I once stayed at a place in the Smoky Mountains that was a combo motel and biker bar. The toilet in my dingy room was a hole cut in the floor of the bathroom, covered with screen door mesh and with a stucco bucket sitting on the ground beneath it. Solar Adventure is another Korean cartoon spawned by the same batch of animation commissioned by some Australian company and produced by Hong Kong cheapskate crap film mogul Joseph Lai. It certainly isn’t a motel room with a hole cut in the floor leading to a stucco bucket I was meant to use as a toilet, but it is perhaps somewhat similar to what you might expect to find as the contents of such a stucco bucket. But if Solar Adventure is largely a bucket full of piss, crap, used condoms, and cigarette butts, then it’s lucky that I have a very high tolerance for such things so long as they are not being rubbed into my hair. And while Space Thunder Kids may set the bar for incompetent glory so fabulously high that it becomes nigh unattainable, Solar Adventure is no slouch in the incompetence field.
As discussed in the Space Thunder Kids review, Lai was the impresario behind a string of movies created by splicing a couple of other movies together more or less at random, inserting some footage of white guys pretending to be ninjas, and then calling it a new film. Along with Thomas Tang and Godfrey Ho, Lai created dozens of films out of a mere few, and not a single one of them made a lick of sense. When some Australian company requested a fistful of cheap cartoon filler for, I assume, some late-night or early-morning hole in the broadcast programming schedule, they tapped Lai who, in turn, hired a bunch of overworked Korean animators to crank out a couple film’s worth of animation. Lai then proceeded to cut and recut that footage into a half-dozen or more separate movies running about an hour in length, save for the epic Space Thunder Kids, which clocks in around 90 minutes and was assembled Frankenstein style out of pieces from all the other films (which in turn recycled footage from each other).
A few years ago, these cartoon features started showing up on budget DVDs at Wal-Mart, and daring anime fans mistook them for old Japanese cartoons — which was an honest enough mistake since the Korean animators ripped off a whole host of established icon characters of the Japanese anime industry, including giant robots like Mazinger, Raideen, The Transformers, Robotech, and Gundam, as well as space opera fixtures like Captain Harlock and Yamato. Even more confounding, Space Thunder Kids also prominently features characters and animated sets copying the scifi-fantasy Disney film TRON.
Solar Adventure — in which nothing happens that would have anything to do with a solar adventure, other than to say that many of the events depicted in the cartoon do indeed occur in the sunlight — managed to remain unique in its own right among the quilt-work series of films of which it is a part. This is because it is the only one where Joseph Lai goes completely bonkers and splices together the usual assortment of animated bits (fans of Space Thunder Kids‘ fat general with the goiter on his neck — in no way meant to be father of North Korea Kim Il-sung — will be overjoyed by his major role in Solar Adventure) but also splices in footage from a live-action, low-budget Korean action film he shot for just such an occasion. It’s like he got confused at some point at spliced in footage meant for one of his ninja movies.
Sadly, the live-action sequences in Solar Adventure feature no ninjas, but they do feature some ugly, irritating kids and, at some point, a couple of guys with machine guns. Before any of that, though, we get to enjoy a credit sequence illustrated by lots of surprisingly competent space illustrations like you’d see from visions of the future a la the 1960s. Although none of the locations depicted in these illustrations will ever be employed in the actual story of Solar Adventure, they are still quite nice and prove that at least someone involved with this project had some genuine artistic talent. They just didn’t see fit to employ it in the service of Joseph Lai’s fly-by-night production company.
The fun proper begins in a Korean classroom, where bored kids are learning about those evil, devious commies to the North. Although the teacher does her best to impress upon the children the gravity of this commie Sword of Damocles hanging over their respectable, hard-working country, the kids seem more interested in farting around. Actually, so does the teacher, because as soon as one of the brats stands up and says, “Teacher, this is boring. Can we have a nature trip instead?” she immediately agrees and suddenly her a few kids from the class are hiking through the world’s ugliest, weed-strewn field en route to a scummy, brackish lake where they will all be camping and sleeping piled on top of one another in a single tent. Truth be told, the grubbiness of the landscape could be the fault of the crummy film stock and lightning.
If these end up being the heroes of the film, then we’re in pretty sorry shape for saviors here on planet Earth. I really wish Asia would stop entrusting the fate of our planet and the competent operation of the world’s giant robots to kids like these. Surely there must be some grizzled veteran out there who would be better suited for such tasks, leaving the children free to spend their time instructing the military on the proper handling of various Gamera-related monsters. I mean, I may have really disliked Godzilla: Final Wars, but at least they had the good sense to let their super weapon be piloted by a big, grumpy dude decked out in Joseph Stalin’s old hand-me-downs.
When the group learns that there might be Communist agents prowling about the lake, they seem mildly distressed, but not so distressed that they cancel their camping trip just because a lot of guys with machine guns are wandering around. And so, after some “hilarious” hijinks involving a skinny nerdy kid and a fat nerdy kids (all these kids are pretty nerdy) they all pile in for a well-earned night’s sleep, during which they’ll have plenty of time to ponder the benefits of bringing more than one tent with them next time they all go camping in the field next to the ugly lake.
Or, they’d have time to contemplate that if it wasn’t for the fact that a space helicopter crashes in the lake. When they hear the ruckus, the kids and their teacher emerge, and suddenly, they are all cartoons! They have a vague but fair resemblance to the live-action actors, except that the teacher is a totally different person, and one of the fat kids is now a hulking, muscular he-man. The space helicopter — and that’s what it is, a helicopter that flies through space — contains two green-skinned humanoid aliens who explain that they have come to the earth to help fight against the evil President, who even now consorts with the North Koreans to take over the planet. And for some reason, they decide to enlist the aid of this completely random bunch of dopes to help them out.
And then we cut to the President and the evil North Koreans, and hey! What do ya know! It’s that green dude with the big forehead and fat ol’ Kim Il-sung, last seen loitering around during the Dark Emperor’s attack on earth in Space Thunder Kids. In that movie, these boobs didn’t do anything but sit around and talk about maybe launching an attack. Then Kim Il-sung shot the green dude and drove his tanks into a tunnel, never to be seen again. This time, they stand around in the same room, using the same animation (to order things properly, the animation is probably original to this feature and later cannibalized for Space Thunder Kids), only with a lot more scenes of the two of them drinking martinis, which is pretty cool. If a green alien came down and said he was going to conquer Earth in between martinis, I’d roll with it.
As if going to be the case in pretty much every one of these Joseph Lai produced cartoon abominations, the only thing standing in between The President and conquest of the universe are a couple of the Earth’s giant robots. At first, The President thinks he can just steal the robots and use them for his own nefarious schemes, but it turns out you need some secret emotional soul key bullshit to make them go. So The President just decides to melt them down and do something else with the metal, like make more tanks or some more martini shakers something. The kids from the camping trip somehow get recruited to pilot the robots, because once again there’s nothing you want more as your last line of defense than giant robots piloted by ten-year-olds who spend most of their time slapping each other in the head.
I suppose, really, the kids are about an even match for The President and the Kim Il-sung. When last we saw these two, they never really got around to accomplishing much, and this time around, it looks like more of the same. Their whole plan for conquering the Earth seems to hinge on running around in the woods around that lake, then attacking the people who own a couple of giant robots. I’m no military genius sipping martinis with my green-skinned alien accomplice, but I say launch an attack on a city somewhere, then let the robots come to you. It’s gotta beat a systematic attempt to conquer the world based on the conquest of South Korea’s least attractive state parks and camping grounds.
As you would expect ten-years-old to do, they leap into battle and immediately get their asses kicked, so Solar Adventure is nothing if not realistic. Luckily, one of the kids manages to escape by hiding in a barrel that magically changes dimensions depending on what angle from which it’s being drawn. He gets over to one of the robots and begins the movie’s stand-out sequence, in which a gigantic metal robot sneaks silently through the North Korean military base, stopping from time to time to squash soldiers in amusing fashions. He manages to free the other children. Then some serious robot fight action breaks out, and we discover that the good guy robots can combine into a super weapon. What is the super weapon? An even bigger robot? A giant spaceship? A huge cannon? No. You’re not thinking inside the box. The heroic robots combine to form a…camera.
Of course, the camera shoots a laser beam out of its lens. If you have some sort of logical problem with giant robots piloted by children, and the robots combine to form a camera, and then the one remaining robot has to press down on the shutter button — which is the head of one of the other robots — and that causes the camera to shoot a laser beam out of the lens (and, presumably take a photo), then maybe you just aren’t open-minded enough for the non-conformist, convention-challenging avant-garde art of Solar Adventure.
Once the big robot ass kicking is delivered, the movie suddenly cuts back to the live action footage, as the kids wake up and clamber out of their tent. It was all a dream! Or was it? Whatever the case, the movie loses interest and so cuts to some footage of some dudes in camo shooting some other dudes, and then all the kids skip behind their teacher as they hike along a hilltop in the one thing that really makes this film special: a direct rip-off of the final shot of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Now that, my friends, is Joseph Lai at his finest.
This one isn’t nearly as wacky as Space Thunder Kids, but it’s pretty good once it gets rolling. The live-action shenanigans go on for way too long, but once the aliens show up and robots start squishing North Koreans, things pick up. The green guy President drinks a lot of martinis in this one. In fact, in almost every scene, he’s drinking a martini. And then he gets shot by Kim Il-sung, who betrays our hapless alien lush again as the movie recycles that same footage we saw in Space Thunder Kids. At least this time we actually see Kim’s tanks get destroyed.
With a running time of right about 60 minutes, there’s no real time to get overly bored once the animation kicks in, though I can see the live-action intro losing a lot of people right off the bat. But if you soldier through that, you get to watch robots squash people then turn into a camera that shoots a death ray for no good reason. I mean, each of the three robots was already armed with assorted lasers and death rays, so changing into a camera death ray that has to be operated by the final robots means you’re reducing your total number of death rays form three or four to one. This is sort of like how Megatron in The Transformers was a giant robot with a huge fucking cannon on his shoulder, but he’d always transform and turn into a little gun that then had to be fired by another Transformer.
All in all, this is a more coherent movie, with more consistent animation. We don’t switch crews or robots from one frame to the next, and while the dudes still don’t draw humans very well (what is the deal with the teacher? I’m not even fazed by Kim Il-sung’s weird elongated, pot-bellied, hunchbacked, goitered appearance at this point — after all, that’s what evil communists look like anyway), we still get lots of giant robot fighting action, a chase scene between two space helicopters (not exactly thrilling), and that green dude sipping martini after martini. The only real continuity error is that his martini changes colors pretty frequently, but I just assumed that’s because he was finishing so many and pouring himself another one, probably because he was having a hard time looking at the horribly malformed North Korean despot. Why didn’t this guy pick a better earthly agent?
The robot designs this time around shirk ripping off the famous Japanese giant robots and instead focus primarily on the Transformers. Speaking of transforming, the main robot, while he doesn’t change from one robot to another from shot to shot as we got from so many of the robots in Space Thunder Kids, still manages to exist as a fine example of the total lack of interest on the part of the filmmakers in anything relating to continuity. One second, he’s got a little yellow “W” on his chest, and the next shot, there’s a big white “W” on his chest, and then later on, there won’t be any letter at all, and he’ll have wings on his calves, or maybe not.
These are pretty minor things though, considering what we saw and will continue to see from other films in this outstanding series. The robots themselves look like some weird blend of Transformers, Go-Bots, and probably something out of some other cartoon I’ve never seen. I do know that the heroic robots are basically Reflector, the evil Decepticon camera from The Transformers. Funny thing is that although this time he’s a good guy, the camera gets to kill a whole lot more people than the evil original version. I’m sure other people better versed in assorted robot designs will spot other stolen designs.
Solar Adventure is fun. It’s not Space Thunder Kids fun, but few things in this world are. As with pretty much everything in this series, it’s well worth the dollar, even if for no other reason than that “sneaky robot crushes people” scene and all the shots of the evil guys sipping martinis. What crazy animated adventure will Joseph Lai have up his sleeve next? We can’t say for sure, but you can bet that, between Space Thunder Kids and Solar Adventure, you’ve probably already seen most of it.