One of the German-speaking world’s most beloved stories, that of the fairy tale-like marriage between Bavaria’s teenage Princess Elizabeth and Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph, gets a right royal sendup in “Lissi and the Wild Emperor.” Third feature (and first toon) by ace Teutonic spoofer Michael Bully Herbig lacks the sheer outrageousness of his sauerkraut Western pastiche “Manitou’s Shoe” and camp “Star Trek” takeoff “Dreamship Surprise: Period 1,” but it compensates with a more level comic tone and some genuine charm. Film reps a major dubbing challenge offshore but could rake in some ducats as a kid’s item in foreign ancillary.
Pic opened big in Germany in late October, knocking “Ratatouille” out of the top spot. But its two-month $20 million boc office is still far short of the total grosses for “Manitou” and “Dreamship,” both of which finished in the $50 million-$70 million range.
Herbig’s satiric point of departure is the famous “Sissi” trilogy (1955-57), which Ernst Marischka directed and launched Romy Schneider’s career. A holiday-TV evergreen in Germany and Austria (and recently re-released in a DVD boxed set), the series made it to the U.S. only in a boiled-down 1962 version titled “Forever My Love.”
However, as with Herbig’s other two movies, it’s not necessary to have a working knowledge of the original plots. Beyond the fey romanticism, the 19th century Austro-Hungarian setting and the fact that Franz’s mom was a disapproving snob, Herbig and co-scripter Alfons Biedermann construct a loony yarn that has more in common with “Shrek” or “Ice Age” than with Marischka’s wish-fulfilment mellers. It’s also loaded with anachronistic yocks.
“Lissi” isn’t Germany’s first CG-animated feature, and technically, it’s on a level with anything from the DreamWorks Animation stable. Pic’s bright, widescreen visuals — courtesy of top Munich effects house Scanline — and Ralf Wengenmayr’s lush orchestral score combine for a very smooth ride, and there’s a live-action look to the framing and direction. Even though non-German auds won’t get Herbig’s fun with exaggerated Austrian accents, there’s enough physical humor for pic to translate with offshore viewers.
After a witty opening in which an Austrian court official lectures the audience on the “house rules” to enjoy the movie, and a gold-plated title sequence that’s as much “Sound of Music” as “Sissi,” the story proper kicks off with a klutzy yeti (voiced by Waldemar Kobus) rescued from a vertiginous death by the Devil (Gerd Knebel). Tradeoff is that the yeti must bring the Devil “the most beautiful girl in the world.”
Cut to newly wedded, ever-smiling Franz (Herbig regular Christian Tramitz) bringing Lissi (Herbig) back to his palace, accompanied by Franz’s bespectacled, unctuous field marshal (fellow Herbig regular Rick Kavanian). Early scenes of Franz showing Lissi around the grounds, and of the blissful lovers together, are classic Herbig in their mix of sexual references and pratfall gags hidden beneath the courtly politeness being spoofed here.
Herbig is on record as saying he decided to make the film in CG animation because it would be more effective than having him onscreen in drag in the main role. He’s right: Lissi has a slightly androgynous look, but as an animated figure, she’s much more adaptable. One lovely sequence in which she she entertains Franz in Dietrich-like top hat, tights and tails would never have worked as live action.
First half-hour contains some of the best stuff, as Franz’s ice-cold mom, the Empress Dowager (Lotte Ledl), and other characters are introduced, with the field marshal supplying slapstick humor. But then the yeti suddenly kidnaps Lissi, and Franz, with all his armies tied up elsewhere, sets out to rescue her.
Humor gets rather local with the introduction of two Austrian peasant characters, Ignaz (Herbig) and Schweiger (Kavanian). But things recover with the appearance of the hippie-like King Bussi (Kavanian), who plays a role in the film’s satisfyingly comic showdown.
Herbig’s humor is essentially sketch- rather than plot-based, but in “Lissi,” the extra dimension of the animation bonds the movie together in a way that “Manitou” and “Dreamship” never quite achieved. Running time again clocks in under the 90-minute mark, with far less downtime than in the other two pics.