How Bad Can It Be?: “Delgo”

Written by DVD Reviews, Film, How Bad Can It Be?

It’s one of the biggest film flops of all time. But Jack Feerick wanted to know — really, how bad can it be?

People love a contrast in proportions. That’s why so many great comedy teams consist of a fat guy and a skinny guy. And that’s why some entertainment stories have legs and some don’t. When a big-budget summer tentpole picture makes fistfuls of money, it’s of interest primarily only to the investors — it’s not a story of cultural importance. Same thing when a modest little indie movie underperforms at the box office; that’s business as usual. When your no-name indie quirkfest rakes in mad cash, though, it’s a heartwarming underdog story. And that’s nice. But when your super-ambitious would-be blockbuster goes down the hopper, maybe taking the studio with it — now that’s a story that people want to hear. Waterworld, Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar — these are films that have become legends, cited as cautionary tales by people who often haven’t seen a single frame of them.

Now, I have seen Delgo, to my sorrow — a movie which seems destined for a place in the same malefic pantheon — and while I have neither interest nor the expertise to discuss the financial implications of the movie, I do have to say: It’s ambitious, all right. Hugely so. You can see where all the money went. And you can also see exactly why it tanked. Delgo is a movie brimming with ideas, every one of them utterly boneheaded. It is that rare film whose aesthetic failure is nigh-absolute. There’s a horrified fascination to the spectacle, as you think of the smart, highly-skilled, well-intentioned people who made it, certain that they were leaving their mark on film history, that they were trailblazers, pioneers — and that the end result could be so fundamentally Wrong, in so many ways. All that hard work and talent, expended to create something so butt-ugly and unlikeable and morally dubious; forty million dollars to create a bold, exciting, immersive new world that looks like nothing so much as a series of screen caps from Fate. The sheer scale of the self-delusion is breathtaking.

The character designs above tell part of the story, here. There are four major races at play, but two exist only as undifferentiated hordes, like the Orcs in Lord of the Rings. The action, set in the mythical land of Jhamora, is driven by the invading Nohrin — there they are on the left, the ones with the dragonfly wings, bad chin beards and Judge Dredd-style body armor — and the aboriginal Lockni, the scaly types in the clay-dyed T-shirts and skinny jeans. It’s metalheads vs. hippies, in other words, and it ain’t subtle; the Lockni are “close to the earth,” and have an indigenous magic that lets them control the very stones. Hell, their leader is even named “Elder Marley,” which I’m sure the six ( ! ) credited screenwriters thought was very clever (SPOILER! It isn’t).

The Nohrin have relocated to Jhamora, the prologue informs us, because they’ve basically ruined their own homeland. “The land grew barren, depleted of essential resources,” the narrator (Sally Kellerman) tells us, and I stopped trusting the movie right there, two minutes in. Oh, the land just grew barren, did it? All by itself, now? Because that’s what land does, it just all of a sudden grows barren all of its own accord? Surely it’s not because somebody’s been engaged in generations of unsustainable land-management practices, or short-sighted development, or environmental despoilment, no; those essential resources, they just depleted themselves, and the land, it just… well, it just grew barren, is all. Well, now. That’s awfully convenient, isn’t it?

Self-serving propaganda aside, the Nohrin King Zahn (voiced, tragically, not by Steve Zahn but by Lou Gossett Jr.) “sent scouts to find a new homeland for his people.” The Lockni — sorry, “the humble Lockni [who] lived in peace” — roll out the welcome wagon, though I’m not sure why they’re so eager to buddy up with a mob who never learned what every animal knows, namely “Don’t shit where you eat.” Still, the Lockni try to be good neighbors, and the Nohrin swoop into Jhamora, bringing with them slash-and-burn agriculture, open-pit mining, and smallpox-infected blankets for all!

Well, no. But the Nohrin king does appoint his wicked sister Sedessa (voiced by the late Anne Bancroft and rendered as a mall-goth Bride of Frankenstein) as territorial governor, whereupon she promptly initiates her own Lockni Final Solution. The King — who, we are meant to understand, is a kindly, decent fellow — is naturally horrified, and orders Sedessa arrested, has her wings cut off, and exiles her. He is not, however, so busted up as to cancel the whole taking-over-Jhamora initiative; indeed, he carries through the relocation, institutes discriminatory segregation laws, and uses the Nohrin military to keep the peace.

Years pass, and Sedessa (and did you notice that “Sedessa” sounds a little like “sedition”? Is that a perfect name for a traitress, or what? Oh, Delgo, you so crazy), from her exile, plots revenge. Malcolm McDowell plays her catspaw in the Nohrin military, Colonel Raius (as in, “This fat paycheck will raius the bank balance of me, Malcolm McDowell, quite nicely”). The plot is eventually discovered by Val Kilmer, voicing the tough-talking, morally-conflicted Nohrin General Bogardus (a.k.a. “YouFuckingWishus”). To defeat Sadistica, DontBogartThatJointicus must join forces with the young Lockni hellraiser Delgo (Freddie Prinze Jr.) — hey, whaddya know, he is in this movie: I thought for a minute it was one of those nonsense titles, like Gerry — and his grating sidekick Filo, voiced, tragically, not by an actual sheet of delicious pastry dough but by the reliably-irritating Chris Kattan. Delgo, meanwhile, has fallen tepidly in love with a Nohrin princess voiced by Jennifer Love Hewitt.

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Looking at the star power on display in that cast, I know what you’re thinking: What, Shelley Hack wasn’t available? They couldn’t get Adrian Zmed? Celebrity voice casting has been a part of animated features since the beginning, of course — the voice of Jiminy Cricket, Cliff Edwards, was a huge radio and recording star — but post-Robin Williams-in-Aladdin, things have achieved a singularity. It must be frustrating, being a voice actor in Hollywood. Not only do they get paid less than their visible counterparts; nowadays they’re losing work to slumming face-actors. The studios seem to have gotten it in their heads that every cartoon requires an all-star cast — even when the budget doesn’t allow for actual stars, thus defeating the entire purpose of hiring name actors in the first place. Casting a Tom Hanks or a Mel Gibson in an animated film puts bums in seats; casting a pleasant nonentity like Prinze or Jennifer Love Hewitt, not so much. Instead of hiring Chris Kattan and Eric Idle and then giving them nothing funny to work with, why not get, say, Tom Kenny or Charlie Adler for a fraction of the price, and at least be guaranteed a professional performance?

Anyhoo. The plot is uncovered, and Hippies and Metalheads learn to settle their differences to kick the asses of the Orc invaders, and they live happily ever after together in Jhamora. Seriously. That’s how it ends. Obviously, as apartheid parables go, Delgo is no District 9. Any questions about the inherent morality of the colonialist project are simply ignored. Colonialism itself is entirely blameless; the system is not at fault, only the actions of a convenient Few Bad Apples.

Delgo is aiming for uplift, of course, trying to send a message that groups can bridge their differences and work together for a common cause. But the noble Bogardus and the spunky Princess, even the righteous King, are inescapably oppressors — no less so than the murderous Sedessa. Oh, they’re not butchering Lockni personally, but that only adds hypocrisy to their sins; they get to reap all the benefits of privilege, while keeping their hands clean and their moral ground high. It’s maddening the way the film so thoroughly exonerates them, even eliding any hint that the Nohrin played any role in the environmental devastation of their homeland.

Delgo is a movie for white guys who will tell you, after three or four beers, that misplaced black anger is the real reason for the poor state of race relations in America. Why do they always have to bring up slavery? they will whine. It was a long time ago. None of us were even alive then. Besides, my grandparents came over after the Civil War. My family never even owned slaves. Why are they trying to make me feel bad for something that wasn’t my fault?

In the inevitable self-fellating DVD extras, the makers of Delgo harp on about the unique look of the film. And it is, indeed, unattractive in an utterly singular way. In that, Delgo is a movie of great depths. Beauty may be only skin deep, but ugliness goes right to the bone.

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