Released last year to acclaim in it’s home country, but with little fanfare elsewhere, Checkered Ninja is a Danish animated comedy from the much loved and highly acclaimed comedian Anders Matthesen. I have to confess that I’m not that up on my Danish comedy but before watching the film my Danish friend was fortunately on hand to tell me all about it, and bar Sofie Hagen she doesn’t have much time for the comedy from her homeland as apparently there’s a lot of pretty sexist and all round shitty comics doing well there. Indeed you only need to mention Casper Christensen’s name if you want her to rant angrily for half an hour, but Matthesen is apparently a rare example of someone who’s highly respected and deservedly so.
This latest film of his sees him star, write and and co-direct the project (along with Thorbjørn Christoffersen) and it’s impressive indeed, if not quite your average conventional animated movie. That’s made clear from the get go where we see a scene in a Thaiwanese sweatshop where children are being forced to make toy ninjas, but when one uses the wrong kind of fabric and makes a checkered ninja instead of a black one he’s beaten to death by the sweatshop’s Danish owner. One convenient strike of lightning later and the Ninja is alive, and off to get vengeance for the murder of the child.
Before he manages to do that he ends up in the hands of young Alex (or Aske in the original Danish film, but I was only able to see a dubbed version so don’t know the proper names of all of the characters unfortunately). Alex is living with his mum and new step-father, and twatty step-brother Sean, and struggling with a crush on fellow student Jessica who he doesn’t have the courage to talk to. He’s one of the outsiders, and regularly picked on by school bully Glen, but after being given the checkered ninja as a birthday present by his wayward sea captain Uncle he’s soon getting in to a whole bunch of scrapes and adventures, which might just take a very dark turn if the checkered ninja gets his way.
This might seem like your standard kind of kids fare, bar perhaps the last part, and initially it plays around with a lot of ideas which have been covered before when it comes to Odd Couple style comedy where someone new comes in to a person’s life and helps improve it. But what makes Checkered Ninja quite the original piece is it’s treatment of the kids lives, it’s honest and smart in depicting their difficulties and doesn’t at any point talk down to them. As well as showing the perils of school life there’s a fair amount of swearing in it too, with one teacher telling a kid to “Piss off” while the word shit is used in various ways throughout, it takes a little while to get used to be honest and I can imagine parents from the US or the UK might be a little appalled, but it makes it feel all the more real, and is apparently par for the course in Denmark where they seem to respect the intelligence of kids a lot more than a many non-Pixar animated films do.
Not that this is a gritty study of life in any way, there’s still lots of slapstick and silly hijinks along the way, and the fight scene between Alex and Glen is delightfully inventive. But it doesn’t shy away from adult topics either, Alex’s Uncle jokes about cocaine use at one point (which becomes integral to the plot later on) and sings a song about how he’s “Best in the world when playing with my dick”, though he never gets to sing that last word. At one point the ninja plants a porn magazine in Alex’s step-dad’s room with a “Grandma’s Juicy Jugs” page in it, and the ninja isn’t exactly PC about women, commenting in one scene “Now the skirt knows your feelings. Sean can wipe his arse with that poem, and drink a bottle of piss for dessert!”.
It also tackles some fairly heavy themes (albeit not particularly in depth) so there’s some discussion of morality, the nature of justice and sweatshop illegalities, it’s still a mostly fun film but that it includes them at all is impressive. Most importantly is that it’s consistently funny, moves at a fast pace, and at 75 minutes (discounting the end credits) it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. Due to all of the above despite how it looks it’s not a film for young kids but anyone over the age of ten will probably enjoy it a lot, and it’s a movie that will appeal to adults even more so as they can nostalgically look back on how childhood really could be at times. Well, bar the murder and the sentient toys, at least.