Monday, July 2, 2012

Review: 'Sita Sings the Blues' by Nina Paley

You might have heard about Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues before.  Maybe it's because of the various copyright and licensing troubles Paley went through during the creation and distribution of the animated film, resulting in a number of legal and financial hurdles.  It's spotlighted Paley as an influential voice in the debate of copyright reform.  But maybe you know of Sita for much more positive reasons - its topnotch production and design.  Its incredible creativity.  Its near-universal acclaim (check IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, or Metacritic for proof).  When you see it for yourself, it's easy to see why this is the case.

In simplest terms, Sita Sings the Blues is the story of the Ramayana.  It's not a simple retelling, though.  There are four recurring sections to the film, each with its own distinct style.  One tells the actual story of the Ramayana and is done in traditional painting style; another is a roundtable-style discussion between three Indian commentators.  It's rather hilarious to see them, as shadow puppet characters, explain the story, all the while interrupting, correcting, and laughing with each other.  It's also incredibly helpful for viewers unfamiliar with the story so they don't get lost.

The third section is an animated musical, the titular "Sings" segment (as well as the segment that caused the most legal headaches for Paley).  The story is synched with Annette Hanshaw jazz numbers; the songs match up surprisingly well and it's an inspired pairing between Hindu storytelling and Western-world jazz music.  Finally, we get a modern love story gone awry that mirrors the events of the mythical tale.

The different sections flow together well; when we jump between them it's never jarring, unexpected, or unwelcoming.  Each section has a wildly distinct animation style.  The drawings, for the most part, are light-hearted, juxtaposed against fairly violent and heart-breaking scenes.  It's wildly creative and rivals the best of major picture animation; considering Paley did nearly all of the animation herself, it's even more impressive.

It's always great when a project this unique is made.  Not only is it supremely creative, but it shows the benefit of building upon the works of previous creators and artists to make something you might have never expected.  There are a lot of reasons you might have heard of Sita Sings the Blues; the only thing that matters is that you actually watch it.

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