The strikingly unique Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is likely to suffer from muddled audience expectations. Go to the film expecting nothing more than an elaborate, delightfully retro cartoon, and Sky Captain will offer some real pleasures. Demand more, and you will be disappointed.
The PG-rated film (for sequences of stylized sci-fi violence and brief mild language) offers vivid realizations of an imagined world full of elaborate inventions, monstrous robots, prehistoric creatures, and grand adventures. It's a mix of Indiana Jones, The Lost World, and Buck Rogers that's almost completely family-friendly. The qualifying "almost" is due to two mild but incongruously inappropriate scenes-one limited to a lewd remark and the other a bedroom scene that isn't quite what it seems initially.
Sky Captain stakes out the unexplored middle ground between animation and reality. Director Kerry Conran gives every frame a slightly hazy, hand-tinted look that melds the live actors seamlessly with their artificial backdrops, vehicles, and the fanciful creatures they encounter.
Although the effect is initially distracting, one is sucked into the artificial world remarkably fast. The composition is right out of the frames of a comic book, with dramatic angles and backdrops revealing the maximum amount of visual information in each scene.
The plot falls into a similar mold, and this is where the film suffers somewhat. As in a comic book, the audience is required to fill in the gaps in logic, space, and time between each frame, and this rhythm doesn't work as well onscreen as it does on the page.
The story is set in a future imagined by the past. In 1939 Manhattan, intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) is tracking a lead on a series of missing scientists when huge, airborne robots darken the city skies. Joe Sullivan-Sky Captain-zooms in on his prop-driven fighter plane to save Polly and the city, at least for the time being. Sullivan (Jude Law) must now track these robots to their source and discover the identity of the mysterious Totenkopf, a shadowy figure who may have plans to destroy the earth.
Pure pulp, and that's just the start of it. But this is the stuff that fuels young imaginations, and it's a blast to see it all come to (a sort of) life onscreen in a way that doesn't diminish the material's roots in boyish dreams by forcing it into line with the heightened realism of traditional film.