Damn, That's Cold
Mortal Kombat Legends: Snow Blind
When WB started putting out their Mortal KombatFunctioning almost like counter programming against the cleaner, brighter, and friendlier fighting games of the era, Mortal Kombat added violence, gore, and bruality in equal measure, creating a fighing game every kid wanted to play (and every adult wanted out of their house). animated films, I don't think anyone expected them to become some kind of large, connected series. The first film, Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion's Revenge was amusing but hardly anything to write home about. That film had a tone of bone-crunching action, and decent voice acting performances, but it was shallow and dull in most other respects. It had a sequel, Mortal Kombat Legends: Battle of the Realms that doubled down on the action but still really couldn't nail the story to the point where you could truly care about it. These are not the bones of a cinematic universe, one would think.
However, the WB has had success with another pocket of their portfolio, the DC Animated Movie UniverseWhile DC Comics was amping up production on this big "MCU-killer", the DC Extended Universe they were also quietly putting together another shared movie continuity, the DC Animated Movie Universe. This series was more closely related to the comics, directly adapting a number of famous storylines to, arguably, better effect than the live-action movies could., and that universe went on to spawn 16 animate films in its own right. With the Mortal Kombat franchise having 11 games in its own right, and enough character backstory to fill a whole line of comic books, you can see why the WB has been interested in creating an animated universe for these characters. While the Mortal Kombat movies have floundered at the Box Office, these little animated movies have found some financial success on the home video market (at least among the Mortal Kombat faithful). Certainly there seems to be enough of an audience to warrant continuing adventures in the universe.
The strange thing is, though, that this third film, Mortal Kombat Legends: Snow Blind, actually manages to do what the previous two could not: give us a focused, interesting story that actually does some solid service to the Mortal Kombat characters. it does all this by ditching more of the characters and the overly complicated story we've had to far, to instead drill down to a few key characters and moments, creating something far more focused and interesting than you'd expect. It's still not the greatest animated film ever, but Snow Blind delivers on the promise of the franchise, finally. Who knew, third time was the charm?
In Mortal Kombat Legends: Snow Blind we find ourselves in a distant future, one seemingly disconnected from the previous two films. We're told that since the defeat of the Emperor at the end of the previous film, the world was attacked by revanants, undead demons who swept across the world, destroying most of civilization. Those few survivors left alive live in pockets out in the waste, scratching by the best they can in this blasted out world. The only person that seems to be truly thriving is Kano (David Wenham), leader of the Black Dragons. He and his mercenary band from from enclave to enclave, enslaving the people and ruling with a (blood-soaked, robotic) iron fist.
Also surviving out in the wastes (although arguably not thriving) is Kuai Liang (Ron Yuan), aka Sub-Zero. This once mighty warrior, and leader of his tribe, same the whole organization killed during a raid on the wraiths. Now he lives a life of peace, with a promise never to tap into his ice powers ever again. But when a young, upstart warrior, Kenshi (Manny Jacinto), kicks the hornets' nest, our cold warrior finds himself drawn into the middle of a fight he never wanted, and the fate of Earthrealm could hang on the decisions he makes next.
The previous two films had a large and sprawling cast of characters, each with their own motivations, reasons why they were at the tournaments, what they hoped to gain, and more. While there were a few standouts -- the usual starring spots for Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, and Johnny Cage -- the animated films (like most films in the franchise) struggled to balance all the characters and their needs against the greater plot. The films felt over-stuffed, with too much going on and not enough time to do any of it well.
By contrast, Snow Blind is a much more tight and focused film. It essentially boils down to a post-apocalyptic western with a couple of heroes fighting to save a town. Yes, it's a plot we've seen many times before (Seven Samurai and its Western remake, The Magnificent Seven) being the obvious examples. Of course, it's a plot that's used so often because it works. Want to get the audience behind a couple of heroes kicking lots of ass and killing lots of dudes? Make them responsible for the fate of a small town. Suddenly you have stakes and an easy to parse good/evil dynamic.
Snow Blind adds its twists by not only setting this story within the bounds of the Mortal Kombat Legends universe but also by how it positions its characters. Turning Sub-Zero into the classic, reluctant hero means we get to watch his arc from pacifist to big damn hero and understand where he's coming from. Sure, it's a trope we've seen before -- obvious a hero that sets his sword down and says he won't fight will eventually find a cause worth fighting for -- but again, it works because it's a storyline we can get behind. We understand his motivations and we get that feeling of release when he has to break his vow for the common good. Relatable heroes are made on the backs of this kind of storyline.
Kenshi is new to this film series, but he was introduced into the game series in game five, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance (although this film's is more of a side story to elements from Mortal Kombat 11). He's a brash and annoying character due for a bit of a comeuppance. The film delivers that, then sends him on his own hero's journey of a sort. He ends up learning from Sub-Zero, and then teaching his master a thing of two, creating a bond of friendship that helps drag Sub-Zero into the fight. Essentially, despite his own journey, Kenshi is there more to motivate the lead her, Sub-Zero, even has he gets his own little arc.
Frankly, most of the main characters have some kind of arc, including Kano and his quest for power and Shang Tsung and his desire for power and revenge. While there are many characters that don't get full and complete arcs, like the many goons of Kano (including Kabal, Kira, and Kobra -- man, there are a lot of "K" names in this series), they are all presented well and at least have solid characterizations. This is a film that feels like it was designed to honor the core attributes of Mortal Kombat -- lots of action, blood, and gore, alongside a creative stable of characters -- and it did all it could with its setting and story to achieve that.
If there's any part where the film really falls apart its with the artwork. The art is a little too simple, a little too sloppy, to feel like it was truly cared for. There are many times where you can see sketchy lines around the characters, leading lines from their drawings that just weren't erased at the end. Maybe it was a stylistic choice but it feels more like the artists were in a rush (since this film was cranked out one year after the last one) and they didn't clean everything up like they should have. This, coupled with very simple shading and a few instances of CGI that absolutely don't blend in at all, leaving it feeling like the art for this animated work was a bit of an afterthought.
Still, despite the less than ideal artwork this film feels like a fine continuation for the animated film series. In fact, I'd go so far as to say its the best of the lot we've gotten (with the promise from the voice actors of more to come). If the series can continue this higher bar when it comes to story and characters this might just be the best filmic series in the franchise so far. Hell, considering how watchable this film is, and how bad many other entries have been, Mortal Kombat Legends may have already achieved that higher bar on the back of this film alone.