I first caught wind of this animated movie when I was in Bangkok in early May 2006. This movie has yet to be released then, so all that I saw were just promotional posters of a little sky-blue elephant with puffy cheeks donning the walls of the cinema theatres.
Soon after, I learnt that this little elephant is none other than the protagonist in the first Thai 3-D animated movie – Kaan Kluay. I was not in time to catch the movie then, and had to go to some lengths to request Thai friends to help buy the DVD for me. Over the last weekend, I finally sat down and watched this Thai animation of the year.
The story takes place during the Ayutthaya era in Siam history. Kaan Kluay is a curious little elephant with a righteous sense of heart who would defend little creatures who are bullied by other elephants. He became separated from his mother when he embarked on a search to look for his missing father. Along the way, he had some misadventures and met some new characters, such as Chaba Kaew (a pink elephant with a flower) whom he was to fall in love with later on. He then grew up to be a war elephant for King Naresuan and was remembered as one of the greatest war elephants ever, bestowed with the royal name of Chao Phraya Prab Hongsawadee.
The phrase “Kaan Kluay” actually means banana stalk in Thai, and it is the name given by the Grandmother Elephant for her grandson when she saw how the strong and graceful arching back of her grandson resembles that of a banana stalk. A fine breed indeed, she mused, just like the father. In the movie, Kaan Kluay’s father was a war elephant too and well-known for his bravery.
The opening scenes start with the shadow play of leather carvings of elephants. It was accompanied by a chorus of children’s voices who sang to the lines of the classic Thai children’s elephant poem “chaang, chaang, chaang, nong khoei hen chaang rer plaao…”
This film is a commendable effort for the Thai animation-makers, considering this is their first attempt to break into the international 3-D animation market. Many parts of the film are decked out in resplendent colours and with adorable little animals aplenty. The rough texture of tree barks, a blade of grass, gleaming rose apples and reflective water surfaces are some aspects of Mother Nature captured superbly by the artists. It is also noteworthy that the artists have probably spend considerable time observing the real elephants, such that the creases and folds on an elephant skin were drawn naturally and even little motions such as the flapping of ears by these pachyderms did not go unnoticed.
Despite the astounding details given to nature, the illustrations of the human characters in the show are much more lacklustre. The humans resemble those in video games and their movements appear awkward at times. The Disney or Pixar artists might be able to a better job in giving a more realistic and naturalistic feel to the human figures in the cartoon. But they are most likely not able to match up to the details that the Thais gave to their own architectural and cultural objects which stems from a familiar and deep understanding of one’s culture, right down to the intricate designs on cups, palaces and wall paintings, etc. Till now, the backdrop of spires of the palaces and wats in the capital city especially lingered in my mind.
Kaan Kluay is indeed a delightful story and many aspects of Thai culture are also woven into this 90-minute long cartoon. Patriotism for one’s country, esteemed reverence for the king, the respect for elders, the loving care of a mother, the eminent role of elephants and their relationships with humans in the Thai society, Thai boxing etc. are some of the ideas that featured very prominently in the film.
When I say the film is steeped in Thai culture, it also reflects the Thai biasness – of how the Burmese are always regarded as the villains. This was portrayed rather vividly during the war scenes between King Naresuan and his Burmese counterparts. King Naresuan is one fine-looking and courageous young man belonging to the noble ranks while the Burmese king is portrayed as a skinny and slicky guy with a menacing face. Kaan Kluay is handsomely draped with lush cloths in hues of red and gold on his back, a vast contrast to his Burmese opponent which is ferocious and deadly-looking with red gleaming eyes, and had external weapons tied to his trunk and legs to give him the extra lethal power. Whichever good qualities the Thai possess, the enemies are portrayed in the negative light.
As usual, a Thai film is not complete without some goofy characters. In this case, the goofiness comes in the size of a bird who acts as a constant companion for Kaan Kluay when he was separated from his mother. Chit Lit, as this bird (or rather a messenger pigeon from the palace) is called can be expected to give a lot of commentaries whenever Kaan Kluay is engaged in a fighting match, as if the former is watching a muay thai match. The talkative Chit Lit also tries to pretend to be an all-knowing bird whenever he dispenses advice to the young Kaan Kluay and fights together with Kaan Kluay in the battle scenes.
Behind these delightful characters, there stands a huge production team who must have dedicated a humongous amount of time producing this animation. It is produced by Kantana Animation and directed by Kompin Kemgumnird who has previously worked on Disney classics such as Ice Age. The soundtrack is sung none other by Yuenyong Ophakul (otherwise known as Add Carabao) with the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra playing the majestic background music.
This is an animation worth watching, regardless of your age. I will certainly look forward to Thai animators producing works of even better quality and engaging content in the future. The only setback is this DVD that I owned does not have English subtitles so it is somewhat difficult to share with my non-Thai-speaking friends unless they want to sit through my coarse attempts of translation during the movie. But then again, the storyline of Khan Kluay is simple and engaging enough that the audience need not understand the language to grasp the content of this lovely Thai animation!