Terry PratchettChristopher LeeGraham CrowdenDiscworld
Soul Music
Medium: TV, series
Year: 1997
Director: Jean Flynn
Writer: Terry Pratchett
Production: Cosgrove Hall, Channel 4
Keywords: fantasy, comedy, animation, musical
Country: UK
Actor: Christopher Lee, Graham Crowden, Andy Hockley, Neil Morrissey, Bernard Wrigley, Rosalie Scase, Jimmy Hibbert, Rob Rackstraw, Debra Gillett, George Harris, Bryan Pringle, John Jardine, Maggie Fox, David Holt, Melissa Sinden
Format: 7 episodes, 159 minutes
Series: Discworld >>
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0159914/
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 24 August 2009
I'm reminded of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Forget the Disney movie. The two adaptations I remember watching as a youngster are the 1979 animated version and the 1988 BBC live-action series. You'd expect the former to look better, wouldn't you? Imagine the infinite potential of hand-drawn animation... and now stamp hard on any such delusions, because the 1979 version looks as if it was animated by children on a budget of thruppence-ha'penny and a half-chewed Marmite bonbon.
Just as there's nothing so unfunny as failed comedy, there's something uniquely ugly about cheap animation. Computers have helped, but this seven-part Channel 4 series looks exactly as horrible as I was hoping it wouldn't based on the DVD art. In fairness, the actual animation is quite good. Things move properly. One might even call them lively. They look crude and ugly, but at least you don't have the problem we used to get with cheap animation, that of an obviously static picture overlaid with one tiny bit of animation (hand, mouth, etc.). On this score things would go downhill even with the same team's Wyrd Sisters later the same year. There's also some halfway decent use of computer-assisted effects and some of the backgrounds look nice, but that's it for the positives.
The opening credits also contain a CGIed Great A'Tuin. I realise we're going back to 1997 here, but I can't believe that didn't look horrible even at the time. I actually like the design of the elephants, but no one's ever going to notice because we're all shielding our eyes from the CGI.
All that I can forgive, though. What hurts the show much more for me personally is the voice acting. Christopher Lee is of course magnificent and a sufficient reason on his own for watching. Everyone else though ranges from poor to terrible. The merely poor ones are hiding behind an accent, which can sometimes be fun to listen to. The troll drummer is black, which I liked a lot, while the dwarf has a Liverpool Beatles accent. However it would seem that Cosgrove Hall produced the animation and only then brought in the voice actors to lip-sync their lines. You can tell this because they're too slow. It wrecks the performances, with potentially funny lines being killed by delivery that's never been heard from living lips before or since. However over and above that, you've also got actors who either can't act or can't be bothered to. I cringed at Susan Sto Helit's wooden "Mother, I never knew", while her attempt at the Death voice is actually embarrassing. Oddly enough the actress is Debra Gillett and I thought she was quite good as Rita Connolly in The Idiot's Lantern, so I can only presume that this was recorded during her lunch hour with a script she hadn't seen beforehand. Some of this isn't even good enough to be called Children's TV acting and that's a blight upon civilisation.
Despite all this, I liked the first half. It's faithful to Pratchett's novel and there's some good comedy in here. Everything involving Death is a joy. This is my favourite Christopher Lee role, with a country mile between it and second place. I could listen to him all day. It's also fun to see Susan taking over in his absence and trying to do the duty, with some intriguing conversations as they hang around corpse-strewn battlefields and wait for Valkyries. It's easy to see why Death-based stories have been so popular for adaptation, despite the problem that both this and Hogfather also contain Susan. I don't hate Susan, but I've never cared about her for even a fraction of a millisecond. She's Pratchett's most boring protagonist and much less fun to watch than, say, Weatherwax and co. in Wyrd Sisters.
The Band with Rocks in is also amusing. Their accents make them less annoying than most of the non-actors in the rest of the cast, while every so often they even made me laugh. Pratchett put some good jokes in this one. What's more, the adaptation's one advantage over the original novel is the fact that they can actually do the music instead of just telling us about it. "Original music by" is the second on-screen credit in the opening credits, which should tell you all you need to know. The adaptation has a good deal of fun aping different eras, such as Elvis, the Blues Brothers, 1960s hippie chants and 1970s acid rock. In the later episodes as the plot gets boring, these musical pastiches are often the only good bits in the show. I enjoyed the music here, with even the episodes' opening theme being more distinctive and interesting than anything you'll hear in the Sky adaptations.
It starts with a bang, as Mort and Ysabell going over a cliff to their fiery deaths. I liked that bit. I also liked the way they'd realised Death's realm, which seemed more fun than the live-action Sky version. Check out all the skulls, for instance. The magical music shop is slightly sinister, the musicians made me laugh and it left me looking forward to episode two.
Episode two was fun as well, with Death joining the Klatchian Foreign Legion and the plot moving along nicely. Susan's taking on the duty and making heavy weather of it. Unfortunately episode three introduced the wizards. They drag the whole thing down as soon as they appear, looking like kiddie cartoon characters and being so stupid from the beginning that it means nothing later on when they become stupider. I should also mention the voice of the actor who plays the Dean. Sadly I can't name and shame the actor in question since the credits don't say who played what, but he's squeaking out his lines in a voice like needles in your ears. Compared with him, Japanese anime actresses sound like Darth Vader. I hated every moment of his screen time and I hope his vocal cords snapped like ukelele strings. Admittedly all the wizards are annoying, but the Dean is something else.
However episode three also gives Christopher Lee a speech. Oh yes.
The wizards are the start of the slippery slope. Gradually the plot slides downhill, with any scene at Unseen University being another bit of grease under the wheels. It's unclear why we're supposed to be scared of the Evil Guitar, whose magic powers mostly seem to involve saving our hero Imp y Celyn's life (and that's bad?) and making wizards even more annoying (grrr). Imp y Celyn is apparently doing a bad thing in playing the Music with Rocks in, yet the audience are cheering for it because those are fast becoming the only good scenes in the story. If you ask me, they needed to be a whole lot less faithful to Pratchett. Give us more reason to fear the music. Admittedly the final episode has interesting stuff about the vampiric nature of the music industry and the immortality that's granted to rock musicians who die young, but that's not taking as far as it might have been in the story itself and I think the audience is expected to have read the book or something. Real life may be full of glamorously dead rock stars, but there haven't been any on the Discworld. It just comes across as a half-baked pseudo-explanation followed by some confusing business with Death and time possibly reversing. I'd want to reread the book to be sure I'd got all that straight.
The DVD also includes an eight-minute adaptation of the beginning of Reaper Man, by the way. It's a pilot called Welcome to the Discworld and it's mildly interesting for having a noticeably different art style, not to mention again starring Christopher Lee, but it's more like a trailer than anything else.
This is not a good adaptation. It's a nasty, cheap piece of work in which I don't think either the art or the voice acting are of broadcastable standard, while on top of that even the story ended up boring me. I'm actually shocked at Channel 4 and Cosgrove Hall. There's something wrong with the British TV industry if this and the Tennant-era Doctor Who animated adventures are being thought of as good enough. However that said, it has redeeming features. Christopher Lee is downright iconic as Death. He's always awesome, while additionally there's a fair bit here that makes it up to "good". The story's first half is entertaining. There are some good jokes. It's nice to see all these familiar Pratchett faces, although that's not how I always imagined Dibbler to look. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone except Pratchett fans and the morbidly curious, but I got through with only minor injuries and even managed to enjoy a lot of it.