Soul Music

SM_DVD“I like it. It’s just a movie that stands there and keeps punching.” So sayeth Stephen King in regards to the film adaptation of his novel Cujo, proof positive that authors may not be the last word when it comes to cinematic adaptations of their work. In a similar vein, Terry Pratchett has roundly and fulsomely praised the video adaptation of his novel Soul Music. Unfortunately, Soul Music doesn’t even stand there and keep punching. The best it can manage is a few jabs and an elbow to the kidneys when the ref isn’t looking.

Soul Music – the novel – rests pretty much in the middle of the Discworld canon. The story of a young druid named Imp Y Celyn who heads off to the big city to seek his fortune playing music, the novel is certainly enjoyable, but it lacks the marvelous inventiveness of The Colour of Magic or the emotional clout of Reaper Man. It is, however, funny as hell… since Imp (which means “Bud” or “Buddy”, and you can guess the rest of where this one is going) falls in with a drum-pounding troll and a sax-tooting dwarf, gets his mitts on a magical guitar, and promptly gets swept off into the world of Music With Rocks In It. What results is Discworld’s very own taste of Beatlemania, made more complicated by the fact that Death is off on a bender. The old fellow is doing his best to forget the fact that, in the opening of the book (or the first thirty seconds of the film), he had to take his adopted daughter and her husband after a fiery carriage crash, leaving their daughter Susan (ably assisted by the Death of Rats and Death’s horse, Binky) to take over the family business for a while.

Wackiness and complications ensue when something supernatural stops an angry dwarf from putting an axe in Imp’s noggin during the band’s first concert, thus sending the whole Disc out of whack. Meanwhile, the music gets more and more powerful, Susan’s crush on Imp gets deeper and deeper, and Death wanders from dive to dive until finally he finds himself, like everyone else, in the gluttonous metropolis of Ankh-Morpork. Throw in a troll gangster named Chrysoprase, the musical stylings of an organ-playing orangutan and the juvenile antics of a bunch of Unseen University’s finest wizards, and it’s easy to see why the book is such an obvious target for translation into another medium.

The problem is, unfortunately, that Soul Music isn’t translated well. The trouble starts with the main menu sequence, a bit of stiff-looking CGI showing great A’Tuin the World Turtle flapping its way through space to the sounds of what can best be described as Jethro Tull trying to cover the Dr. Who theme. The main menu itself is moderately counterintuitive, and some fairly extensive mucking about with it failed to produce any method to play the entire video straight through. Instead, after each “chapter” I was forced to manually select the next one and turn it loose, wading through the credits and a not-terribly-informative montage of what had gone before each time!

The real issue, though, is with the video itself. As one might expect, it’s animated; no one short of Terry Gilliam would be able to bring the inspired lunacy of Discworld to credible life in a live-action format. That being said, the quality of the animation is shockingly low. While no one expects anything on par with a Disney feature film in an animated series, one can hope for the equivalent of at least Duck Tales. Instead, the frames are static, the backgrounds generally sparse and the syncing of voice and picture imperfect. Add in occasional and inappropriate bits of CGI which simply serves to make the traditional animation look worse, and you get something that’s deeply dissatisfying simply just to watch.

To give credit where credit is due, the visuals and character design are often striking. Death looks properly imposing (though Susan’s perhaps a bit too Elsa Lancaster), and the too-cool troll drummer is perhaps the liveliest animated monolith in recent memory. Furthermore, the musical sequences, which work their way from skiffle to psychedelia, as the music devours Buddy, are inventive and clever… truly the high points of the video.

The voice acting, too, is solid. Christopher Lee leads the cast as Death and, as one would expect, he mixes stentorian authority with just a hint of wistful regret. Count Dooku, one suspects, never had it so good. The rest of the cast is good as well, with Andy Hockley doing a nice job of conveying young Imp’s struggle with the music’s attempt to make him immortal by destroying him. (Pratchett, in the attached commentary, voices his pleasure with the Liverpudlian accent given to Cliff the drummer, and it’s hard to argue with him.) On the other hand, the credits are set up so that it’s impossible to figure out who voiced what part, which is yet another source of frustration.

The script does an adequate job of adapting the book. All the plot elements are there, all the characters, situations and so forth. It is, however, missing a couple of crucial elements. The first is context. Soul Music doesn’t do enough to explain who the various characters are; Susan’s backstory and supporting cast (primarily the Death of Rats) never really get laid out for the viewer, and a certain amount of head-scratching results among the uninitiated. Yes, Discworld is big and, yes, there’s a lot of history there, but considering the amount of time devoted to summaries of the action, you’d think there would have been room for a little exposition in there somewhere.

The second, and potentially more damning loss, is the absence of the legendary Pratchett footnotes. The script chugs along, competently and adequately, but by failing to pick up the footnotes and add them into the mix, it skips the chance to really infuse the video with something that makes a Pratchett novel really stand out. Oh, sure, Soul Music has a good story, but reading a Discworld novel for the plot is a lot like going to a Van Halen concert for the bass playing. Yes, it’s sure to be good but, on a certain level, it sort of misses the point. Simply put, the script lacks spark.

The extras are a mixed bag. This first Discworld episode is nothing more than a tease, serving as a very cursory overview of the Discworld that leaves the viewer hanging all too soon. The cast filmographies are limited (and don’t tell the viewer which roles the actors played), and the storyboards are, well, sketches with limited context. The one real gem, however, is the lengthy interview with the author — this more so than anything else on the DVD — and that includes the 175 minutes’ worth of animation that’s putatively the main attraction.

In summation, Soul Music is a disappointment. In an age when so many properties previously thought unfilmable from the Lord of the Rings to Spider-man to Pratchett’s own Bromeliad are being turned into marvelous adaptations, it’s sad to see how little has been done with Soul Music. Shoddy animation, an awkward user interface, and a workmanlike script add up to a product that’s merely ‘OK’, at best. Pratchett fans will want it for the interview, and it’s certainly not awful.

But no matter what the author says, it’s not good enough to be plain old ‘good’ and, in a lot of ways, that’s even worse.

(Cosgrove-Hall, 1996)

Richard Dansky

The Central Clancy Writer for UbiSoft, Richard Dansky has worked in video games for 17 years. His credits include over 40 titles, most recently Tom Clancy's The Division. Richard has also contributed extensively to the World of Darkness tabletop RPGs, and is the developer of the 20th anniversary edition of seminal horror game Wraith: The Oblivion. The author of six novels, including the Wellman Award-nominated VAPORWARE, he lives in North Carolina.

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