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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has a lot in common with outer space. Both can be colorful and weightless.

Space Oddity

Laureline (Cara Delevingne)
Laureline (Cara Delevingne)

Valerian begins in 1975. David Bowie’s Space Oddity fittingly sets the tone. This is one odd movie, Major Tom. As the opening credits appear, time advances and the International Space Station turns into a mammoth city. 2020. 2150. 2550. Time flies as one civilization after another docks with the station. Ultimately, citizens from 1,000 planets inhabit the sprawling space city.

Having grown so large, the station can no longer safely orbit Earth and it’s sent into space on a mission to spread a message of peace and unity.

Skip to the 28th century and the station is 700 million miles from Earth.

Elsewhere in the universe, two soldiers are on vacation. Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan, A Cure for Wellness) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne, Suicide Squad) are a team; they’ve been through a lot of scrapes and adventures together in their relatively young years and Valerian would like to marry Laureline.

It’s early in the movie and this is the first big problem.

There’s absolutely no chemistry between these two stars. Actually, the titular Valerian is a dull, plain character imbued with zero charisma by DeHaan, who is in his own rights a talented actor. The light, however, shines on Laureline. In this role, Delevingne is given the best lines, the best humor and the best action. It’s almost worth toying with the notion of a Laureline spin-off, one without Valerian.

That’s not likely, given this movie is based on the extremely popular Valerian and Laureline French comic strip series, which started in 1967 and ran for more than 40 years.

Space Captain

No doubt Valerian is a labor of love for Luc Besson. It’s clear his number one ambition is to entertain. It’s clear he wanted to bring a comic strip series — one previously deemed unfilmable — to life on the big screen.

That’s all honorable and good, but there’s a lack of emotional connection that ultimately hampers the enjoyment of all the visual razzle-dazzle.

And there is load after load after load of dazzling eye candy to behold.

Some of it’s reminiscent of Besson’s The Fifth Element. In early scenes, there are flying yellow busses, the 28th-century equivalent of today’s landlocked school busses. They’re an early assurance Besson hasn’t lost his flair for visual humor, a notion further reinforced when Valerian and Laureline arrive at their first post-vacation mission: they’re wearing funky knit hats and rose-colored sunglasses in hopes of fitting in with the other tourists.

Snappy moments like that generate a well-deserved chuckle.

And other moments are tangential forays into lavish entertainment, as with a Cabaret-inspired scene featuring pop star Rihanna as Bubble, a performer pimped out by a loosey-goosey Ethan Hawke (Gattaca). She dons the outfit made famous by Liza Minnelli and she brings home the notion life is indeed a cabaret, my friend.

Throw in the surprise casting of jazz legend Herbie Hancock as a key military leader and it’s clear Besson is all about striking different chords and hitting different notes from the typical $200-million space fantasy extravaganza.

Space Dementia

With all that ambition behind it, it kinda hurts to kick Valerian to the curb.

Valerian turns into a clutter of disparate ideas. The universe is repeatedly one big virtual reality or alternate reality experience, which perhaps explains how Valerian at one moment can present himself as a roguish lady killer and the next be a strict, rule-following soldier without a clue regarding what makes the ladies tick.

The story makes a couple weak attempts at adding some gravitas to the spectacle. Bubble is a recent immigrant on Alpha (the shorthand name for the space station also known as the City of a Thousand Planets). With no identity in this new world, she’s a lost soul that will be quickly forgotten and whisked away in the sands of time.

There’s also a subplot involving a military maneuver that annihilates an innocent, advanced civilization in an effort to preserve the human economy.

Yeah. They’re round-about tie-ins to today’s immigration crises around the world and the importance of preserving cultural identities, but these themes are handled with a klutziness that borders on the Clouseau.

Equally so, at the movie’s end Laureline goes all preachy on Valerian about the meaning of love.

Really, Laureline? Do you really think Valerian’s worth the effort?

Laureline should trade up and head out on her own adventures.