There is a very interesting history to Toy Story, the first 3D animated motion picture created by Pixar, in conjunction with Walt Disney. Eisner greenlighted the project primarily on the strength of one man - John Lasseter, the creative animation genius behind Pixar's genre-defining films. As it turned out, almost 10 months after the film was commissioned, John and his team had no more than one 30 second scene ready - purely for demonstration. The better part of their time and effort had gone in writing a complete script. These were then presented to Jerry Katzenberg, the Disney executive charged with seeing the film through it's release. Katzenberg was highly impressed with the visual appeal of the film; but that was the only good news. Jerry asked John to redo the script, reshape the characters, and delve deeper into the kind of buddy relationship that Woody and Buzz Ligthyear had in the film, using that as a focal point to create a character graph for both where there was a conflict with who they were before they became friends to what they become, and which is more apparent as the film progresses. Without this, there would be no movie to produce.
A Disney business executive planning a never-before heard $100 mn marketing blitz to promote an animation film, holding off production (and actually shutting shop on Toy Story) because he wasn't happy with the script and the character sketch of its main protagonists? That seems unlikely when we imagine this same situation in a Bollywood setup, and is the basis for the the greatest shortcoming of Roadside Romeo. Undeniably, it is India's best-looking animation film, and by many a mile. Given that it is a Disney collaboration, one wouldn't expect anything less. Looking at the backgrounds of animation films is usually indicative of the quality of the product, and this is a rule that has worked more often that not. Roadside Romeo excels here, given the level of detailing (even if they did repeat those Dhoom and other YRF film posters a tad too much) that is visible in every frame of the film. All credit to the animation team for achieving this. But comparisons with other animation films end here. For John Lasseter went back to the drawing board, took the advice, and made a film that is a cornerstone in film history for it's significance in reshaping an entire genre of films. The film didn't just look incredible, it had characters that we could empathize with, it had moments of real drama, and cinematic qualities that you would expect from a great feature film. But Jugal Hansraj and therefore Roadside Romeo are not quite of the same caliber.
The script is a huge, huge letdown. The plot is asinine, to say the least. This is disappointing, because usually a simple, solid, obvious plot is all that is needed of animation films. It is the characters (often non-human) and their interactions that find an immediate connect with the audience because of the simplistic nature of how emotions are portrayed on screen. On top of a really flimsy premise rests an insipid screenplay, and terribly unoriginal dialogue. The screenplay is one aspect where animation films can really score, because there is tremendous liberty to work the scene and depict exaggerated events in a way that is not possible in feature films. Take the introduction of Charlie Anna, the film's not-so-scary villain, and his Charlie's Angels. This is probably one of the funnier moments of the film, in spite of the dialogue and the events merely spoofing existing characters. The majority of the film sorely lacks the funny element. Or the sad element. Or the dramatic element. There is no resonance or empathy towards what the characters in the film feel. And this is inexcusable, because even the average Pogo cartoon is capable of delivering more laughs or at least some kind of reaction from the viewer. Overall, the content of the film takes it several notches lower, and is the main reason why an important effort in Indian cinema will probably not stay memorable a few years down the line.
The characters support have their moments, but Jugal Hansraj, the director, really needed to be much more consistent with their development. More than anything, they are all sprouting either the Mumbai street lingo that has been horribly done to death by character roles, or mimicking other actors, an even bigger cliche. Most of the freshness and wit comes from the antagonist, Charlie Anna, voiced by Javed Jaffery. He's truly understood what it means to give one's voice to an animated character, and his rendition of the seemingly vicious bulldog is incredibly natural and funny. The same can be said of his side-kick played by Sanjay Mishra. Of the rest, other then Saif's sincere effort, no other character stands out.
Roadside Romeo has brilliant visuals and a few slapstick moments to savor, but the overall effort leaves a lot to be desired. It does show the road ahead for animation films in India though. In the hands of a real filmmaker, a Disney collaboration with YRF should, in the future, produce films that can truly deliver the best of form and content that animation films can offer, and enrich our Friday offerings by making this genre a creditable addition to the gamut of films made in India. We'll wait.