“The Summit of the Gods” stands alone when it comes to animated films about mountain climbing. So it has that going for it.
It’s a tale that hangs on two mysteries — that of a recovered camera that might have belonged to George Mallory, the Englishman who might have “summited” Mount Everest in 1924, before disappearing in the snow for 75 years. His body was found in 1999, something not mentioned in the film, which is based on a Japanese comic book (manga).
The movie’s speculation is about a camera that Mallory might have had on his person, and the notion that an obsessive purist climber might have found it, withholding it from the world.
The other “mystery” is the one that’s been glibly answered for the 150 years people have battled sheer rock faces and ice walls to reach the world’s highest peaks. Why do they climb this or that mountain? Mallory is the bloke who gave that oft-quoted answer.
“Because it’s there.”
French animation filmmaker Patrick Imbert and his animation team tell this straightforward story in the most time-honored straightforward way. That makes for an engrossing film, but one that doesn’t really “get at” that “why,” despite paying lip service to the psyche of climbers.
A photojournalist comes home from a failed Everest expedition disgruntled with the work and the people who engage in this sport that has become his specialty. But a Nepalese barfly pitched him a much better story and an artifact, one that Fukamachi failed to act on. The guy wanted to sell him Mallory’s “vest pocket camera.”
The cynical Fukamachi brushed off the hustle, but later saw the hustler surrendering the camera to a big guy who seemed to have a better claim on it. And that guy’s missing fingers convince Fukamachi that he was the reclusive climbing legend Habu, a working-class mountaineer who gained fame in the ’60s and dropped out of sight years before.
Finding Habu and that camera become the reporter’s obsessions. But even after finding Habu, “answers” won’t come easily for a plainly-haunted man who will only say, “Once you get a taste for it, nothing else matters” when it comes to explaining himself.
In classic “Citizen Kane” fashion, we have a reporter talking to people who knew Habu, hearing their accounts of a self-absorbed obsessive, a classic loner who reminds anyone climbing with him, “If I’m in a tough spot, you leave me.”
His interview subjects him fill in on the man’s life story, and what they leave out Fukamachi fleshes out in voice-over narration.
“The Summit of the Gods” isn’t necessarily a story that needed to be told via animation. There are no talking animals, monsters or big-haired ponies. The medium is used to depict a death or two, some hallucinations and some decently rendered mountains. The animation isn’t anime, but is in that ballpark — slightly jumpy, under-animated.
It’s the screenplay, the mysteries in the plot, that sell this. It’s worth adding that it’s not over-sold, and like most films adapted from comic books, it’s more a surface skim than a deeply illuminating exploration of the human condition.
While “Summit” doesn’t expand the animation frontier or lift animation as an artform, it’s a perfectly watchable way of telling a reasonably compelling story.
Rating: PG, Thematic Content|Peril|Some Language|Smoking|Unsettling Images
Cast: The voices of Darren Barnet, Rich Ting, Keiko Agena
Credits: Directed by Patrick Imbert, scripted by Patrick Imbert and Magali Pouzol, based on the manga by Jirô Taniguchi and Baku Yumemakura. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:36