movie review: Cerebus the Aardvark (2021)

What did you watch: The Absurd, Surreal, Metaphysical and Fractured Destiny of Cerebus the Aardvark

Wow, that’s some title. How did it fit on the theater marquee? I saw it on Tubi, a streaming app.

Wait, Cerebus was that long running indie comic by a controversial comic creator, right? How bad did some of those controversial views that seeped into the comics come off in the movie? The views of the comics creator were the least of this movie’s problems.

Gang, I loved Cerebus the comic, back in the day. My lack of improvement in my arts may not reflect on what got me into and inspired me to make comics, I’m aware and I apologize. But when I was “getting into comics,” as I was exploring what the medium had to offer and bought a flashy but rumored to be vapid reading experience that was Image Comics’ Spawn, I was introduced to Cerebus The Aardvark, who had made a guest appearance. I was already directed into the b&w indie world, less on the history (just a few years after its own publishing implosion but a couple years before the rest of the comics market self-destruction) and more into the interesting under-the-radar or DIY activities that small press comics offered in alternative to regular superhero mainstream books. And mainstream comics were never mainstream outside of being licensed into some awesome cartoons but usually no-better-than-direct-to-VHS movies (other than Tim Burton’s Batman, at the time). But I didn’t understand things like publishing or how comic and other media narrative that is handled by rotating teams of writers & artists has a wall between the creators and the creation. That what’s in the mind of the guy writing Spider-Man isn’t exactly what is going on in Spider-Man’s head, no matter how authentic Spidey may seem. A comic like Cerebus is one guy (well, two for most of it) and not only did he editorialize between the cover and the story, but he editorialized IN the story, and at some point put himself INTO the comic.

I won’t touch the “politics” because the creator has doubled and tripled down and as a result I’ve gone from just re-reading the first two volumes every once in a while to not reading them at all, with no copies on hand to reference, especially in this review. The comic creator would write me off with quasi-something-or-other because our views on feminism are different. Hey, my politics are absolutely in my comics. It’s just that Cerebus was THE book that you had to look at if you wanted to know about holding on to your creation, making the story you want, and doing it yourself while competing with the mainstream publishing. You probably wouldn’t have the reprint market, much less the emphasis that most indie books would have on keeping an end in sight for a serialized story. Would I reference the comic and its publishing history now? Hell no. The market has changed so drastically since it was last published, and what would I tell a new reader? I wouldn’t be able to tell them anything. There’s plenty other books out there.

I was surfing through TUBI, a streaming app that seems like a dumping point for stuff that wasn’t keeping eyeballs on Netflix and you forgot existed long ago, and almost missed it because of the long quadra-adjective title: a Cerebus movie? WHAT? I haven’t kept up with the behind the scene antics of Cerebus, I know that there was a book in production where the comic creator seemed unable to finish (originally serialized in a comic I was picking up) that has maybe seen the light of day, various kickstarters for expanded higher quality reprints, and that the creator won’t answer your letters unless you sign a form that says you don’t think he’s a misogynist. My ear’s not really to the ground of comic publishing these days. I know of a few distro upheavals, a couple artists I like may make a book once in a while, but I’ve just checked out on what’s being published, what is being licensed into a cartoon or movie, who cares. So seeing a CEREBUS movie? A 3D modeled CGI movie? WHAT?

Surely if it’s on a streaming app, it MUST be finished, right?

Well, how you’ve read this far, I applaud you for sticking around. Hoo boy this was tough. But, I’ve sat through a Fast & The Furious sequel, SURELY I can give 70 minutes to an indie presentation of An Important Comic, right? Well, applaud ME for sticking around. I could have stopped any time but I had to see where it was going, so any discomfort watching this is on me.

I recognize the issues that the story references (though, beyond issue 1, I wouldn’t be able to spout off numbers of the other plots). It opens up with a sequence with no context, where Cerebus is in a cavernous tower with a wizard, the latter who is killed by a crossbow, and then his soul possesses a giant golem he built. CREDITS, as in full credits (animators, modelers, then voice actors), pop up, and then the story restarts with the plot from issue 1 of the comic: Cerebus rides into the world’s D&D style village and is hired to break into the castle of a sorcerer to steal a jewel. Other plots from the comic are wedged in, and occasionally some barely readable text pops up basically asking “what if” for Cerebus, regarding another of the comics’ plot point about powers he never obtains because he’s never aware of it.

I mention this because I recall in the comics that this sort of comes out of nowhere for the reader: Cerebus stumbled upon a cult that worships him, as they have a giant statue of him in their dwelling. He destroys the statue and runs off. Many, many issues later – possibly a decade or more in the comic’s real world publishing time, we find out that if Cerebus kept his helmet and sword that he sold in an earlier issue, he would have discovered that these items had mystical powers that would have awakened the statue and acted as a destructive force at his choosing. Now, I’ve reread these early comics a lot. Most of them were parodies of Conan The Barbarian and other sword & sorcery comics until the early teens of the Cerebus’ run and the creator got it in his head to have one narrative for 300 issues, as opposed to issue after issue lampooning other contemporary comics. The comic’s revelation comes off as a D&D plot where you didn’t read the associated novels that coincide with the campaign and didn’t get any hints from the dungeon master. Cerebus never says after seeing the statue, “damn, I don’t have the helmet or sword anymore. Maybe I should run back and get them.” None of the cultists say “hey, the statue would be even MORE like you if you had a helmet & sword. Did you ever have any that looked like that?” ** Maybe it’s a regret from the creator, maybe it’s an amusing plot point he never tied up because he found better places for the character to go.

** I admit that I could look it up but I no longer have a copy of the first volume lying around, and I’m only bringing this up because I’m here to review the movie, which I’ll get back to.

SO, these are the metaphysical asides from the title I guess, the fractured “what could have happened” to Cerebus had he just kept these items. In a way, kudos to the filmmaker for referencing this plot point. Maybe that’s something that bugged them while reading the comic and, as an adaptor, they felt like this moment was the true heart of its story.

But, in making a CGI 3D cartoon, the movie fails in almost every other way. Everything looks horrible, from Cerebus whose nostrils you can see all the way down through his nose at the right (wrong) angle, to various characters both based on their comic counterpart and in some case some horrific “new” characters who I either forgot who they represent or they just made up for the movie. Either way, it’s all bad.

There’s more text to explain “what if” as opposed to “what’s currently going on” or “what just happened.” Scenes are either pretty dark or out in the daylight in the brightest of sunlight that not even the characters in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine could survive. Often you don’t know where they are, or where they’re coming from. Sometimes scenes jump from one to the next and then jump back to a frame of the previous scene, like a cut scene in a video game that didn’t finish loading. And cut scenes from PS1 were better made than this.

The sound drops during scenes or there are just uneven levels. Character design is pretty grotesque across the board – there’s a Prime Minister character and he’s got horrendous teeth and I don’t know if this is a style choice but they’re not getting bonus points for having ONE character with detail if that’s what they spent extra time on. But most importantly, the adaptation, if it was done so to make the “what coulda been” narrative fit into these early adventures they are trying to cram into in order to extend the plot of the first issue, is just a complete mess. Why reference events that happen later, why the cold open that has nothing to do with the next scene or leave it out of the scene that you go back to later in the film? Why reference events that happen later in the middle of this plot? I couldn’t tell if these were flashbacks, part of how Cerebus got to the bar where where was hired as a mercenary, or was it part of the plot. Maybe I just lost interest because of how disjointed everything was.

I’ve looked up what I could find and apparently this was an all-volunteer adventure that spanned 14 years. That seems to be a selling point: “yeah, it looks awful, but we all did it for free in our spare time!” Well, maybe, just maybe, don’t do it. Or don’t release it. How this mess got on Tubi…well, there are services you can submit your material to and they’ll put it on all kinds of platforms. I know this through music my band has created. BUT we mapped out what the music should be like, and took time to practice the songs and went back and fixed things. Making music is different than making a film, and a cgi movie needs a lot of people. But:

-Make a demo. Work on the demo. Then when it’s higher quality, show that around and say “who wants to invest?” And if no one does, work on something else.

-Maybe the needs of a narrative for 70 minutes should be more than what you see on AquaTeen Hunger Force or those kinds of barely animated shows on Adult Swim, but geez, look at the impact those shows had. They employ quick cuts, close ups to highlight jokes, amazing voice acting. Yes, AquaTeen Hunger Force. There was a bit in the Cerebus where he was having a dream where he was 2D animated (and looked like himself). You could have done stills or created a motion comic straight from the book if the creator let you (I’m guessing he approved out of just being indifferent – he’s a noted luddite, and figured he wouldn’t be able to stop people from making a shareware movie despite his championing of creator rights and ownership). Instead you get this cartoon that fails at an important element of being a cartoon: watchable.

Well, joke’s on me, I watched it. There were some nice reminders of the early comic’s dialog, how funny some of those interactions were for the dismissive Cerebus surrounded by yokels, phonies, and conniving politicians. The deliveries were pretty flat, Cerebus’ voice was grating, and new dialog was often incomprehensible, muddled, or didn’t flow with the original tone or even the scenes themselves.

Was it good? No. Jeez.

Was any of it good? The flash of 2D blue line basic art was no better than any student film flexing their muscles. Pretty neat, still not enough.

I watched this out of “there’s a Cerebus movie?” then “THERE’S A CGI CEREBUS MOVIE?!?” then “omg, this looks awful, but I have to sit through it” and I did. I wouldn’t recommend this to Cerebus fans and since I’m reluctant to point to earlier Cerebus collections to comics readers, I wouldn’t suggest this as any kind of adequate summary of the source material if you were interested. Sorry, everyone.

I know we’ll never get a Mouse Guard movie from Fox now that Disney bought that company, we’ll never get a Bone movie because Netflix panicked about their future. But I wouldn’t recommend they go the fan tribute route and let it get passed off somewhere despite no one making any money.

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