Ride ‘em Flemish cowboys
There is a concept in robotics, developed by Masahiro Mori in the 1970s, known as the "uncanny valley", which says that the more a robot increases its likeness to a human, the more positive and empathetic the reaction of the onlooker. Until, that is, the likeness becomes almost complete, at which point the reaction suddenly becomes one of fear and revulsion.
Suske and Wiske become Texas Rangers for new movie
The problem of how to overcome the uncanny valley is one that goes beyond robotics: the developers of prosthetic limbs, for example, know that they might be better off making them less realistic. If it approaches the uncanny valley, it risks repelling a potential user or other people.
Filmmakers have also experienced the problem of the uncanny valley. As CGI techniques become more sophisticated, animators push the boundaries of realism - but you can go too far. The biggest surprise in the field came with the release of The Polar Express in 2004.
Directed and produced by Robert Zemeckis, whose previous credits include the pioneering animation/live-action mix Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Polar Express was hailed by the industry and received an Academy Award nomination. But the public felt otherwise, with the animation described as "eerie" and "creepy" and complaining of the characters' "dead eyes". Zemeckis had strayed into the uncanny valley.
But what if the likeness to which the animated character is being compared is not a live human but a two-dimensional comic-strip character, like the Suske en Wiske strips of Willy Vandersteen? The answer is: the problems of the uncanny valley remain, as we can see in the new film adaptation Suske en Wiske en de Texas Rakkers (Suske and Wiske and the Texas Rangers) opening today across Flanders.
"Can" does not mean "should"
Flemish comic artist Willy Vandersteen was a protégé of Tintin creator Hergé and adopted the latter's style of ligne claire (clear lines), which forgoes pictorial realism, and especially shading, in order to present each panel as a picture with infinite depth of field. Every square packed foreground and background with pictorial information.
So Wiske, one of the leads in Vandersteen's strips, has hair consisting of a few lines, eyes as black dots and other features just as rudimentary. Her best friend, Suske, and the other characters are the same, and in this they resemble Tintin and the cast of the Hergé albums.
Vandersteen produced hundreds of strips in this style up until his death in 1990. Suske and Wiske are perennial favourites: Dutch and Flemish children all have a metre or so of the familiar orange covers on their bookshelves, and the French translations Bob et Bobette are almost as popular. The albums are also translated into English as Spike and Suzy.
So it seems odd that the two film adaptations of Suske en Wiske have declined to copy Vandersteen's style, which is so familiar to our eyes.
In 2004, Rudi Van Den Bossche directed Suske en Wiske: De duistere diamant as a live-action film. Now comes a 3-D animation of De Texas rakkers, a comic-strip album set in Texas in which our young heroes help law enforcement officials catch cowboy bad guys. A clarification: the film is not in 3-D, so no need for funny glasses. But the animation is in 3D, so characters have heads that are spherical, not just circular. That's important. Based on the characters we know from the strips, we're expecting something like the Tintin films or The Simpsons. Instead we get an animation more like or Toy StoryThe Incredibles.
The bottom line
On the one hand, that's not a bad thing. The film utilises the very best in cutting-edge rendering techniques; surfaces and textures are uncannily represented, from the rough steel of a steam engine to the wooden beams of a railway track. On the other hand, it's odd to see 2-D figures animated so completely - odd and slightly unsettling. The uncanny valley is not exactly a nightmarish place, but you wouldn't want to live there.
That point aside, the film is a ripping adventure for fans of Suske and Wiske, and that's good news for the producers, who are waiting to see the results of this release before deciding whether to go ahead with more adaptations. Striking animation aside, the film boasts the best voice cast a Flemish director could hope to bring together: prolific actors Peter Van den Begin (Dirty Mind, Buitenspel) and Stany Crets (Los, Buitenspel); Lucas Van den Eynde (who played the title role in the musical Daens); Sien Eggers (Van vlees en bloed), Filip Peeters (Loft), Axel Daeseleire (Flikken) and kids' Ketnet favourite Staf Coppens as Suske. New drama graduate Evelien Verhegge voices Wiske.
Dirk Nielandt, who writes scripts for both children and adult programming and was editor of the former Suske and Wiske Weekly penned the screenplay, together with Guy Mortier, former editor of Humo magazine. The film was directed by producer Mark Mertens and animator Wim Bien, who are both making their directorial debut.
Vandersteen in Brussels
There are two exhibitions currently running dedicated to Willy Vandersteen as part of the BD Comic Festival in Brussels. In the Belgisch Centrum van het Beeldverhaal next to Central Station is a small exhibit looking back over the artist's whole range of work. In the town hall, meanwhile, on the Grote Markt, there's a more extensive show dedicated to his Brussels years, when he came to the capital to work for Hergé.
What the critics say
Oscar and Victor are both 11 years old and fans of the Suske and Wiske comic strips
Flanders Today: What did you think of the film?
Oscar: The film was fine, but the 3-D was a bit strange.
Victor: I thought it was a bit overdone.
FT: Would you say that the story in the movie is a lot like the strip story?
Both: Yes, that was okay
FT: Were the characters the same as you were expecting?
V: Yes. Nearly all of them.
FT: Who wasn't?
O: Suske and Wiske; they were a little different from the strip. But the same story all the same.
FT: Who was most like his strip character?
V: He said exactly the same things as in the strip.
FT: And who was the least like their original character?
V: The bad guy.
O: That's not a main character.
V: It is! He was completely different in the book.
FT: Did you get bored at all?
FT: So the time goes by quickly enough.
V: Not really.
FT: You're not sitting looking at your watch?
Both: No. (Ed note: Neither has a watch)
FT: Would you want to watch it again?
Both: Not really.
FT: Once was enough, then.