By Scott Mendelson | April 18, 2009

“Dante’s Inferno” is a visually imaginative piece of work. I can only wonder about the work and time that went into this animated variation of Dante’s epic story, but the end result is barely worth the trouble. It’s not that the film is bad or not compelling; it’s that its slavish devotion to the original text robs the film of the ability to say anything new. Still, it’s short, witty, and relatively entertaining.

The film is basically a modern reworking of Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno,” one man’s personal guide through the nine levels of Hell. This specific version is based on the somewhat updated variation written by Sandow Birk. As most of us remember, a young man (Dante himself, voiced by Dermot Mulroney) is given a lengthy tour through the various levels of damnation, guided by the poet Virgil (voiced by James Cromwell). As Dante sees the various sinners and their various sins, he gains a new perspective on his own morality. Think of it as “scared straight” for the religiously inclined.

The big selling point for this picture is that the entire film is composed of paper puppets, to create something like puppet theater. While there is one live actor in the film, everyone else and everything else is comprised of countless paper puppets. So yes, at the very least, I would recommend one viewing of this visually unique (and mere 76-minute) feature for the puppetry alone.

But on a story telling and character level, the film comes up short. Dante is basically sarcastic and uses humor to hide his fear, while Virgil is deadly serious and authoritative. The most interesting aspect of the narrative is how Dante’s original definitions of sin clash with today’s far more tolerant culture. The filmmakers make a point not to deviate from the original philosophies, even at the expense of alienating certain viewers (there are homosexuals in hell, as well as politicians ranging from Condoleezza Rice to Lyndon B. Johnson).

While the film shows its liberal bent by the glee at which it damns various Bush administration officials and corrupt business (Halliburton apparently has its own building), writer/director Sandow Birk and writers Sean Meredith and Paul Zaloom have no qualms about placing John F. Kennedy in hell as well. Much of the humor comes from the various reasons various monsters of our ages find themselves in Hell. Hitler is there on a technicality and John Wayne Gacy is there for committing offenses to hospitality (i.e., murdering 33 young boys and burying them in his basement).

One could argue that the whole project reeks of a certain film school “look how clever we are” approach. It may not be high art, but the puppetry is a joy to behold and the film itself is worth a gander.

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