The story behind the making of Delgo is heartwarming and inspiring. Fathom Studios, based in Atlanta, Georgia, has been creating commercial computer animation for more than ten years. When they decided to produce their own feature-length narrative film, they did it completely independent of the Hollywood studio system. They labored long and hard with a much smaller budget and a much smaller staff than the animation behemoths. They bravely posted "digital dailes" throughout production, a kind of progressive, online series of "making of" snippets. They recruited a slew of actors with name recognition -- Freddie Prinze Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt, Val Kilmer, Malcolm McDowell, Louis Gossett Jr., Michael Clarke Duncan, Burt Reynolds, Chris Kattan, and the late Anne Bancroft in her last performance -- to voice the characters.
If only the film as a whole was as dramatic and lively as the behind-the-scenes story. Under the direction of Marc F. Adler and Jason Maurer, the 3-D animation is quite lovely to behold, but the characters are one-dimensional and the script, credited to six writers, spends too much time on convoluted plot mechanics. Delgo falls into an uncomfortable place where the technical achievement can be admired without the emotions ever being engaged, provoking nothing more than a tepid response ("meh") when the end credits begin to roll.
Set in a lush fantasy world of flying creatures, colorful reptiles, and the odd monster, beast, and giant insect, Delgo pits two races against one another. The proud, dominant, invading race lords it over the humble, subjugated, native race. Sound familiar?
The winged Nohrin people, ruled by King Zahn (Louis Gossett Jr.), are forced to abandon their increasingly barren home in the clouds. Initially they are welcomed by the earthbound, lizard-like Lockni people to their lush, fertile country, Jhamora. Zahn appoints his ambitious younger sister Sedessa (Anne Bancroft) as governor of the Nohrin in Jhamora and stays behind to oversee the departure of his people from the clouds. When the Nohrin seek to expand their holdings, the Lockni resist, prompting Sedessa to declare war and start wiping out the Lockni.
As soon as Zahn learns what has happened, he brings the genocide to a halt, negotiates a truce with the Lockni, and disowns Sedessa as a member of the royal family. Sedessa kills Zahn's wife, but the king and his infant daughter narrowly escape death. Sedessa is exiled to a distant wilderness, her wings severed from her body.
Fifteen years later, tensions still simmer in Jhamora. King Zahn's daughter, Princess Kyla (Jennifer Love Hewitt) doesn't fully appreciate the danger, and wanders over the border into Lockni territory, where she meets Delgo (Freddie Prinze). Delgo's father (Burt Reynolds) was killed under Sedessa's command, so he harbors considerable resentment against the Nohrin. Still, Princess Kyla is so pretty, and nice, that he can't help his attraction to her. Likewise, Kyla is attracted to Delgo even though, you know, he looks like an extraterrestial from Alien Nation, is a lizard walking on two legs, and can't fly like she can.
The romance takes a back seat to political maneuverings by the evil Sedessa. Despite being exiled, she make false promises to create alliances with various warring, beastly tribes in the wilderness and molds them into a united army behind her as self-appointed Empress. She also has a secret, highly-placed ally in her brother's administration, the equally ambitious Colonel Raius (Malcolm McDowell). At Sedessa's bidding, Raius urges Zahn to go to war again with the Lockni, while General Bogardus (Val Kilmer) entreats the king to maintain the peace. Sedessa wants the Nohrin to be fully distracted, and perhaps weakened, by battling with the Lockni, allowing her army of beasts to conquer Jhamora.
The story unfolds at a leisurely, languid pace, alternating between lengthy scenes of talky exposition and brief, frantic action sequences. Yet it's difficult to keep track of who's doing what to whom. In part, that's because there's little differentiation in the character designs between the Nohrin and the Lockni. Oh, sure, the Nohrin have wings, and each race has different coloring and markings on their faces and bodies, but their body shapes are all pretty much lean and humanoid. I suspect that's intentional, to show that the two races are basically the same and that they should put aside their petty surface differences and learn how to live together in harmony. But that's doesn't make it any easier to tell them apart on screen.
And that leads to the second problem. Delgo suffers from "celebrity-voice-itis," with too many key roles taken by actors who lack a distinctive voice. Where's Charles Fleischer (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) when you need him? Sonically, the voices flow together like a peacefully-flowing river. Val Kilmer, who made even Moses sound bored in The Prince of Egypt, disappears altogether as General Bogardus, and Freddie Prinze and Jennifer Love Hewitt don't fare much better. Of course, they're not really given characters, as such, to play, so it's hard to blame them too much.
On the other hand, Anne Bancroft clearly relishes playing the evil Sedessa, and Malcolm McDowell does a typically juicy turn as the turncoat Raius. Welcome comic relief, shoehorned in as it feels, is provided by Chris Kattan for the heroes and Eric Idle for the villains. The sultry-voiced Sally Kellerman narrates.
Delgo finally comes to life with the attack of a giant arachnid in a cave about halfway through the movie, but even there the action is undercut by the anonymous musical score, which lacks any great urgency or propulsive drive. The same could be said for the movie. Delgo has the kernel of a great idea, and Fathom Studios has proven that they can produce beautiful, nearly state of the art animation far from Hollywood. If they can build their next movie around more distinctive characters, they might really have something.