Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Man in the Iron Mask (Burbank Studios Australia, 1985)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked last night was The Man in the Iron Mask, a quirky 1985 production from Australia — the production company was actually named Burbank Studios and they did a whole run of animated 54-minute TV versions of classic tales, obviously aimed at kids (there was a cute fox, dog and horse in an early scene) but with some of the terror and pathos of the original Alexandre Dumas père story intact. The plot is familiar: Louis XIII’s queen gives birth to twin sons, Louis and Philippe, and in order to forestall a civil war when both boys come of age, Louis is made the crown prince and inherits the throne, while Philippe is farmed out to a foster family of humble status — and for some reason they made his foster father, who’s also his home-school teacher, look like Benjamin Franklin. At age 15 Philippe finally meets the mysterious visitor who comes to the tiny village where he lives from Paris and reads a letter from the Queen that reveals she’s really her son and second in line for the throne of France. Some of the surviving Musketeers (this was actually the third in Dumas’ series, so the J. R. R. Tolkien/Janice Rowling tactic of writing a long string of books telling a continuous story and releasing them according to popular demand is nothing new!) contact Philippe and offer to help him lead a revolution to overthrow Louis, whose taxes, wars and general oppressions are destroying France, and install Philippe on the throne but, since the two look alike, with no one the wiser.

For a 1985 animated TV show this is pretty well done — the style is very “limited-animation” and barely credible people cavort over well-executed, colorful backgrounds, but there’s some creativity and at least one sequence, a dazzling abstract scene representing the court entertainment glorifying Louis XIV, that’s quite the best thing in the movie and was done by a different animation director (Antoniette Starkiewicz) than the rest of the film. It’s also rather remarkable in that the finale leaves Philippe, imprisoned in the titular iron mask, in an island prison and does not include the obligatory happy ending from other versions of the tale. Though not particularly creatively designed or staged (save for the court “dream” sequence), this Man in the Iron Mask is at least generally well acted — Colin Friels has the dual role of Louis and Philippe and the others are also good — and one hopes it served the same purpose the Mr. Magoo Theatre shows in my childhood in the 1960’s served of introducing me to classic stories I would eventually read, or at least watch more sophisticated movies of, and like better!