I guess it's not really "surprising" that there weren't really any knock-offs of James Cameron's 1997 box-office behemoth Titanic to speak of; pragmatically, what could you do? There's kind of only the one story to tell, and nobody was going to have the budget to tell it better. So outside of a flood of non-fiction television specials, the possibilities for audio-visual treatments of the sinking of the RMS Titanic were pretty limited.

Still, if there's money to be made in ripping-off an incredible, once-in-a-generation smash hit, there's no question what nation's film industry is going to be the one to find a way to make it. And here we are, and yes, it is an Italian rip-off of Titanic, though if I put it that way, I'm not giving you nearly enough information to go on. For 1999's The Legend of the Titanic is in fact an animated film, for children, and it's not just an Italian film, it's an Italian-North Korean co-production, with all the work having been completed at North Korea's SEK Studios, and I didn't even know that was, like, legal. But as it turns out, SEK is a prolific farm for European television animation, and had indeed worked with Italian company Mondo TV on several television series prior to their collaboration on The Legend of the Titanic, which as near as I can tell is both Mondo and SEK's first feature film. Still, a glance at their shared history quickly tells us what kind of business model they'd been pursuing on the small screen: there's the 1997 series Pocahontas: Princess of the American Indians, for example, and 1995's Simba: The King Lion, okay, and that was followed with a 1998 sequel Simba Jr. Goes to the World Cup, and boy, Disney can really go fuck itself for not coming up with that idea first.

I will, in due course, get to talking about The Legend of the Titanic and just how much of a nightmare it is, but in order to do that properly, we need to have a quick chat about how traditional animation is created. Specifically, how it's finished. All of the things that go into making an animated film are, as we should all know, the work of large numbers of artists in different disciplines working on individual elements of the finished image: frame-by-frame drawings of characters, background paintings, visual effects, laying out all all of these things together. But all of this work, by all of these artists, bottlenecks at a single workstation right at the end of the production pipeline: photography. All of these different elements get stacked on top of each other, placed under a glass sheet that pins them down, and then a frame (or multiple frames) is exposed; the glass sheet is lifted, the elements are shifted and replaced, and then the next frame is exposed. Do that 24 times, you have a second; do that thousands of times, you have a movie.

I bring this up now, of all possible times, because The Legend of the Titanic introduces me to a concept that, as a good scholar of animation, I should have figured out years ago, and yet it had never really occurred to me before: it's possible to fuck this last part up. Almost every example of quintessentially "bad" animation I can think of has fallen down somewhere earlier in the process, or maybe even just suffers from too low of a budget to realise its ambitions. While both of those apply in this case, The Legend of the Titanic has just about the clearest examples of bad photography that I can think of, and this is true from literally the very beginning of the film. It's an aerial shot of a city that doesn't specifically look like New York, but given the jarring, blaring presence of "New York, New York" on the soundtrack (in the English dub, at least, and I'll admit that I have no idea where this dub was prepared, or by whom - there are certain things it doesn't seem worth the effort to research), we can make the assumption that's where we're at. We appear to be flying over the city, with buildings moving by as we go; the illusion is created by moving foreground layers of buildings to the sides while the background layers stay more or less in place. This is an old trick, one that shows up in animation by the early 1930s; it's a real achievement, then, that The Legend of the Titanic gets it wrong. The buildings don't just move to the side, they appear to collapse, rotating downwards while they're sliding, creating a horrifying sense of the world, like, melting around us. It's pretty impressive for a movie to create such a profound feeling motion sickness, disorientation, and physical instability within its first five seconds, and there's never really a point when the movie corrects itself. Backgrounds keep shifting violently behind characters, like the whole movie is plagued by earthquakes; individual cels have frequently raised up a bit, so you can clearly see the shadow they cast on the background.

I could easily keep going on about the film's failures as a work of animation - the grim attempts at doing underwater effects; the CGI Titanic that shows up in a few flyover shots and looks exactly like a bargain-basement computer model from 1999 would look, with an eerie glow and perfectly smooth surfaces; the bizarre inability to draw cleavage lines on women correctly (and the movie has an alarming amount of cleavage, for a kids' adventure) - but I would hate to leave myself without space to talk about its equally profound failures as a story about the Titanic. Being a comedy for children obviously means that the amount of destruction that will be depicted is going to be significantly curtailed, but it's still unexpectedly craven how quickly the filmmakers clarify how little interest they're going to have in history. Once we complete our aerial tour of New York by way of R'lyeh, we find ourselves in the homes of a grandfatherly old mouse named Top Connors (whose "old greying fur" coloration looks hideous, making him seem more like a mange victim than an old man), who is telling his X-tremely '90s grandchildren about his days as a sailor, when served aboard the Titanic. And in particular, he's quick to make sure that they understand that, whatever they've heard, not a single life was lost when that ship went down. Not one. The end of the movie cycles back to this framework narrative, suggesting that maybe Connors is just making up shit, in the manner of sailors since time immemorial, but then why bother with the story at all?

Anyway, the action soon shifts over to 1912, where we meet Connors as a younger mouse, helping his mouse fellows board the Titanic for her maiden voyage; the most important of these is Ronny, a Brazilian mouse who dreams about becoming a football star, and his sister Stella, who becomes Connors's love interest, sort of. I say "sort of" because the mice, and the other animal characters in the film, very quickly become subservient in the narrative to this film's analogue forΒ Titanic's Rose and Jack: Elizabeth, the daughter of a duke and the heir to a whaling business, and Don Juan, the leader of the group of Romani traveling aboard the ship, and who is dressed like a British barrister from the 1970s. Elizabeth's evil fiancΓ© is a certain Everard Maltravers, who is conspiring with Elizabeth's stepmother to steal the whaling business, sinking the Titanic to leave all the evidence of their crime - including Elizabeth and her father - at the bottom of the Atlantic.

To this end, Maltravers's servant Geoffrey uses his magic whistle - which, in the 90s, will have ended up in Connors's collection, and also become mouse-sized - to call up Ice, the leader of a gang of sharks, to sink the ship by moving an iceberg into its path. They do this by fooling a giant octopus child, Tentacles, into picking up icebergs from the seafloor, and pitching them up to the surface. I don't know, why, out of all the offenses against reason that the film has on offer, its suggestion that icebergs sink to the bottom of the ocean is the one that I simply couldn't deal with, but this is the case anyways - maybe it's because everything else is flagrantly fantastical, and this is just dumb, bad science. At any rate, all looks lost for the Titanic, but luckily, Elizabeth was crying on the first nightΒ  of the journey,Β  and her tears reflected the moonbeams, so now the moon magic has given her the ability to speak animal languages. And while she initially uses this just to have the mice and dogs on the ship help her and Don Juan fall in love, eventually her conversations with the local dolphins prove handy for bringing a full-on war between the dolphins and sharks to rescue the survivors from the sinking ship before it goes under. I have not, I wish to assure you, spoiled all of the surprises the film has in store.

It is, I won't lie, nice to run into a film where literally all the reviewer needs to do is patiently recap the story to reveal how bottomlessly deranged it is. The mere fact that the film stops itself cold to explain how Elizabeth can speak to the animals with her magical moonlight tears, but then show multiple other humans just chatting away without any reason (must be a lot of crying on the Titanic) is proof enough that it's not even just that this story makes no sense in relationship to history and human dignity; it doesn't even make sense in relationship to itself. And the way that the mice all immediately commit themselves to playing Cinderella for two insipid humans means it doesn't even work as the children's comedy about silly talking mice that it presents itself as being.

But what's the point of nitpicking? Finding fault with individual beats in the movie where a gang of thuggish sharks (sharks with prison numbers stiched onto their chests, and whose cloacal fins look like floppy dicks, no less) trick a giant octopus into throwing a mountain-sized iceberg at the Titanic is like being annoyed that there's too much salt in your mashed potatoes while the restaurant is burning down around you. The Legend of the Titanic is simply gobsmacking, and when we combine that with some of the most atrocious animation I have ever seen, we end up with a giddy, so-bad-it's-the-most-essential-movie-I've-ever-seen disaster of tasteless incompetence. And it is, somehow, the best animated Titanic movie on top of all that, but that's a story for a later time...

Available on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoMWLFKY9c0