The most striking thing about the Danish movie Strings is not the fact that it is a full-length feature made entirely with puppets – the recent Team America World Police and even the Thunderbirds movies Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird Six from 1966 have already been there. It’s certainly not notable either for its plot, which although it avoids the use of magic elements and mythological creatures, nevertheless relies on the fantasy genre’s simplistic Manichaean divisions of good and evil. What is exceptional about Strings as a puppet movie is its embracing of the actual puppet strings into the story itself and the inventive way it deals with the challenges these techniques give rise to.
Devastated over his failure to achieve peace in the ancient war between Hebalon and the Zeriths, the King of Hebalon, Kahro, ends his own life by cutting his head string, leaving a note and his throne to his son Hal. The message is however found by the Kahro’s wicked brother Nezo and his deformed henchman Ghrak, who destroy the note to make the King’s death seem like the work of the Zeriths. The young and inexperienced Hal is therefore forced to leave Hebalon to avenge his father’s death by fighting Zharo, the leader of the Zeriths, leaving Nezo in his place to rule. Out among the people however, he arrives at the Lake of A Thousand Dead Warriors where he meets a mysterious woman called Zita, who helps him see the world as it really is and guides him along to achieving his destiny.
If the storyline sounds a little portentous, it’s meant to be. Strings relies on many of the traditional standards of fantasy epics, with ancient prophesies and mysteries that are so well covered elsewhere that their outcome will not surprise anyone. What is interesting about Strings however is the concept and the techniques, which incorporates the use of puppet strings into the story as the life force and connection that binds all peoples together. The opening title sequence shows the strings of everyone in the world reaching up to the heavens, presumably to the great puppetmaster in the sky. This allows for some imaginative sequences and ideas to be developed, such as the “birth” of a carved wooden child, the strings reaching down to give life to the inanimate object or the replacing of a hand whose string has been cut. In theory, by making explicit reference to the strings - unlike say Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds - the viewer should soon come to accept the use of puppets on strings in this worldview. In actuality, it raises as many problems as it solves. At least pretending they don’t exist, as in Gerry Anderson’s shows, allows for a suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer and gives the characters the freedom to do simple things like being able to walk under arches or through doors into rooms. This is impossible for the characters in Strings if you accept that they are all permanently connected to the heavens.
There are other issues with the strings concept that have to be overcome, such as their obvious tendency to get entangled and the rather more serious consequences of their vulnerability to the slightest damage or attack. What can’t be explained away and must simply be accepted by the viewer is the whole use of puppets itself, since there is no attempt to make the figures look realistic, showing them as exaggeratedly wooden objects, with blocky, stiff joints. Most difficult of all is that there are no mouth movements or changes of expression, the figures looking facially impassive throughout and the voice acting, although featuring some good performances (with the exception of James McAvoy who is singularly unable to ‘inhabit’ his character), is inadequate to make up for lack of facial expression. Surprisingly, after an initial adjustment period, these restriction are overcome simply through the fascination of the puppetry itself and seeing how inventively the puppetry techniques handle such sequences as underwater scenes (amazing), battle sequences (not so effective) and love scenes (surprisingly well done).
Fremantle/inD’s UK release of Strings is free of region coding and in PAL format.
Strings was shot on 16mm, so although there is quite a bit of grain in the image, that is entirely how it should look. The transfer, on a dual-layer disc, copes reasonably well with this, occasionally looking very good if a little hazy on occasions. There is little evidence of any digital artefacts in the transfer to DVD. The main problem with the transfer, and the principal reason for the low rating, is that the film, while transferred anamorphically at 1.78:1, has been pan and scanned from its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. There is evidence of this in the opening sequence, which has been squeezed with the figures appearing elongated, so that the titles are not cut off. After the opening titles, it then settles for panning and scanning the image. This completely messes up the compositions that so much design and care has gone into preparing, the image often looking extremely cramped, particularly in close-ups and action sequences. Just to let you know how much has been cut in this hacking up of the film, all the clips used in the Making Of show the film in its correct ratio. An example of how the film looks in the main feature, followed by how it ought to look, is shown below.
This aspect ratio problem also appears to exist with the US Region 1 edition from Wellspring, but appears to have gone unnoticed by reviewers of that disc.
The DVD presents the soundtrack in a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0, both in English. Although there is a Danish language version of the film it is not on this DVD and the English voice-track appears to be the first choice language. The audio is generally clear enough and works well in the surround mix.
There are no English Hard of Hearing subtitles on the disc, which is a customary failing of Fremantle’s releases.
There is a good selection of extra features included, the most substantial and informative of which is the hour-long ‘Making of’ feature The World of Strings (58:59). This feature is mainly in Danish, though fully subtitled, even for the sequences where the English puppeteers talk about their experiences of working on the film. The feature gives a very good indication of the lengthy period of preparation in the four years of the film’s production, from the designing, storyboarding, modelling of the puppets and set through to the recruiting and training of puppeteers, rehearsing and shooting challenging scenes in the film. For a film like this, which is so unique in conception and actualisation, this is a valuable and fascinating extra feature. It’s presented in 16:9 anamorphic and the clips shown from the film are in the correct 2.35:1 ratio, unlike the transfer of the feature itself. In addition to this is a Trailer (2:46), which looks stunning, giving a good idea of the film’s concept and its visual splendour. The Director’s Statement is a text description of how the idea for the film came about. A Photo Gallery shows 16 colour still photographs.
There are a few problems with some of the crucial aspects of Strings as a film - the concept is interesting but doesn’t bear-up to any serious examination, the English voice-acting seems detached from the characters, the plot is a dull and fairly simplistic battle between good and evil, relying on standard devices and characters that have no humanity in them whatsoever. What is fascinating however is watching some imaginative use of puppets, figuring out how the concept ties together, and watching a striking and unique way of animating the characters through fabulous settings – the originality of which goes a long way to helping suspension of disbelief. Fremantle’s DVD release of the film however is simply unacceptable, pointlessly and rather stupidly panning and scanning a beautifully composed 2.35:1 film down to 1.78:1, and rendering this otherwise fine DVD with good extra features, almost worthless.