Children’s media—in a way that films and T.V. for adults can’t, by design, parallel—rests so strongly on the shoulders of behemoths. Making a revered film is good, but siphoning its charms into successful franchises, films and T.V. shows and related media that sell their own tickets merely by name recognition, is the measure of true success for kids’ entertainment. From Mickey Mouse to Toy Story to John Green, it is not singular success that vaunts such names into adolescent zeitgeist but the proven ability to use one hit to motivate the next.
These success stories have laid road maps for the films to follow, the resultant precedent giving way to the likes of Sahara, a new film cast with unfamiliar characters and attached to relatively obscure names (like director Pierre Coré), films that see the successes laid before them and race toward the same status.
Everything about Sahara is fast, but not excitingly so. Its quickness is more entwined with rushing, a sensation of pushing the pedal to the floor in order to make it to the finish line and collect the prize money as fast as humanly possible.
The plot neatly follows the expected pivots and crises. Ajar and Eva, a purple and green snake, respectively, hail from opposite sides of a cultural divide—he from the desert and she from the oasis. Both long to experience life beyond their borders, meet improbably, and begin to fall in love, despite their cultural differences. Eva is abruptly kidnapped into a band of cultish snake ballerinas (held captive by a nefarious snake charmer) and thus begins Ajar’s trek across the desert to rescue her. Along the way, his journey hits all of its expected roadblocks, like a near-imprisonment by evil bugs wishing to eat Ajar and his friends, an inevitable separation from each other, and a fast-talking lizard who coyly misleads them.
Truthfully, formula is not often as bad as some might make it out to be. The overwhelming majority of films you will watch in your life—even the best ones—will follow some preordained plot structure. The bigger problem in Sahara is that the film is mostly unconcerned with establishing a world and rather plays to the assumption that its mere happening on the screen before them will be a good enough reason for a young viewer to watch. Ajar and Eva hail from undefined worlds, him from a vague portrait of sunbaked poverty and her from a woefully basic, stereotypical depiction of an affluent family. They share barely a few minutes onscreen before the latter is whisked away, the former sets out on his journey, and the film asks us to care enough to sit still for the next eighty minutes. It is reasonably easy to spot the characters’ goals and identify their obstacles, but, because of the minimum of establishing action, it is pretty much impossible to empathize with them.
Consequently, the film is a confounding fistful of fast ideas. It attempts to be a coming of age story, romantic quest, and odd-couple adventure all at once; it also manages to stuff in some ham-handed satire of xenophobia and suburbia. The latter of these are not at all misplaced in a film targeted toward children; Zootopia and Inside Out are among only the most recent of mainstream children’s films that skillfully tackle big issues. But with a story rolled into a package so lazily and hastily, it’s hard, such as with anything else in Sahara, to care about the issues. Their greater context seems to be little more than buzzword cloying.
It’s quite the shame, then, that Sahara is so pretty. The animation is the film’s one great virtue, and many sequences are genuinely enthralling. There is a distinct and powerful visual vocabulary: blindingly yellow and beige sand provides a gorgeous canvas on which the green-purple dynamic of the snakes really pops. There is also an energized playfulness in some visual sequences, like the opening moments of a lung-ruining dust-storm and an escape, by Eva, from the snake charmer’s basket and through the stomping hooves of his camels.
Yet, this spontaneity can also prove to be a pitfall for the film, as, without a strong story to stand upon, sometimes the visual style gets away from itself. There is a sequence around the midpoint, in which Eva is charmed by the snake flute for the first time and begins a hypervisual fantasy that reminds one of the way other films might portray drug trips. Nothing inherent is bad here, but as the viewer absorbs it, it’s nearly impossible to do anything but think, “okay, but so what?”
It’s difficult to care about a film that doesn’t offer the viewer context, at least when it comes to a film so traditionally structured as Sahara. This is not an avant garde subversion of Hollywood plotting. It is a comedy that isn’t funny and an adventure that has no stakes, rolled into a very, very pretty package. It is a film so preoccupied with hitting all the kids’ movie checkpoints that, by the time its race toward success is complete, one is less happy to witness victory than they are that the race is over and, at last, they can go do something else.