· Two audio commentaries: Director Sean Meredith,
co-creators Paul Zaloom and Sandow Birk; puppet
historian John Bell and Dante scholar Peter Hawkins
· Filming the Inferno Featurette: 12 Days in the
· Photo gallery
Take a journey through Hell…with puppets!
Director: Sean Meredith
Actors: Dermot Mulroney, James Cromwell
Dante has had a rough night. He’s hung over, lost somewhere in a bad part of town, and his cell phone is out of service, leaving this slacker no hope of finding his way home. But into his life walks Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, who promises to show him the way. Dante takes him up on the offer, but before long realizes that in order to get back, he will have to go through Hell.
Deciding to take on a 700 year old epic poem dealing with morality and updating it to the modern era must have been a daunting task. Doing it in the style of Puppet Theater had to up the headache factor ten-fold. But to call Dante’s Inferno Puppet Theater would be a bit misleading. We are talking Toy Theater here. What is Toy Theater you ask? It is the art of putting on a show where all the characters and all the sets are made of paper. The makers of Dante’s Inferno have held very close to the strict codes of Toy Theater to the extent that the whole film is shot on a small stage, as if it were a play, and any effects used in the show are also shot in-camera, using string, tape, and the occasional coat hanger.
With these meager devices, director Sean Meredith and co-creators Paul Zaloom and Sandow Birk conjure up a very entertaining film. It doesn’t take much more than a few moments to forget about the wires pulling the characters around and become completely immersed in the world the movie makers have designed. It helps that Inferno has an epic scale for a something shot on a 40 inch wide stage. Thanks to some clever forced perspective shots, intricately detailed miniature sets and some good old fashioned cinematic trickery, the frame comes alive with activity. Little paper dogs scurry back and forth and cars whiz in and out of the action on screen, lending a sense of realism. You can’t say they don’t do all they can to give life to these static (for the most part) puppets and their surroundings. All of this could come off as kind of gimmicky in less subtle hands, but the filmmakers here never become too enamored with their technique to lose their focus on telling the story.
Again, credit must go to the team of Meredith, Zaloom, and Birk for updating what many scholars consider to be one of the classics of literature. Anyone who’s read Dante Alighieri’s original story knows that ingesting all that prose is, at times, difficult to say the least. Traveling through 9 levels of Hell seems easy enough until you get into all the sublevels and categories of characters that live on said levels and sublevels. It all gets a bit confusing. The writers of this version manage to make the story quite easy to follow without having to sacrifice much of the original author’s 14th century ideas. They also have updated the story to fit more closely with the times in which we are living in.
It’s in this updating that the film may have its biggest challenge with audiences. While it is impressive that they were able to make a modern day morality tale, its also a bit of a problem thematically, considering some of Dante’s thoughts on humanity aren’t so widely accepted anymore; a good example being homosexuals having their own special place in Hell. But, as the filmmakers themselves state in the commentary, you have to take the bad with the good when adapting such a well known story, and even though they follow this motto, they also make sure to inject just the right amount of humor into the script to make sure things never get overly heavy.
Another thing that helps keep this Inferno from losing its way is the voice acting. Dermot Mulroney plays Dante, a mortal who has lost his way, with charisma. His intonations and inflections go a long way to selling the character, and that’s impressive considering that none of the puppets have any other way to show emotion than through the voices given to them. James Cromwell also stands out as the postmodern Virgil. While this Virgil may spout poetic dialogue on occasion, he is more of the comic relief as he becomes increasingly irritated by Dante. These two and the large supporting cast of voice actors really do their best to get into their characters and give this movie a legitimacy that it might not have had without them.
Overall, Dante’s Inferno is a pretty tasty treat for the mildly adventurous film watcher. You aren’t going to get whiz-bang effects, or formulaic storytelling. You also aren’t going to get a perfect film. Inferno may falter in spots; the whole Capitol Hill musical number is a bit overlong, and some of the jokes fall flat, but for the most part it clicks right along and manages to have a bit of fun with its dark subject matter (any movie that shows Fatty Arbuckle getting his suckoff on a street corner gets points in my book). There is no doubt that it is a truly inventive and refreshing way to make a movie about a journey through hell.
A couple of interesting extras round out this disc. First is the featurette 12 Days in the Underground, which documents a few days in the making of the movie. While I wish it was a little more in depth, it is only because I was truly taken in by how they were able to make this film using some pretty primitive puppets. I could have watched a full length doc on just the production. The disc also includes commentary with the films creators which is decent but sometimes doesn’t get past the “see…there’s the wire if you look” kind of stuff. A second commentary pairs an expert on Toy Theater with a top Dante Alighieri historian, and the results there are a bit wobbly; one doesn’t know much about the other’s expertise so it is usually just a mishmash of broken thoughts throughout much of their discussion.
8 out of 10
out what level of hell you end up in!