"Hammerboy" Doesn’t Quite Hit the Nail on the Head
How can a small boy from a peaceful island rise up to stop a cunning politician with mystical powers who plans to prolong a war through deceit and intimidation? By learning to speak loudly and carry a big hammer.
This boy is Mangchi, the scrappy lead of Hammerboy, the 2003 Korean film that provoked international interest at various film festivals last year. Hammerboy begins on the scenic Candlestick Island, where Mangchi spends his time flying over the seas on a small flying machine, trying (unsuccessfully) to go on fishing trips with the adults, and playfully teasing Angdu, a bratty young girl with a crush on him. However, Mangchi’s grandfather fears this ideal lifestyle cannot last. In response, he makes Mangchi a special hammer and starts to train Mangchi to use the Great Echo technique, a mystical move that allows the user to force his energy outward in devastating waves through shouting loudly. Though he doesn’t realize it at the time, Mangchi will have to fully master the Great Echo and discover the power behind his hammer in order to prevent great tragedy.
One night, Mangchi spots a plane flying over the island that appears to be in trouble. Without a second thought, Mangchi takes to his own flying machine to help the endangered pilot. It turns out that the pilot is a teenage girl who is being hunted by two fighter planes. Mangchi and his grandfather are able to take down the pursuing planes and bring the girl to safety. The next day, the young girl awakens in bed to find the entire village anxious to learn who she is and why she was in such danger. The girl explains that she is Princess Poplar from the Jemius Empire that has been at war with the Akra Empire for quite some time. The king of the Jemius Empire was ready to settle for peace, but on the way to his meeting with the ruler of Akra, the evil Prime Minister Moonk staged a coup that overthrew the emperor and forced the princess to flee. Upon hearing of Moonk’s activities, Mangchi’s grandfather becomes very serious and refuses to assist Princess Poplar in finding her father and bringing peace to the two kingdoms. Later that night, Poplar and Mangchi take off, against the wishes of Mangchi’s grandfather, in the hopes they can right what’s wrong. On their journey this duo will have to face dangerous bandits, the Jemius military, and eventually, Moonk himself.
Mangchi’s story takes a number of turns and is an entertaining ride throughout. He faces some challenges with playful humor, such as giving roundabout directions to a group of bandits, and others with fierce determination, as when he faces capture by the Jemius Empire. In these moments the film shines and simple, yet touchingly genuine, emotion comes through. Other moments in the story are far less moving, however, due in no small part to its pacing. Hammerboy progresses quite quickly (the film is only 75 minutes long), and while this rapid storytelling does prevent boredom, it also often detracts from the impact of the events. The crushing failures of the heroes feel like temporary setbacks, scenes of tragedy don’t last, and triumphs don’t feel very satisfying. With more time and attention paid to important scenes, the film may have been able to sustain the level of emotion that occasionally emerges.
Similarly, the characters have a few great moments where they transcend their simplistic, rather cliché nature and feel quite human. But too often they feel like a very familiar cast with little new to offer. It could be argued that such simplistic characters fit well with the film’s basic story, but greater animated works from studios such as Disney or Ghibli have shown that even common character types can be fleshed out through subtle movements and powerful dialogue. The characters in Hammerboy remain charming throughout, but, frustratingly, they only rarely reach their full potential.
Likewise, the world in which Hammerboy takes place is intriguing, but not explored in enough depth to feel engrossing. Central issues such as the origins of a powerful magical crystal or the Great Echo technique aren’t touched upon, and the effects of the ongoing war between the two kingdoms are never seen. While certain areas of the film, such as the opening scenes on Candlestick Island, feel quite vibrant, most of the world feels like an empty, rather artificial stage for the characters to play their parts.
The one area where the film truly thrives is in the quality of the animation. The backgrounds are beautiful and detailed, the characters are expressive, and action scenes, both in the air and on the ground, are fluid and shot in interesting ways. It may not match the quality of films with higher budgets, but the visuals in Hammerboy are still a joy to watch.
The shortcomings of Hammerboy prevent it from being a lasting film that truly appeals to all ages. It should be good fun for children and generally entertaining for older viewers, but with so little depth in both the characters and the story, the film is unlikely to leave much of an impression.