Saturday, 18 June 2011

Naruto Movie 2: 大激突!幻の地底遺跡だってばよ / Daigekitotsu! Maboroshi no Chiteiiseki dattebayo / Great Clash! Illusionary Ruins at the Depths of the Earth ...

...dattebayo. Or to give it the official English title, Legend of the Stone of Gelel.

It must be said that with the regular series rapidly losing fans thanks to terribly-written filler episodes, the manga limping along with a predictable and clunky plot and big reveals that are milked way to much to provide anything but bathos, and the games fun to play but hung on repetitive and somewhat silly plots, Naruto is long past its heyday. However, this movie reminded me just how good the characters are, and just how gripping their world can be. It was almost a good movie. Almost.

Firstly, the movie is beautiful. Animation has priority over keeping the art totally on-model, but it works well, because the characters move with such fluidity and the art is still of a high enough quality that it looks fantastic. The background work in particular is superb, though some CG backdrops were a little jarring. Naruto as a series began with extremely beautiful animation in its first main arc, became a bit hit-and-miss thereafter (from the highs of the Lee-Gaara fight, still two of the most impressive episodes of any anime I’ve seen, to the lows of the Naruto-Kiba fight) and currently suffers from some of the cheapest and most basic animation since Pokémon. But the animation here was superb, recalling at times Miyazaki films (the little slice-of-life cuts in the gypsy camp; trees growing at an incredible rate), at times Akira (Kankuro’s face in the shadows; the way Gaara’s sand moved), and showed just how good the characters can look when animated properly. I assure you, that is very good indeed!

Kudos to the writers for creating something that serves both Naruto newbies, who would find little confusing (except a little Sasuke cameo and perhaps the lack of exposition for Gaara and Kankuro), and also hardcore fans. The scenario wasn’t written by Kishimoto (the manga's creator), but it’s clear that the scriptwriters knew their stuff, from accurate characterisation and catchphrases and good portrayals of characters’ fighting styles to typical plot tropes. There was even good use of genjutsu, which it sometimes feels like Kishimoto himself has abandoned or forgotten (Itachi’s special form of it aside). The only questionable part is that there are people in the fictional world who haven’t heard of Chakra or ninjutsu. This seems unlikely within Kishimoto’s universe, though it’s not impossible.

But the crux is the story. And it starts so well! Naruto, Sakura and Shikamaru’s simple mission becomes diverted when they are attacked (for reasons never fully explained) by a mysterious knight. Nice to see some varied cultures. The young knight is following a man who is promising to build a utopia where all are safe from war. But at what cost?

Very typical anime stuff, but well done. Surprisingly, what lets this movie down is the fights, especially troublesome since the big plot McGuffin means that 90% of the movie’s latter half is fighting. It’s not the animation – there’s little to fault in the opening scene, for example – but the writing. First, there are some daft One Piece moments (‘Your sand can’t compete with my lightning!’), except the film doesn’t have the tongue-in-cheek charm of that series to carry it off. But what’s really hard to take is the fact that the bad guys keep mutating into really stupid-looking mutant creatures. It just does not work. It takes the whole thing down a level and makes it laughable. If not for this major flaw, the contrived plot, cheesy ending and paper-thin big bad guy would have been palatable. But the monsters push this one step too far; it becomes irretrievably ridiculous. Shame – the first half really was exemplary.

(originally written 23.5.06)

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