The Walt Disney Pictures-backed Telugu-language fantasy-adventure picture Once Upon A Warrior, is a delightful, wonderfully insane tale of good vs. evil, true love, and heroism. It may required a bit of a leap of faith for viewers not accustomed to the tropes of Indian cinema which are, if anything, more pronounced in the southern cinema center of Andhra Pradesh from which Once Upon A Warrior originates but that leap of faith will be rewarded.
The story starts with an undead snake goddess ruling a long-ago far-away land (that of course totally looks like south India) with her evil magic. When one village’s children fall into a seemingly irreversible, enchanted sleep, they send villager Druki to travel to a temple where a magical child named Moksha lives, to bring her to the village to reverse the enchantment. The swami of that temple sends blind swordsman Yodha to accompany and protect Moksha, and the rest of the movie is given over to the journey back. And lots of flashbacks, songs, a charming, chaste love story between Yodha and a woman named Priya who uses her magic for mischievous ends, and any number of impediments put in their path by the evil undead snake goddess (who is, somehow, connected to Priya…)
The best word to describe Once Upon A Warrior is “fun.” Leading man Siddharth, as Yodha, is a perfect hero; charming, handy with a sword, and a good enough actor to make his evolution from slightly foolish cynic to really good guy plausible. But the key to a picture like this is that the bumbling sidekick and the cute kid not be annoying, and not only are Vallabhaneni Ramji (as the decidedly non-bumbling villager sidekick, Druki) and Harshita (as Moksha, the cute kid) not annoying, they’re both really good, especially (and crucially) Harshita. As Yodha’s one true love Priya, Shruti Haasan is lovely; although the role doesn’t call for much more than that, she does well in it. And villainess Lakshmi Manchu is deliciously evil, taking extreme pleasure in her badness.
One slightly problematic part of this movie to audiences accustomed to $100+ million CGI budget is the decidedly non-photorealistic special effects. For me, it was a testament to the goodwill the filmmakers establish with the audience and the other-worldliness of the rest of the movie’s visuals that the inexpensively done CG effects blend right in and become part of the movie’s charm rather than something that took away from my enjoyment of it. That being said, other viewers might not be as forgiving. So be advised, the effects don’t look real, but then again nothing else in this movie looks real. So there’s that.
Being an Indian movie, of course there are songs, and those are not bad at all; the first one features Siddharth lip-syncing basically the plot of the rest of the movie to come, and there are a couple of others with him and Shruti Haasan that are quite nice as well. They’re nothing that you’ll be humming for days afterwards, but they fit in the context of the movie nicely.
As a fantasy story, Once Upon A Warrior doesn’t break any new ground; for non-Indian audiences, the setting will probably be the only novelty. But fantasy stories work because of their timelessness, not in spite of it, and like the quest Once Upon A Warrior depicts (when not busy jumping around between flashbacks and songs of course), getting there is the whole point. In this regard, Once Upon A Warrior does not disappoint.
While perhaps more suitable for older audiences revisiting the experience of seeing fantasy movies as children, Once Upon A Warrior is still suitable for actual children, provided they’re able to handle a couple scary moments; some of the violence can be a bit intense, and unless the child in question is fluent in Telugu, there are the subtitles to contend with as well. That being said, Once Upon A Warrior is an enchanting fantasy tale, and will reward the audience willing to come along for the journey.