You learn what you are up against in the first few minutes of Mercano the Martian.
Mercano — a little, green, squiggily-animated Martian — has just stolen a computer and run away from the police. They follow him down into the subway, only one of the cops — who is afraid of heights — slides down the escalator out of control…
And is splatted by a passing train, with a spray of blood and a flying skull.
I suppose these days we are used to the idea of a dark, satiric animated film in a simplified, child-like animation style thanks to South Park. But I’m not sure whether that show was an influence on Mercano. After all, Mercano first appeared as a series of short films on a Music TV station in Argentina in 1998, the year after the debut of South Park.
First episode of the Mercano series
You see, Mercano got mad when a passing satellite from Earth squashed his alien pet and rushed off to Earth to get revenge. But he wrecked his ship and he’s stuck here, all alone, and his Martian friends are too busy to come and rescue him.
To help deal with his loneliness, he creates a virtual reality version of Mars which he can play around in. A young, nerdy boy, Julian, stumbles across his virtual world and the two become friends.
Unfortunately, the boy’s father is the head of a huge corporation, and when he learns about Mercano and his virtual world, he realizes that it is what his corporation needs to seize control of the world markets.
So, naturally, they seize Mercano and begin exploiting him…
Here in the U.S., we are still stuck with the idea that animated films are just for kids, so it can come as a bit of a shock when we encounter a film which portrays the world as dark, violent, or filled with crime and corruption. But this vision of Buenos Aires is one in which a lost Martian wandering through the streets encounters not merely homelessness, casual brutality, random murders, drugs and prostitution, but even child exploitation.
Now that’s seriously dark. And a bit messed up.
The animation is mostly limited, hand drawn in a very scratchy, thin-lined style, and deliberately ugly. However, it is a bit more sophisticated than it looks as there is a bit of 3-D animation lurking in the backgrounds, and several lengthy sequences which take place inside the 3-D animated virtual world.
However, don’t expect Pixar level animation. It is simple and decidedly low resolution. After all, it is supposed to represent a computer-generated world.
Mercano speaks in a distinctive mumble (provided by the director, Juan Antin). As far as I can tell this is just a random noise with no attempt to pretend that it is a language, although it was subtitled in Spanish in the original. However, while it is never explained, the human characters do seem to be able to understand him.
The characters have a bit of life and eccentricity to them, like Julian who always wears his Star Trek: The Next Generation uniform and carries a toy raygun, or the young radicals who are opposed on principle to technology, but spend their time on computers and drinking beer, whose revolution nearly comes to a premature end when they get the new device which can teleport in cold cans of beer.
And then there is the blackly-comic flashback explaining why one of the evil corporate types has a mechanical hand (although it does take a moment for the gag to sink in).
We even get a quick glimpse of what science fiction movies look like on Mars.
It all ends in a mad and extremely violent final raid on the corporate headquarters, complete with a huge song and dance number (courtesy of Martian technology) and a singularly black and ironic moment at the final curtain.
To state the obvious, despite having a cute alien as its star, Mercano the Martian is definitely not for children. In fact, it is a singularly dark, ironic, and satiric film, with a deeply cynical view of our world and everyone and everything in it. It isn’t for wimps — and as the only versions of it you are likely to find are in Spanish, it isn’t for anyone who won’t watch subtitled movies.
And, yes, it will probably sneer at you a bit for such a contemptible attitude.
But if you love dark, bitter and cynical comedies, little green aliens, and animation which doesn’t look like it was made by all the Pixar clones in Hollywood, then it is worth a look.
Just don’t try sliding down that escalator, okay?