Netflix hosts a bunch of your favorite TV shows streaming them into your home but has also provided its own impressive repertoire of original content. These original series include critical praised and enjoyed series such as BoJack Horseman, 13 Reasons Why, Stranger Things, and so on. One that stood out for me was the inclusion of Sahara. Sahara seemed to be some sort of animated movie which I was curious about given Netflix originals having a pretty good track record but having no idea what to expect from a streaming service providing an animated movie. 3-D Animation is not exactly seen as working with low budgets. I decided to give it a glance and figure out what exactly is Sahara.
The False Advertising
It’s no secret that Netflix can occasionally be misleading in terms of how they present their films on the site. The Netflix original series banners uses the image of the main antagonist while the thumbnail of the film uses this sand lizard.
Yeah, this lizard has maybe two minutes of screen time and even the antagonist has a very limited presence in the entire thing. I’m not entirely sure why the film is not promoted using the main characters of the film but the film actually features an outcast snake named Ajax who with his scorpion friend Pitt must travel across the Sahara Desert to rescue the girl he just meet five minutes ago.
The plot for Sahara is not that original, it kind of relies on every cliché in the book and keeps it simple. Ajax is the misfit outcast because the average fellow with a complacent life is boring meets a fine-looking lady from the different part of town and because [insert obstacle here] has to go on a journey across [insert location here] to get the girl defeat some sort of adversary and learn [insert positive character trait] about him or herself. While it’s not subverting the genre, this isn’t necessarily a flaw, Moana didn’t exactly do a 180 on the Disney formula and that film is well liked because of great execution of the Disney master plot. In terms of Sahara executing the classic star-crossed lovers’ hero’s journey tale it does… all right. The characters aren’t the most interesting and don’t establish a great dynamic to play off one another. There’s a fair amount of trials and tribulations to overcome and a clear goal and opposition. I do appreciate that it takes moments to just breathe with the characters on the journey. When the distance is so vast why not have a montage of just traversing the land and while not the best version of the scene it’s nice to have that moment where they stop and talk reaching an understanding towards one another. I find it simple but when there are people who can’t even make a comprehensible story it’s nice when someone does a job of executing well in the fundamentals of storytelling. It keeps your interest and I don’t think you’ll be too surprised by the final outcome but I admit that it won me over in the end.
Animation and the World Design
At first I had no idea what to expect in terms of animation and budget for Sahara. There’s a huge difference in terms of TV animation and movie animation so what’s to be expected from the unknown Netflix original. I think the art style and animation is the strongest attribute. While it is lower budget than your recent Pixar release but I think it does well in taking advantage of its budgetary restraints. The overall style incorporates 2-D drawn landscapes in style similar to the game Fire Watch. This is a similar effect to the used in Disney’s Lilo and Stitch which also featured landscape and background different than the character’s art style. At first admittedly I was disappointed by just feeling the frame composition had an eye for the beautiful landscapes that couldn’t fully translate through the flat images but as the film progresses it keeps attempting to incorporate various landscapes and colors that are visual appealing and impressive. The film at times translate into a two-dimensional version of Lawrence of Arabia with sequences of well-drawn landscapes to awe at.
I’m not going to pretend to be an animation expert but for me I thought the mixed media approach served the film well and the animation of the characters was smooth even for up-tempo scenes that involved dancing or chase sequences as depicted below.
The soundtrack makes absolutely no sense I have no idea what anyone was thinking. I would not call it awful but one song wants the movie to be Slumdog Millionaire and the next wants to be Straight Outta Compton. None of the songs are offensively bad but they’re all generic with none really being that memorable. Not the worse but most would agree this is an area were things could have been improved.
Character design is an integral part of an animation feature it why we sympathize with the big bright-eyed Disney Princess and why we vomit when we take a gander at Leo the Lion. Sahara is complete with interesting and well polished designs.
Ajar is a blue cobra which is unnatural but maybe this has to do with design based color psychology. Blue typical can signifies truth, devotion, honor, and loyalty to name a few. Ajar certainly displays these traits as he’s devoted to being reunited with his love despite constant discouragement and is found very loyal to Pitt during his journey. The character also has a blotchy pattern less design that represents his lack of growth and the fact he hasn’t shed his skin or eaten enough Frosted Flakes to earn his stripes. A simple nod to the fact the character is finding some sense of growth on his journey through the film and his necessary to change or affirm himself for the better.
Ajar’s best buddy Pitt is another interesting design that catches my attention. I think it’s obvious that the scorpion resembles a certain Jamaican crab, and honestly with the disproportions of the stinger being heavy on the character makes me wonder if the initial design was a hermit crab and then was changed after someone realized that there’s no hermit crabs in the middle of the desert. The color psychology is a little difficult to connect to this character but I think that red being an attention-grabbing color draws attention to him, since we are also drawn towards larger objects it’s a neat way to balance the two characters out. I think since the running joke that Gary the green snake questions them which one is Batman, and who’s Robin is a nod to while this is Ajar’s journey him and Pitt are to be considered equals in terms of their friendship.
Eva is the green love interest and it makes sense since green holds interpretations of: success, growth, and rejuvenation. Eva is the pampered rich girl who’s bored with life as it is and is flung into an adventure where she must discover something within herself and recognize what’s truly important. Including on her design is a floral pattern which I believe is inspired by Henna tattoos also known as mehendi designs. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder so there’s many ways to interpret these but the simple meaning behind the flower design is to represent joy and happiness. Even the human designs aren’t bad either, I appreciated the sunburn on the tourist being a nice detail.
Gary the Green Snake
I can understand how this character irks some people, as he’s a poorly done comic relief character. I’m neutral as he never grinded my gears and I did think in the end he did add to and was necessary to the plot. The voice acting for this character is an obnoxiously phony surfer dude accent that isn’t that enjoyable to listen to. This character is there to spew pop culture references whether or not it works in context or not. This character speaks a lot of nonsense, maybe he’s on drugs. That’s actually not a joke this character is actually one drugs. Throughout the film this character is addicted to pollen and even at one point snorts it like cocaine. I was curious since the film did originate in France if it was possible for all the pop culture references to be the result of the English version. Senses of humor differ globally and this is not out of the realm of possibility. The film Doogal has a both a British and American version of the film in which the British version includes more highbrow witty humor that is substituted for more pop culture references in the American version. This is better shown in the review of Doogal by Pan Pizza on the animation review YouTube channel Rebel Taxi (Warning Crude humor). However, Doogal was more open to improvisation that caused the differences while I watched the film in French with English subtitles seemed to show the same script and in both versions reference Batman and Robin. This character is interesting to say the least.
Is the film racist?
This film has a Lukewarm reception so I decided to view the user reviews to see why this might be. A couple of the more negative reviews brought up the sediment that the film is not so slyly well…racist. At first, I pondered what exactly triggered this reaction assuming it to be the Middle Eastern caricatures being the possible culprit. That however was not what’s been upsetting people but rather some implications made by the allegorical snake society. So inherently there is something wrong with two snake societies separated by distinct ecological borders policed by the birds to keep them divided separated and the less ecological group is perceived as dangerous and are given a derogatory slang term “dusties” and it’s a plot point that they can’t swim and in the first scene they’re seen eating watermelon (Let it sink in 3…2…1…) OH NO!
I want to acknowledge that on first watch I did not come to pick up on this and here’s why. There is distinct separation between the two societies but rather than racial discrimination my mind connected it to that of the Capulets and Montagues found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I consider this a fair interpretation given the film’s reliance on the star-crossed lovers troupe and even references the famous playwright’s work with a gag where the green snake utters the lines “a plague on both your houses”. In the English version, the voice actors also give a distinction to the laid back speech of Gary the green snake being stereotypical of Californian West coast while I believe the main character is supposed to be more East coast sounding. While I am trying to defend the film in that I don’t think it was the intention to be interpreted in this manor yet, it’s inexcusable. Humanizing animals still yields the effects in that the audience it going to see it through a reflection of humanity which when done well can be a striking commentary using biodiversity to convey a message on well general diversity such the case with the critically acclaimed Zootopia. Overall besides for the swimming which makes sense species wise because he’s not adapted to do so, all the other concerns could have easily been handled better or taken out entirely if the people behind it were so absent-minded.
It’s a real shame that this is legitimate criticism the film has to receives when in fact it has less to do with the overarching narrative but instead how it was mishandling unimportant details the script. All films are open to interpretation so, you have a right to come to your own perspective I honestly did not get this out of the film, but this serves as a reminder to be careful of what exactly your communicating to your audience.
The script is not bad per say but I am more so impressed by the visual storytelling and how it gets elements across throughout the scenes. The antagonist is always framed menacingly and it takes advantage of his looming over the main characters. In the artistic montage in which Eva is consumed by the snake charmer’s flute is not only visually stunning but was able to convey a greater sense of theme. In the end of the montage these the final sequence has the male snake of the dance group presenting her with apples and her shedding her skin surrounded by a luminous light.
This conveys the feelings of some sort of rebirth through temptation by accepting the forbidden fruit you can become a new. I think this was a compelling moment that I wish the film had more symbolism to incorporate stronger themes.
I think I’ve given you a good gist of what to expect if you haven’t seen the film yet. If you’re someone who has a passion for animation I would be sure to check this one out as the mixed media approach works well here. If you’re a child or a parent looking for something to watch I think your kid might enjoy it. Sahara does not attempt to recreate the wheel and might not be the most luxurious ride but it’s an enjoyable journey and a trip I’m glad I was taken on.