The Other Side of Animation 176: Ni No Kuni Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Well, it’s 2020. The start of the New Year, a new decade, and I want to focus on the feature-length animation side of things. This year is going to be wild because we have mostly original animated films coming out. I am always hopeful that what looks great turns out to be great, and films that might be bad eggs to be, well, not bad eggs. I’m always going to be like this going into every animated film no matter the situation, but sometimes, the walk down the yellow-brick road will lead to disappointing films. This where we are with the newest Netflix animation purchase, Ni No Kuni.

Directed by Yoshiyuki Momose, written by Akihiro Hino, based on the popular video game franchise, animated by Oriental Light and Magic (the same studio that animates the Pokémon anime and film series), and put out by Netflix here in the US, is our first major animated film. I was surprised by the sudden release of Ni No Kuni because once it was released in Japan last year, there was barely any news about it. No box office reports, and barely any reviews. Now that I’ve seen it, I can understand why. Why? Well, let’s dive in.

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The story revolves around three young teens named Yusuke Ninomiya, dubbed by Max Mittelman, Haruto Ichihara, dubbed by Alejandro Saab, and Kotona Takashina, dubbed by Abby Trott. They are best friends, even though some tension is there with Yusuke being confined to a wheelchair. One day, Kotona calls both Yusuke and Haruto because she’s being chased by a shadowy and creepy looking individual. The two boys save her, but were too late to prevent her from getting stabbed. As they try to take her to a hospital to get better, they almost get hit crossing a crosswalk. Luckily, instead of dying, Yusuke and Haruto get warped to a magical world known as Ni No Kuni. The two boys try to find their friend, and discover that this magical world runs parallel with their real world, and that every person in both worlds has a version of themselves. They find out that their friend Kotona who was hurt is the princess in the magical world. They also realize that if something happens in this magical world, it affects their world as well. Can the two find out how to make it back and solve the crisis of who attacked the princess and their friend?

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On paper, this movie looks like a fantasy feature that would offer something complex with its theme of what are you willing to do for the people you love. Unfortunately, the biggest downside to this film is the story and writing. The film is not based on either the first or second game, and I like that it tries its own story, but it’s too basic. The characters don’t evolve beyond their character traits, the side characters aren’t interesting, and the villain is boring. The drama of the two male leads should be strong enough to carry the film, but it’s not. It’s even more disappointing when the female lead is then relegated to the damsel in distress. This is bad, because the female leads in the first two games are great and active characters. Also, don’t be going in thinking the mystery of who tried to kill the two women to be captivating or something on the level of Knives Out. If you know anything about anime character designs, then you know who’s going to be the bad guy. The last-minute twists in the film are also so lazily integrated that I rolled my eyes when they happened.

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So, the script plays it safe, but what about the animation? Well, it looks like a Studio Ghibli and Studio Ponoc film, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to look as good as films from those studios. Like I said above, it’s animated by the people who do the Pokémon series and films, and it looks as good as some of their regular films, but at this point, you are wanting to see all of the little details that come with seeing a Ghibli or Ponoc film. You take it for granted, because while it’s not badly animated, it has nothing that I would say looks grand or theatrical. It also has CGI that doesn’t blend well. It doesn’t take full advantage of its setting, and that drags the experience down. What about the film’s voice work? Well, it’s not bad, and it at least tries to match the European/British tone of the two games. You have a solid cast including Max Mittelman, Alejandro Saab, Abby Trott, Patrick Seitz, Erica Lindbeck, Armen Taylor, Robbie Daymond, John DeMita, Spike Spencer, Wendee Lee, Kyle Hebert, Derek Stephen Prince, Kirk Thorton, Ray Chase, and others. Joe Hisaishi returns to compose the music, and it’s fine. Maybe it’s more of the Ghibli bias in me, or it’s the fact that another recent film he worked on, Children of the Sea had a much better soundtrack, but Ni No Kuni‘s usually iconic sound was not here. I think I liked one of the songs, and that’s it.

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I still stand by my opening statement that I go into every film hoping for the best. Sometimes I end up enjoying the film, and sometimes, I don’t. It helps that I also go in with a mid-level hype for every film because then, I don’t judge the film too harshly if they didn’t reach my impossible sky-high standards. Sadly, not every film can be a hit, and while I don’t think Ni No Kuni will be one of the worst animated films I have seen, it will be one of the most disappointing. I can now see why Netflix sort of buried the release of Ni No Kuni, and why most of the reviews were fairly mixed to negative. It had all of the elements to be a great film, but due to a bad script and weak story, the film falls flat. Check it out if you are curious, but there is no rush to watch Ni No Kuni. Now then, I think it’s time to check out Masaaki Yuasa’s newest film, Ride Your Wave.

Thanks for reading the review! I hope you all enjoyed reading it! If you would like to support my work, make sure to share it out, and if you want to become a Patreon supporter, then you can go to patreon.com/camseyeview. I will see you all next time!

Rating: Rent it (It’s on Netflix, but still)

The Other Side of Animation 131: Lu Over the Wall Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Welcome to Far East Animation Month! This is pretty much Japanese Animation Month, but since one of the films I’m going to tackle is not from Japan, I decided to change up the title, because the far east has some pretty promising stuff coming out of the animation scene. Taiwan has a film showing in this year’s Annecy Film Festival, and Japan, as usual, has a bunch of films in production or are about to be released. This time, we are going to start out with what can be considered Masaaki Yuasa’s biggest hit out of his animation career, Lu Over the Wall. Animated by Science Saru and Toho Animation, this was Yuasa’s first major hit that was both a financial and critical success. In his past, he was getting critical praise, but was not the most lucrative director, which unfortunately gave him a stigma of not being able to bring in the big bucks. Thankfully, this one did super well, and he’s having a fantastic career right now with his other film Night is Short, Walk on Girl that came out before Lu Over the Wall, and the hit Netflix anime series, Devilman Crybaby. Let’s just dive into this awesome film!

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The story follows a young boy named Kai, dubbed by Michael Sinterniklaas. He lives in a small fishing town that doesn’t really have the brightest future for anyone wanting to expand on their life outside of what happens in the town. He ends up getting pulled into this band with its two founding members Kunio and Yuho, dubbed by Brandon Engman and Stephanie Sheh. He decides to join them for band practice on this mysterious Merfolk Island, a place where mermaids live and the townsfolk are told to not mess with them, or play music, which supposedly attracts them. During practice, Kai ends up encountering a small mermaid girl named Lu, dubbed by Christine Marie Cabanos. What will happen now that he knows that mermaids actually exist? What will the townsfolk think when they realize that the mermaids are back? Will the songs be groovy and jamming?

So, I have commented in the past that Yuasa has a very distinct style and way of directing his stories. His animation style sticks out with thin lining, and characters who look simple, and while polished in a lot of ways, are very stretchy and bouncy. By a lesser artist, it would look sloppy and ugly, but this stretch and bounce-style of animation is balanced this time, and shows off the fun and energy the characters bring, and also the ugly anger that can come from them. Everything feels like the old Tex Avery cartoons made back in the day, which is no surprise, because Yuasa was inspired by him. It’s simply a lot of fun to watch the animation in motion, since you get to see a lot of it through dancing. Even with the designs as they are, it leads to great expressions and comedy.

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In terms of the themes, story, and characters, I liked it all. I have some issues with how parts of the story were handled, but this feels like the most focused of Yuasa’s work. It deals with the trials of growing up, being able to interact with your loved ones, the downsides to fame, and the dangers of fear mongering. I love seeing some of these themes, because while you definitely see them tackled in a couple of the foreign films, too many of the non-Disney or non-Pixar films decide to have different morals that you don’t often see in most animated films. Seriously, more animated family features need topics of parents and really, anyone needing to be upfront when talking about certain issues. It makes it better in the long run when everyone is on the same page. Lu Over the Wall is also very charming and sweet. I love the scene where Kai and Lu are walking around the town at night. It reminds me of hanging out with my niece. It’s easily the most heart-felt part of the movie. I even like seeing Lu’s dad interact rather peacefully with the humans. Her dad probably has some of the better laughs of the film.

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The voice cast is pretty stellar. I have seen this film in both English and Japanese, and I found the dub cast to be awesome. While I have made some snarky remarks that two of the leads are voiced by the same two who voiced the leads in the critically acclaimed Your Name, and they were chosen for that reason alone, I do think Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh do a good job with their roles. Michael pretty much kills it as a middle school boy unsure of his future and still bitter after his parents’ divorce. It was nice to hear voice actors like Derek Stephen Prince, because I love hearing from voice actors I don’t normally hear from, or simply don’t recognize them right off the bat. One major aspect that I admired about the dub was that they dubbed the songs. Usually, they would just put up some subtitles while the characters sing in Japanese. Kudos for GKids to make sure the dub also covered the songs. I can tell they did this for the next film I’m going to review, and hopefully this will be the case with Fireworks. While I would say the English singing of the song is not 100% perfect, I give the actors credit for having to deal with it, because I’m sure it’s not easy to have to speak and sing for roles like these. Speaking of music, Lu Over the Wall’s soundtrack was composed by Takatsugu Muramatsu. There is a great mix of jazzy upbeat tunes, soft, giving off the vibes of being by the sea, and dramatic tunes when needed for the story.

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The only major complaint I have is that there is a lot going on in the last third. It’s great, but the film builds up a couple of storylines, and they either didn’t know how to pace them, or couldn’t cut them. Some of the side stories get fleshed out decently enough, but a lot of them have endings that wrap up too quickly. Some have touching conclusions, while others give you that feeling of “Is that it? Okay, I guess that was somewhat satisfying.” It does end up making the last third feel drawn out a touch, and a bit busy. It was the only time where I felt like Yuasa’s busy mentality almost got free.

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Overall, I really loved Lu Over the Wall. It’s cute, funny, charming, energetic, and such a fun watch. I had a smile on my face from beginning to end. I know some are trying to twitch react to this film being a clone of Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo, but it’s not. Both are entirely different movies, both have entirely different themes, stories, and both are amazing. It’s still playing in theaters right now, but I bet by August or September, it will be out on DVD. If you can’t catch it in theaters, then definitely buy the movie. Next time, we shall tackle our first South Korean-animated feature that has weird baggage attached to it. That’s right! We will be tackling another GKids-distributed film with Satellite Girl and Milk Cow! Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Criterion/Essentials