Imagine 2010: OBLIVION ISLAND: HARUKA AND THE MAGIC MIRROR Review

Japanese animation films were sorely missed at last year's Imagine Film Festival Amsterdam, but that criticism was taken to heart by the programmers so this year anime was back in a big way with representations by Studio 4C, MadHouse and Production IG. The offering by Production IG was the CGI feature "Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror", a flashy and spit-polished family adventure movie which actually ended up in the Top-10 of the Imagine Festival Audience Awards.
 
A high Audience rating is by its very nature deserved of course: a crowdpleaser is a crowdpleaser, and crowdpleasing is an art in itself. But was I impressed? Well... somewhat, in spots, but I was not overwhelmed.
 
I'll elaborate...
 
 

 
The Story:
In Japan there are shrines where you can pray for the return of goods you lost. One day, sixteen-year-old Haruka visits such a shrine and asks for a little hand mirror she misplaced when she was little. The mirror is the last thing Haruka's mother gave her before passing away, and Haruka took good care of it until it suddenly disappeared during a move to a new apartment.
 
By accident Haruka spots a fox spirit running away with a discarded toy plane. She follows and catches the creature, but in doing so she stumbles through a strange portal and finds herself in a different world, where spirits build complete countries out of lost goods. Humans are forbidden here, so Haruka blackmails the fox spirit to help her find her mirror and then return her home.  
 
The fox spirit guides her to Oblivion Island but finding Haruka's mirror turns out to be harder than she expected: all mirrors are magical in this land and highly valued. Mirrors can be used to change the shape and size of things, and can even bring inanimate objects to life! Worse: Haruka's hand mirror turns out to be a very special one, a prized possession of the mad Baron who rules Oblivion Island. And the Baron needs the mirror for his nefarious plans.
 
But just when Haruka thinks she knows where her mirror is, someone has stolen it from the Baron's keep...
 
 
oblivion_island-ext.jpgThe Movie:
Production IG used to be my favorite anime studio ever since the original "Ghost in the Shell" back in 1995 (well... tied with Studio Ghibli of course), but lately they've faced some tough competition from MadHouse and Studio 4C. And where the latter two studios have released several long and short movies recently that totally "wowed" me, I cannot recall anything by Production IG which can boast the same thing. Sure, "The Sky Crawlers" contained stellar images but that film will probably be remembered more for Lucasfilm's exquisite sound design than for its visuals, which most people thought of as jarring, frankly.
 
So now we have this latest offering: a CGI animated movie in the style of the Toy Story films by Pixar.
This one features a human lead in Haruka, and you may have to get accustomed a bit to how she is designed. Just look at the screenshots: is that a sixteen year old girl? At Production IG they certainly think so, and they even feel safe enough about that to include "jiggle" and even some pantsu-shots.
 
But OK, that's a design decision so I won't complain too much about it. I never liked the character designs for "Tekkon Kinkreet" either but that didn't make that movie any less awesome.
 
There is a bigger problem with the animation however,and that concerns consistency. In general the film looks incredibly well done, smooth, detailed, natural. Yet other bits look hurried and well... weak, and these sorely stand out. At one point Haruka walks through a forest and there is no movement whatsoever in branches and leaves, making it look like a bad cgi match with a matte painting. It doesn't help that later in the film she crosses the exact same spot, but now with a moving camera and suddenly all plants sway naturally, both in a breeze and in glorious shifting perspective.
 
And yes, "Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror" looks glorious in parts. Some of the monsters and environments are simply stunning. Oblivion Island lies in a Pellucidarian world on the inside of a continent-sized bubble (complete with inverted curved horizon), and at night you see the sky lit up not by stars, but by the evening lights of cities and countries on "the other side". Whenever someone gets on a train in Oblivion Island (which is often) prepare for a visual feast, as the camera travels through a wild landscape of cobbled-together buildings, gadgets and creatures. It helps that the local railway system resembles a carnival ride in more than looks alone. Each track dipping, winding and turning in illogical but fun ways.
 
In fact it seems fitting that the island's favorite form of transportation is a rollercoaster, because it mirrors (haha) the story. From the moment Haruka falls though the portal she is basically on rails for the rest of the film. Stuff happens to her and she survives it. Whenever Haruka manages to succeed in her quest it's not because of bravery, resourcefulness or by learning a valuable lesson, no, she succeeds because she constantly fails to die. She keeps "lucking" her way out of insurmountable odds in ways that might make even Indiana Jones frown a bit.
 
And there are other niggles: the villain is a non-character who is bad for no reason, there is no explanation why Haruka's mirror is so damn special, a bunch of goons unrelated to the Baron start bullying our heroes because, because... ehm... Like I said: stuff just happens to Haruka making it difficult to root for her, even when she is faced with a typical Japanese lengthy quadruple stage end-fight finale.
Worse: when the goings-on do get emotional (memories of lost ones feature heavily) it doesn't feel like that is of any importance to the story, and these scenes also cross into banal sentimentality...
 
This doesn't mean that "Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror" is a bad film, but it does make me sad that it isn't a lot better. As such it is a respectable and VERY spectacular matinee film for all the family, with lots of sauce but little meat. It doesn't help that it treads the same ground as (and is VERY similar to) Studio Ghibli's "The Cat Returns", a film which beats this one on every count except for special effects...  
 
 
Conclusion:
This year, no less than four animated movies ended in the top 10 of the Imagine Film Festival Audience Award, with "Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror" being one of them. It got a solid 8 out of 10 and who am I to disagree?
Yet disagree I do. This is a fun film but no classic. Allow yourself this as a visual treat but don't enter with high expectations concerning story or characters. 
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