Sony animation studio A-1 Pictures’ first feature film is a bloated, uneven but very cute and occasionally extremely beautiful work. Five children, three on the cusp of adolescence and two littluns, embark on about the only adventure possible in their tiny farming community: a week spent without grown-ups, camping in the school. Searching for a missing rabbit, they instead find a strange little dog in the nearby fields, taking it back to the school to nurse to health. When it wakes up, it shocks them all by speaking to them: Pochi introduces himself as not a dog at all, but an alien from the planet Wan – which can be translated to the planet Woof. To thank the children for saving his life, he takes them to a huge base on the Far Side of the Moon, but unfortunately submitting his report on the plant life he found on Earth means travel there is shut down, stranding the group unless they take an express train to another planet and return home from there.
The children have to raise money so take on part time jobs, until the girl struggling the most to find employment discovers there is a great demand for the wasabi roots she brought from the farm. This is what Pochi was researching, and is also the key to a mysterious plan by members of the intergalactic extravaganza the Space Show. The money gets the kids to Planet Wan, but by then word of the wasabi has spread and those who originally injured Pochi strike again, kidnapping the youngest of the children. Pochi suspects his old acquaintances who just happen to be the minds behind The Space Show – and so begins the children’s battle to get little Amane-chan back and get home before they are missed.
I really wish that the producers hadn’t come out with the oft-repeated blurb that Welcome to the Space Show ‘surpasses Star Wars in scale’. It does no such thing, and indeed that’s part of why it works. It is not a film about galactic empires, clashing space samurai or space stations that can destroy planets. It’s not about the orphan boy discovering his royal destiny and overthrowing an evil Empire. It’s on a much smaller scale. Five children meet a talking dog, go to the moon, make friends (such as the utterly adorable Ink), get a train (and fixate on snacks), visit a dog planet, then embark on a rescue operation that really never puts anyone in much true danger, bar the risk of crashing a space ship. Star Wars has its silly and comic elements, but it’s definitely on a much larger, grander scale. Welcome to the Space Show has more charm but much less scope – and that’s how it should be. So the quote feels rather irritating to me.
The film is rather derivative of Madhouse’s style of feature film making. The character designs are similar, and the way the characters move and the styles change is much more like the aesthetic of, say, Summer Wars than anything by Ghibli. The opening scenes may be slightly Totoro-ish, with the familiar, very Japanese setting and the Mei-like qualities of little Amane, but as soon as Pochi talks, it becomes much more quirky and knowingly silly (rather than innocently silly) than any Ghibli work. However, I’d rather A-1 found their own voice, and that doesn’t seem to have happened just yet.
The film is overlong, at around two-and-a-quarter hours, and I can imagine kids getting bored of it, especially as it’s quite meandering and action sequences are short. The animation is mixed, often stunning but sometimes lazy, especially for character speech. Action scenes, however, have some incredibly good parts, there are some amazing backgrounds and imaginative flights of fancy, and the train sequence has a lot of peculiar psychedelic effects that are nicely experimental, if a little jarring. Probably the film’s best quality is its sound: the child voice actors are excellent, veterans put in good performances as odd-looking characters, and the rather surprising revelation that Susan Boyle sings the feature’s theme song only reminds the listener that she does indeed have an absolutely fantastic voice: she actually gets to show off her excellent tone and the versatility of her performance. Slightly odd but impressive.
A film about five schoolchildren going to space with a talking dog-alien and getting into scrapes because of wasabi shouldn’t be taken that seriously. It’s fun and cute and silly, and if it’s in that frame of mind you watch it, you will enjoy it. The kids are all incredibly cute and the world is spectacular. Don’t expect Star Wars. Simply…enjoy.