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Sparkless 'Spark' struggles to play above its pay grade

POSTED: April 18, 2017 10:51 a.m.
Josh Terry/

Spark (voice of Jace Norman) in “Spark: A Space Tail."

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"SPARK: A SPACE TAIL" — 1½ stars — Voices of Jessica Biel, Susan Sarandon, Hilary Swank, Patrick Stewart; PG (some action and rude humor); in general release

There’s a fine line between homage and a lack of original ideas. Unfortunately "Spark: A Space Tail" falls on the latter side of the equation.

“Spark” is a kind of hodge-podge of science-fiction ideas cobbled around a hero’s journey. The hero, Spark (voiced by Jace Norman), comes from what appears to be a Planet of the Apes called Bana (short for banana?), though the monkey angle is never explained. His planet was torn apart by a black hole conjured up by something called a Space Kracken, which itself was controlled by a megalomaniacal ape named Zhong (A.C. Peterson).

After a brief prologue, we find Zhong ruling what’s left of Bana, pining to find another planet to tear apart. Spark has grown up on one of Bana’s orbiting shards, raised — literally — under a pile of garbage by a fox named Vix (Jessica Biel) and a tusked hog named Chunk (Rob deLeeuw).

There is no explanation why a single fox and a single pig are living amongst a society of space monkeys. Even Spark’s nanny robot Bananny — voiced by Susan Sarandon — sticks to the monkey theme

Unbeknownst to Spark, Vix and Chunk are secret government operatives, still in contact with Bana’s Queen (Hilary Swank), who is living with Zhong as a begrudging partner. When Spark intercepts a message intended for Vix and Chunk, he sets out to confront the ape responsible for destroying his home.

The resulting story becomes a journey of discovery for Spark, who discovers his special lineage, its associated superpowers, and the truth about what happened to his family after Bana’s half-destruction. He sets out to find the Space Kracken, hoping to use it against Zhong, but winds up getting sucked into a black hole himself, which eventually leads to him meeting a spirit ghost version of his father.

There’s some potential here and there, but too often “Spark” feels like a movie dreamed up by hardcore Star Wars fans, from the laser staff to the spirit ghost to the speeder bikes that look a lot like Rey’s scavenger rig in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The content that doesn’t feel borrowed has a few nice ideas — the Space Kracken is kind of fun, as are the black hole “slicks” it leaves in its wake — but too often, director Aaron Woodley’s story feels routine and forgettable.

Combined with some underdeveloped animation, “Spark” comes off like a second-tier feature playing way out of its league. This is the kind of movie that is perfect to call up on Netflix to keep the kids busy for an hour while Mom and Dad are getting dinner ready, but nowhere near the kind of experience worth buying tickets for the whole family.

Yet in spite of its low-budget feel, “Spark” carries the distinct burden of a substantial Hollywood voice cast, making its amateur quality all the more glaring by comparison. Patrick Stewart gives one of the few notable performances, as one of Bana’s former military captains who has a knack for getting electrocuted. But Sarandon and Swank and company don’t bring much to their roles. Peterson plays Zhong as a mugging buffoon who is threatening more because you’re afraid of his incompetence than his cunning.

“Spark” isn’t a poor movie so much as it is just out of place. For the sake of their budgets, parents should let this one pass quietly in the night.

"Spark: A Space Tail" is rated PG for some action and rude humor; running time: 90 minutes.
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