Sundance 2017 movie review: “Pop Aye”

The Sundance Film Festival is in full swing, and up first is a look at an offbeat story of a man and his elephant. But this isn’t “Larger Than Life” starring Bill Murray. No, “Pop Aye” is something considerably different.

Kirsten Tan’s “Pop Aye” is a sporadically entertaining import from Singapore and Thailand. At the heart of the story is Thana, a disenchanted architect who, on what at a surface level seems like a whim, purchases an elephant from a local. As it turns out, Thana and this elephant do have a history. Their connection is slowly revealed as they engage in a journey that takes them across Thailand. Throughout their exhausting road trip, Thana and Popeye meet an assortment of colorful characters along the way. Of course, by the end of this journey, it’s clear that these characters, Popeye included, have a subtle but profound impact on Thana’s life.

Thaneth Warakulnukroh is terrific as our hapless lead. He’s the kind of confused, lovable schlub who might have been played by Paul Giamatti had this film been made in the U.S. Beaten down in a profession that no longer appears to value him and ignored by a wife who no longer yearns for his touch, this man seeks solace and validation in an old friend and finds comfort in the odd but very human characters he comes into contact with throughout this story.

On the flip side, when it comes to a buddy movie, you’re only as strong as your co-star, and Warakulnukroh happens to have a good one in “Pop Aye.” The magnificent title character at the core of this film is quite simply a gorgeous, majestic animal, and Tan films this stunning creature with the same sort of care and beauty with which any other filmmaker might photograph his or her muse.

Clearly, the bond between Thana and his four-legged bestie is the most enchanting aspect of the film. The other characters that pop up throughout the picture keep “Pop Aye” grounded in reality.

There’s a lot to admire in “Pop Aye.” It’s pretty to look at, the elephant is a stunning sight to behold, and by and large the film is acted really well. The thing is, this movie is a little too quirky for it’s own good. Granted, that may partially be the cultural differences talking, but the fact is that I wasn’t always emotionally engaged, and the episodic nature of the film sometimes gets the best of it. Case in point, there are a handful of flashbacks in the picture that feel downright unnecessary. There are also a couple of loose ends in the picture that are a little frustrating, but such is that funny thing called life, I suppose.

Having said that, hats off to Tan for fashioning a undeniably subversive bromance movie punctuated by humor and bursts of heartache. The film doesn’t always completely come together, but if you’re an adventurous filmgoer who likes their character-driven road movies a little off-kilter, “Pop Aye” is worth a look when it eventually hits streaming services.

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