“Stingray Sam is not a hero…” So begins the weird musical sci-fi western adventure story by Cory McAbee called, appropriately enough, Stingray Sam. I first became aware of Stingray Sam on io9 — how could I resist a headline about the “best musical space western ever”? The answer is that, as a huge Browncoat and fan of musicals, I couldn’t. In fact, the web series definitely reminds me in many ways of something written by Joss Whedon. If you crossed him with David Lynch. And added in maybe a soupçon of Hayao Miyazaki cuteness.
The basic story itself is pretty straightforward (spoilers ahead!). The Quasar Kid recruits his buddy Stingray Sam (so named because he actually has a baby stingray in his stomach, as we find out in a song) into rescuing a kidnapped little girl. It’s when we get into the details that it starts to get weird (as if a stingray in a man’s belly wasn’t weird enough). The biggest complication is that they don’t actually know who they are looking for or why. So they set off to figure it out. They discover that a spoiled brat named Fredward (a combination of his two fathers’ names — it seems in the future, scientists have perfected a genetic recombining that results in only male children who can carry on the family name) has kidnapped her because her father wouldn’t finish a carpentry job for him. The carpenter didn’t want a male child, so he managed to have a daughter instead (somehow gender choice pills are involved), and he is quite distraught at his daughter’s disappearance. Along the way we learn more about this strange world that the Quasar Kid and Stingray Sam inhabit, including the odd economics of their home planet Durango (involving penitentiaries and rocket ships, which is actually part of how they were roped into the job of rescuing the girl) as well as the failed Corporate Mascot Rehabilitation Program. And, of course, each episode of the six-part series features a song. In the end, the Quasar Kid and Stingray Sam rescue the girl, and, although she and Stingray have bonded, she returns to her father.
Cory McAbee has created a weird and wonderful world in this sixty-minute movie. David Hyde Pierce narrates, giving the much needed background information in a fashion that reminded me of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The songs are catchy and sing-along-worthy, and they serve to further the plot as well as to develop the characters. They range from a “retarded” dance number (“Get it Started”) to a lullaby (“Lullaby Song,” somehow sung simultaneously by Stingray Sam and the Quasar Kid despite being made up as they sing it), along with fairly straightforward rock and even a pirate song. McAbee (and his band, The Billy Nayer Show) certainly spent as much time on the music as he did everything else.
Stingray Sam is an unlikely, but affable, hero, who just sort of goes with the flow of whatever’s happening. The carpenter’s daughter is absolutely adorable, and her bond with Stingray feels quite real (which is appropriate since she is actually McAbee’s real daughter). She’s quite the little actress. The Quasar Kid seems to be a little like Han Solo — he leaves when they have rescued the girl even though they haven’t returned her to her home. But, like Han, he comes back at a crucial moment and saves the day in the final confrontation between Fredward and Stingray Sam. Speaking of Fredward, he’s not exactly a bad guy, more like a petulant brat spoiled by a lifetime of yes-men and wealth. He just expects to get his way and so ends up making bad decisions when he can’t, thus leading to his kidnapping of the carpenter’s daughter.
There are several ways to get a copy of this six-part series. The first two episodes can be viewed for free online, and you can also download one of the songs. If you enjoy those two episodes, and you will if you have a sense of the weird, you definitely won’t be disappointed with the remaining four. The lowest paid rung is all six parts in iPod compatible format, along with high quality digital photo stills, for $8. There’s also an HD version as well as versions that include the DVD. Both the iPod version and the HD versions are excellent quality. At the top of the paid options, the one I purchased, is the Deluxe version. This includes the iPod version, the HD version, the DVD, the soundtrack (in both MP3 and CD format), five behind the scenes videos, a signed photo book in addition to the digital one, and a Stingray Sam t-shirt, all for $49 plus shipping. Since I preordered mine and the shipping was delayed, I also received a free download of McAbee’s previous film, The American Astronaut, which can otherwise be difficult to find. Since that isn’t a normal part of the package, however, I won’t review that here.
I have to say that I’m quite pleased with my Deluxe package. As I mentioned previously, I’m a sucker for musicals, so I knew I would want the soundtrack even before I watched the whole thing. I was right. In addition to the songs in the movie, there are a few others that clearly fit right into the world of Stingray Sam. There are even full versions of the incidental music, which was a pleasant surprise. The photo book is well done, and it’s cool to have a signed copy of it. The DVD and CD are what you’d expect — professionally done. I’m more interested, however, in the digital versions, especially since the DVD isn’t in HD and since I listen to most music on my iPod. Probably my favorite extra, however, would be the t-shirt. It’s just a simple black t-shirt with the Stingray Sam logo on it, but at the next con I can now outgeek just about everyone else there. I mean, everyone knows Doctor Horrible and the Buffy musical, but how many people will be likely to be sporting Stingray Sam gear? Not many, I’d guess. Except, of course, now that you’ve read the review you’ll be wanting one, too, I suppose…
All in all, this is a wonderful video (and audio) experience that you’ll want to experience again and again in whatever format you choose.
Rating: 5 / 5 Stars for the movie as well as for the Deluxe package