Red Sonja is one of the key heroines in sword and sorcery fiction, Like Conan The Barbarian, she was created by pulp author Robert E. Howard in the ’30s and attained newer, bigger fame in the ’70s when she began appearing in the Marvel Comics version of Conan. She got her own comic book in the late ’70s and has been rebooted multiple times in the decades since. She was most recently reinterpreted by the team of writer Gail Simone and artist Walter Geovani – and that incarnation provides the source material for Red Sonja: Queen Of Plagues, a new animated venture from Shout! Factory.
Red Sonja: Queen Of Plagues is a feminist-themed sword and sorcery tale that also doubles as a reinvented origin tale via flashbacks. At the outset, Sonja (voiced by Misty Lee) attempts to repay her debt to a king who freed her from slavery by helping to defend his declining kingdom from a marauding horde. She is shocked to discover her former ally in the slave era, Dark Annisia, is the leader of the marauders and is forced to surrender to save the kingdom. She is sent into icy hinterlands, weakened with a plague from the kingdom, as the ghosts of her past come to visit her. With the help of unexpected allies, she rallies for a return to the kingdom to find a cure and face her rival.
The result is suitably action-packed but also flawed in a few key ways. The script, drawn directly from the comics, is full of incident and excitement, even if some of the more deliberate humor lapses into camp and the plot seems overcomplicated at times. Such criticism can be chalked up to the challenges of cramming several issues of a comic into one feature just under 80 minutes.
However, the way Red Sonja: Queen Of Plagues is brought to life presents the aforementioned flaws in a big way. It is what its producers describe as an “animated comic,” meaning that art from the actual comics is used then manipulated via computer to create a kind of pseudo-animation. However, it still looks like the motion comics that have become popular in recent years. The animation suffers from the limitation of having to stick to the comic panels and nothing more – sometimes the only thing moving is a character’s jaw, like the old Hanna Barbera t.v. cartoons – and some parts look more impressive than others.
A bigger problem lies in the voice work: Lee gives a spirited performance as Sonja but the rest of the characterizations are voiced by just a couple of actors, playing three or more roles each. Thus, the supporting voicework oftens sounds kind of same-y and this cheapens the illusion of the comic’s ensemble cast. Also, the supporting voicework is often amateurish due to limp performances, ropey accents that clash with each other and everyone aside from Lee sounding much too young to be convincing as adult characters.
As a result, Red Sonja: Queen Of Plagues never fully convinces. It’s done with an obvious love for the source material but the resources and skill needed to bring it to life are all too often lacking. Its best audience is probably just the hardcore comics fans.
Blu-Ray Notes: Shout! Factory released this in-house production on both blu-ray and DVD. The blu-ray was viewed for this review and offers an impressive transfer: the animation has rich colors and a nice depth and the lossless 2.0 stereo track sounds robust. The one extra is a making-of featurette (18:33) that gets into how the project came together, how comic panels were transformed into computer animation and an interview with the likeable Lee.