If sheer force of effort, years of dedication, and naked ambition were justly rewarded, Canadian filmmaker/animator Nick DiLiberto and his passion project Nova Seed would win all the awards. As it stands right now, DiLiberto may have to settle for becoming a modern cult classic among fans of animation, Saturday morning cartoons, and the stylings of veteran animators like Ralph Bakshi. That’s no small feat. In the modern world of computer-generated animation that churns out highly polished pixel pixies that all end up looking somewhat similar, DiLiberto’s style has offered up something wildly different and yet comfortably nostalgic.
Over the course of four years and 60,000 hand-drawn frames by DiLiberto himself (let those numbers sink in for a moment), Nova Seed tells the story of a post-apocalyptic land in which the unstoppable evil known as Dr. Mindskull is hellbent on remaking the world in his image. The only creature powerful enough to stop him is a lion-man known as NAC, a Neo-Animal Combatant, who must first rescue the mysterious and powerful Nova Seed if he has any hope to save the day.
A self-professed fan of classic cartoons like He-Man and Thundercats, DiLiberto decided that, rather than waiting for the big animation production houses to make a modern throwback to the series he liked, he’d just do it himself. The result was Nova Seed, a traditionally animated feature film that comes in at just over an hour and has a refreshing look to it, one that really lets you see and feel the effort that DiLiberto put into every frame. Since the animation style is such a signature of this piece, it bears commenting on. For folks who are used to sleek, highly polished, and photo-realistic 3D renders, Nova Seed will look primitive and doodle-like. That’s by design. It’s a throwback to traditional, 2D, hand-drawn animations like those done by the legendary Bakshi (Wizards, The Lord of the Rings, Fire and Ice), Saturday morning cartoon studios like Rankin/Bass (The King Kong Show, Thundercats, SilverHawks) and Filmation (He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, BraveStarr) and Hanna-Barbera classics. They just don’t make them like this anymore … unless you’re Nick DiLiberto.
But it’s not just the 80s Saturday morning cartoons’ style that DiLiberto sought to emulate with Nova Seed, but also their substance. Here’s a classic Saturday morning setup: A mad villain bent on world destruction/domination can only be stopped by an unconventional hero who must enlist the help of an unexpected ally and sacrifice himself for the good of the world. DiLiberto follows this tried and true synopsis to a T. From the outset, we’re introduced to the villainous Dr. Mindskull, the antagonist of the piece (as if you couldn’t tell by his delightfully nefarious name) who is focused on wiping out the remnants of humanity in order to create a world in his image. Aiding him in this goal are creations known as Neo-Animals, or simply Neos, which range from the small, one-eyed, mind-controlling Dargons; to flying scavengers like the beetle-man Goki; to the mysterious and powerful creation known as the Nova Seed. Standing in his way is the (mostly incompetent) human military and a lone entity known as a Neo-Animal Combatant, or NAC.
While most of the plot of Nova Seed is paint-by-numbers, with a few twists thrown in that aren’t wholly original but are definitely nods to some classic nostalgia properties, it’s the characters who are the real strength. You feel for the unnamed lion-man NAC, whether it’s when he’s battling to protect his life crystal in the fighting pits, fending off soldiers to protect himself and his allies, or sacrificing himself for the greater good against all sorts of antagonizing forces. The supporting characters have moments to shine as well: Dr. Mindskull is a solid villain through and through and the reveal of his ultimate plan is a very fun sequence; the Nova Seed is a nice nod to “girl in the box” characters like Melfina in Outlaw Star and River Tam in Firefly, among others; and the myopic Hunter gets to play a pivotal part in the story, despite existing on the fringes for most of it.
Plotwise, the themes of prejudice and racism provide a nice backdrop to the plot, since humans and government officials are strongly anti-Neo, especially when a Neo is the only one who can save the human race. (It conjured up echoes of Blue Submarine No. 6, a deep cut for some.) And the decision to drop NAC into the heart of Mindskull’s lair hews closely to the plot of Escape from New York, just in an animated take.
Where Nova Seed succeeds best is in reminding folks that true talent flows from the blood, sweat, and tears of an individual artist. This is just as true in traditionally animated fare as it is in computer-generated projects; it’s just that the raw, unfiltered creativity from DiLiberto is presented one-to-one from page to screen, whereas modern animation productions that employ teams of people who are every bit as talented end up diluting that unique creative vision for the sake of a highly polished (and marketable) finished product. There’s room in this world for both, but we could sure use a lot more visionaries like DiLiberto and a lot more passion projects like Nova Seed, which are both worthy of your respect and attention.
Rating: A- for the feature, A+ for the effort!