize the original film, but ultimately it was not.
“…the world is a living, breathing, organic place that feels realistic…as a film exclusively starring puppets…”
Aside from that, the screenplay by Hale and Ekaternia Sedia is pitch perfect. Each character’s motivations, no matter how minor a role they play is clear and believable. The Terrapin elders Masook (George Takei) and Pyreez (Ed Asner) follow logic and circumstantial evidence to decide on Shojun’s fate. That he is exiled makes sense, from this community’s point of view. The script ensures that they aren’t demonized or appear stupid.
Even the Hollows aren’t one-dimensional. Yari is convinced that becoming a hybrid being is the only way to save all of Yamasong. The trickster gods, who reside in space, have taken to sending down swarms of black smoke that eat away at all organic matter. As the Hollows are metal gears and porcelain faces, She thinks she is helping. That the conversions don’t always take, are a torturously painful process, and that they’re being forced upon these beings never enters her thought process. The best villains are ones whose motivations are understandable. Yari is a great damn villain.
Of course, none of this would be worth it if the characters did not resonate on an emotional level. Luckily, Yamasong: March Of The Hollows has a jaw-dropping array of talent signed aboard. Nathan Fillion is the only person that could bring Shojun’s vulnerability and intensity to full measure. The sharp way he tells Geta that he still doesn’t trust her, only to give way to passionate hope moments later in deciding on a plan of attack is excellent. As of late, Abigail Breslin has proven herself as a quality genre actress with out of the box choices (i.e.- Final Girl and Maggie). She is splendid as Nani, the heart and soul of the story. The best-acted scene in the movie is simply Nani and Shojun talking about how neither one of them asked for this to happen. Her heartbreak at what has occurred and how she is to blame is felt in every sentence.
The rest of the cast fair just as spectacularly. Peter Weller brings the same gruff yet sly fierceness that has long suited his most famous roles. While Whoopi Goldberg will always sound like herself, her deep voice and cadence are put to excellent use, making for a frightening, commanding queen of the Hollows. Freida Pinto uses her natural sincerity to good effect here, so her condemnation of the culture of the Ovis feels genuine. Malcolm McDowell is Lord Geer, possibly the only person that knows the truth of the Hollows and their maker. The way he switched back and forth between comedy and timidity show that McDowell is still as great as ever.
On Ensemble’s music served as inspiration and soundtrack of the short film. They’re on hand once again for Yamasong: March Of The Hollows. Their taiko drums and wooden flutes, mixed with electronic beats are the perfect fusion of the fantastical planet and the technological Hollows. Thanks to this, their score richly enhances every image of the film.
Thanks to immaculate design and puppetry work, amazing acting, and a fully realized, vividly crafted world Yamasong: March Of The Hollows is a spellbinding adventure. There are two minor flaws, but they don’t detract from the overall quality of the film, as the helming of the project assures it moves with energy and grace.