Edison & Leo

Director: Neil Burns  
Voice Cast:
Powers Boothe, Gregory Smith, Carly Pope

With Canada being next to a country - The United States - that is so wealthy, powerful, and full of various opportunities, at times it can seem that The Great White North is quite a bland and boring country in comparison. I must admit that while I'm overall happy to be a Canadian living in Canada, there are times when I am green with envy with seeing what Americans have to boast about. Sometimes, for example, I wonder, "Why are there over thirty kinds of Shasta soda pop available in the United States, while in stores on this side of the border I can only find six of those flavors?" With facts like those, sometimes I have to think very hard about the various accomplishments my countrymen have made over the years. And after a little thought, I can list some of those achievements to you. There was the telephone, for example. Yes, there is some dispute as to if it's an American or Canadian invention, but I like to think that it's Canadian. There was also the space arm used on NASA's space shuttles. When it comes to entertainment, Canada has made some big contributions. Basketball was invented by a Canadian, for example. And when it comes to cartoons and various other kinds of animation, Canadians have had their share of successes as well. The National Film Board of Canada has been making animated shorts for decades, with a number of them being nominated for Academy Awards, and some actually winning the award. And if you turn on your television, it shouldn't take much effort to find animated television shows that were made by Canadians. For example, remember the TV show ReBoot? Not only was it a Canadian production, it happened to be the first fully computer animated television series in the entire world.

Other successful Canadian animated television shows include Beast Wars, Inspector Gadget, The Mighty Hercules, and Rocket Robin Hood. There's no doubt about it - when it comes to animated theatrical shorts and animated television shows, Canada has had many successes. So it may come as a real surprise that when it comes to animated movies, Canada has had very little success. The string of bad luck started with Canada's first animated movie, the rock-and-roll themed Rock & Rule from the Nelvana animation studio. Despite having "edge" and full of music from people like Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, the American distributor gave it almost no theatrical release, and the great financial loss almost killed Nelvana. In subsequent years, other Canadian animated movies were released to bad results, like The Nutcracker Prince (a critical and financial failure), Pippi Longstocking (a box office bomb that was really a glorified pilot for the subsequent short-lived TV series), two movies based on Jean and Laurent de Brunoff's children's books on Babar the Elephant (which nobody went to see) and Pinocchio 3000, which was Canada's first computer animated movie (but neverless got released straight to video). In case you are wondering about Heavy Metal and The Triplettes Of Belleville, those movies didn't actually have that much Canadian talent involved. (The sequel to Heavy Metal had a lot more Canadian involvement, but got released straight to video.) Do you want to know the only success (at least in a financial sense) Canadian animated movie producers have had? It was those 1980s Care Bears movies! I think you'll agree that is something not to be very proud of.

Seeing one Canadian animated feature film failure after the other, a question comes up: Why? Why has Canada not been very successful in making animated movies? Well, it's a lot harder to make a movie - any kind of movie - in Canada than in the United States, and even harder to Edison & Leomake an animated movie. Talented Canadian scriptwriters and animation directors probably see all the obstacles they would have to face, and say, "No thanks." Less animated movies are made, and therefore the failures just seem even bigger. But there is also the problem of indifferent film distributors for Canadian animated movies that do get made. That's what happened to the movie I'm reviewing here, Edison & Leo. It was Canada's first stop-motion animated feature film, but its distributor didn't even try for a real theatrical release; it went pretty much straight to DVD and cable. I was curious about seeing a Canadian "first" movie, especially since I'm also interested in animation. But I waited until I could find a cheap copy of the movie in a used DVD store - after being burned by so many bad Canadian movies, there was no way I would pay full price to see one. The events of Edison & Leo, set in the 1800s, center on one George T. Edison (Boothe, Deadwood). George is not only extremely wealthy; he is also a genius scientist. But that's about all that's good that can be said about him. Though married with two children, he has a big eye for the ladies. And he is so obsessed with collecting various artifacts that he won't hesitate to steal in order to add to his collection. One day, somebody steals from his collection, and in the process leaves George's wife badly injured. So George travels to the Pasanna tribe in Manitoba for a cure for his wife. But while he is with the tribe, he decides to steal the tribe's sacred "Book Of Light". Returning home, George sets up an electrical experiment that will hopefully revive his wife. But things go wrong that result in not only George's wife being killed, but has George's youngest son Leo (Smith, Rookie Blue) zapped with so much electricity that he now gives a dangerous zap of juice to anyone unlucky enough to be touched by him - a syndrome that has George declaring Leo his "greatest invention". Years pass, and the now adult Leo remains friendless since his electrical status keeps people away. But neither he nor George know that the Pasanna tribe are still after all these years determined to get their sacred book back. They also don't know that George's older son Faraday plans to overthrow his father and take over the position of head of the Edison family.

If you think that the above plot synopsis makes Edison & Leo sound like a weird movie, trust me, the movie itself manages to be even stranger than what I described. All throughout the movie there are a number of touches that one by one make this one bizarre movie. When George's wife dies, he immortalizes her by building a gigantic metal sculpture of her. George's son Faraday has a dog named Pickle - not an ordinary dog, but a robot dog. George has lost enough of his hearing that in order to listen to a phonographic recording, he has to bite down on the phonograph machine itself so that the sound will travel through his jaw to his brain. And George's father (voice by Jay Brazeau of Sabrina The Animated Series) likes to stay under Leo's bed in order to spook him. Edison & Leo was definitely made by filmmakers who were trying hard to make it offbeat. But in their attempts to do so, they seem to have forgotten to give the movie at the same time a constant tone. The entire enterprise seems schizophrenic at times. Those above examples are the kind of weirdness that may seem appropriate for a family audience. But at the same time, the movie has a lot of touches that only seem appropriate for adults. Twice the movie devotes time to showing characters urinate. A person's lip gets cut off. We get to hear George having sex, and then getting a shot of him lying in bed with a sheet over his naughty parts - and his naughty parts clearly propping up the sheet like a tent. A number of characters get killed, some of them by being shot multiple times by arrows that get them bleeding. And there are also a couple of graphic decapitations. With these two wildly different tones throughout, the movie ends up pleasing nobody. Young children will probably be confused and upset by the adult content. While adults may not be upset by the adult content, I think they'll be confused by how the movie constantly wavers between innocent goofiness and showing graphic material.

I suspect that the reason for the inconsistent tone was that there was not one person associated with the production that had a clear vision, as well as there not being anyone taking charge and enforcing a clear vision. The tone of the movie sure feels like this was a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. But the movie doesn't just fail because of its wavering tone, but for other script problems as well. Another big problem to be found in Edison & Leo's screenplay is with the construction of its characters. To be more exact, the lack of construction. I'll ignore inconsistencies with George like his supposedly being deaf but all the same able to use a telephone or speak to people, but I can't ignore how shallow his character comes across. Sure, he steals artifacts and makes great inventions and experiments, but we never get to hear his motivations for his actions. If he loves his wife, why does he have an eye for the ladies? Why does he more or less ignore his son Faraday? Questions like these are never answered. And George is not the only weak character to be found in the movie. Much of the movie is devoted to George's electric son Leo. We never get a sense of his loneliness, and when he finds a young woman (who is secretly working for the Pasanna tribe) that he falls in love in, the feeling of love comes out of the blue, since there is so little time shown developing this relationship. Faraday's motivations for trying to take over the family seem vague at best, with him never once really opening up and telling anyone how he feels. And if anyone can figure out what the point is for the character of George's elderly father being in this movie, please send me an e-mail.

With the inconsistent tone, as well as the murky characters, the majority of the potential audience for Edison & Leo will be turned off by the movie by those things alone. But I know that there will be some people at this point who may still interested by the movie for one still-to-be-discussed aspect. That aspect being the art design and animation of the movie. Does the movie have enough visual flair to please animation buffs? Well, sometimes it does. While the movie didn't have the budget of a Tim Burton stop-motion animated movie, it did reportedly have a high budget ($10 million) for a Canadian movie. The money spent more often than not shows in the movie's miniature sets and props; both of these things are surprisingly detailed and complex at times. Also, a number of shots don't settle for a static camera photographing them, but have the camera moving along with the characters just like with a live action production. As for the stop-motion characters and their animation, well, these aspects are somewhat of a disappointment. It resembles claymation or is claymation, and what is displayed here wildly differs in tone throughout. The male characters look somewhat okay, save for the character of Faraday, whose face looks surprisingly unprofessional. The female characters, on the other hand, look pretty hideous, ugly enough that with their poorly written characters it makes it doubly hard to sympathize with any of them. As for these characters' animation, it comes across more like Rankin-Bass than Tim Burton, with their somewhat jerky movements. But I can see some people being charmed by this style of animation, since it's not ultra Hollywood slick but instead shows the sweat and strain of the animators. And to be honest, while I had those above issues with the character designs and animation, they weren't big issues with me. In fact, had the movie's screenplay been given enough polish before production started, the uneven look of the movie would have just a minor quibble in an otherwise positive review. Here is a lesson to any aspiring animators out there: Before you start animating something, make sure the script you're working with is up to snuff. A great screenplay can make up for animation and art design that's not expert, but expert animation and art design can't make up for a bad screenplay.

(Posted March 11, 2015)

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See also: Pinocchio In Outer Space, Raggedy Ann And Andy: A Musical Adventure, Willy McBean And His Magic Machine