Death happens fast in animated children’s movies. The death of a parent, grandparent or loved one can be the starting point of a character’s story, a clear change in their life that requires something of them. In “Frozen,” the parents’ death means that Elsa must take on the responsibility of being queen. “The Lion King” shares a similar setup. “Up” uses Ellie’s death to push her husband Carl into fulfilling a promise to her.
Cinesite Studios’s “Riverdance: The Animated Adventure” involves this ever-popular trope. Our main character, Keegan (Sam Hardy, “#Followme”), who lives in a lighthouse with his grandparents, loses his grandfather (Pierce Brosnan, “Mamma Mia!”) in the first ten minutes. At first, the purpose seems clear: Keegan is going to be forced to take over as lighthouse keeper. He instead gives up on the lighthouse and commits himself to sadness, which translates more as perpetual glumness throughout the movie. It’s this ignorance of the lighthouse that invites an evil huntsman (Brendan Gleeson, “Paddington 2”) to spread darkness and (for some reason) get rid of the nearby river.
Unfortunately, it takes most of the movie’s runtime for Keegan to find out about the huntsman, and in the meantime, his grandfather’s death does nothing for the plot. Not caring about characters who die early on is okay in some movies — think of “Frozen”: We aren’t especially sad when the parents die, but it doesn’t matter because their death immediately moves the story forward, giving us conflict. In “Up,” Ellie’s death happens early, but we are still moved by it because of how much time has passed in the story world, as well as the clear care the characters had for each other. When Keegan’s grandfather dies, the only immediate change in Keegan’s life is that he is sad, and we can’t share in his sadness.
The death could have been used to give Keegan new responsibilities. True, the huntsman would not have come if Keegan had turned on the light in the lighthouse, but that could have resulted from him making a mistake rather than simply avoiding his responsibilities altogether. This is not the only instance of Keegan turning away from what could have made the film compelling. During their initial meeting, the huntsman tells Keegan to come with him to a place where his grandfather is not dead. I was intrigued by this potential “Coraline”-like twist for three seconds. Then, Keegan refuses and it is never brought up again.
The death could have been used to teach Keegan some kind of life lesson. Instead, he spends time with a herd of giant deer whose antlers power the rivers, playing a ball game and watching his friend Moya (Hannah Herman Cortes, in her debut performance) teach one of the deer how to dance flamenco. He then defeats the huntsman in a conflict which is over practically before there are stakes, and suddenly he seems to have learned the value of what his grandfather did. And then… they dance?
Yes, Keegan is sad, and there is dancing. Lots of dancing. The movie is based on “Riverdance,” a theatre show involving Irish dancing. In the movie, the dancing is representative of life and tradition. Its importance is the most obvious lesson Keegan learns, which falls a bit flat if the viewer has no personal connection to it. The film strives to make the significance quite clear, as there are several dance scenes, each at least three minutes long, where little else happens. Perhaps its basis on a theater show is the issue. Adapting a story from theater to screen can be easier with animation than live-action, but when it comes to dancing, portraying realism is often more detrimental than not. Dancing in animation is difficult because no matter how complicated Irish dancing may be, it is no longer impressive when animated.
Despite this weak point, “Riverdance” is far from the worst children’s movie I’ve seen. It is cute, parts of it are fun, and there is nothing egregious — except maybe when Keegan’s grandmother (Pauline McLynn, “Last Night in Soho”) tells him his grandfather is hot. But as far as anything meaningful, the movie lacks the emotional depth it was aiming for. Of the multitude of animated children’s movies that deal with death, community and tradition, it is not hard to find choices that do so more meaningfully and with more grace.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at email@example.com.