Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 4th 2014
Fairy Tail the Movie: Phoenix Priestess
After failing at one of her missions, a dispirited Lucy meets and befriends a strange young woman. The woman, Eclair, has one friend—Momon, a big-hearted but misshapen talking bird—and only fragmentary memories of her past. She can remember dancing in a ceremony, an attack, and being saved by an elderly magician who died after entrusting her with half of a powerful artifact known as the Phoenix Stone. Lucy and her guild-mates—Natsu, Erza, Wendy, and Gray—escort Eclair to her destination, but all they find there is a long-dead ruin and a cryptic message. Upon returning to Fairy Tail, they are attacked by mercenary magicians from the tiny nation of Veronica, who kidnap Eclair and spirit her back to the narcissistic Duke Cream. The guild stages a rescue, unaware of how much more is at stake than just the life of their new friend.
The cinematic off-shoots of ongoing TV properties are traditionally pretty dull affairs. Not so Phoenix Priestess. Priestess is the rare film that roundly trounces its television parent. It's a delightful little bon-bon, a compact, 85-minute action confection with all the heart and humor one associates with Hiro Mashima's manga and none of the bloat and apathy one associates with its TV adaptation.
The secret of Priestess's success is twofold: First of all, it shores up the TV series' visual and stylistic deficits by swapping in director Masaya Fujimori and pouring extra budget all over its visuals. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly from the franchise-film perspective, it enlists someone who really understands the series' strengths to craft its story. That person being Hiro Mashima. Now, to be clear, Mashima has not written a sparkling masterpiece. That's not what the man does. What he does is well-tuned, cliché-embracing shonen action. So we get what is essentially a miniaturized version of the standard shonen story arc: Team befriends new character; character has big problems; team helps, gets mixed up in world-threatening magic business. The good guys pair off with suitable bad-guys and the bad guys are defeated one by one, but too late as unspeakable powers are unleashed and everyone must combine forces to save the world.
Originality is most emphatically not what Mashima brings to the table. What he brings is an infectious enthusiasm for his genre-entrenched silliness, a honed sense for what makes it all work, and enough little surprises and grace notes to keep us engaged and pleasantly off-balance. The preliminary adventuring is appropriately goofy, but with little spikes of melancholy pounded into it wherever Lucy or Eclair takes center stage. Eclair's obligatory mysteries are gracefully set up and poignantly resolved, clues floated rather than hammered, revelations quietly anchored in our growing concern for her. The bad guys are just busting with color and personality, as well as the kind of sneering contempt that makes them eminently pummel-worthy. The inevitable villain/hero pairings are fun and just the right touch unpredictable, with interesting clashes of magical styles and fighters' personalities. Gray and a (hilariously) delusional Juvia team up to take on a burly, big-mouthed human artillery emplacement. Close-quarters brawler Natsu has to battle a man who can violently manipulate any object—including Natsu's body—from a distance. The always-awesome Erza is set against a haughty sadist who can strip her of her summoned armor and weapons at will.
All of it—adventuring and mysteries and fights—builds easily to a climax of properly apocalyptic violence, but more importantly is built firmly around the film's heart: the strange and tragic life of Eclair and her growing bittersweet friendship with Lucy. It's another of Mashima's canny shonen skills: the knowledge that even the happiest trifle should have real human drama with real human consequences lurking at its core. The high-spirited adventuring of the film's first half comes to an abrupt halt in a ruin haunted by a sad shard of Eclair's past, and the finale lays all truths, all feelings bare, ending its climactic feast of destruction on a bittersweet note that cuts far deeper than an 85-minute fluff film should.
Fujimori is a journeyman: competent and professional, with just a dash of inspiration—which places him light-years beyond TV saboteur Shinji Ishihara. The extra polish provided by the reinforced budget doesn't hurt either, and with it Fujimori gets a lot closer to capturing the indefinable charm of Mashima's artistry. Natsu is several steps closer to being the pointy-toothed, fire-chawing, two-fisted dervish he was in the comics; Erza more closely resembles the dagger-eyed, steel-spined, scary-sexy villain-stomper she should always have been; Lucy regains some of her sex appeal; and everyone finally has the animation resources to bring their emotions home. Fiore manages to look intriguingly alien and fantasy-ish, buildings and interiors get their fair share of personality, and the action is fast and flashy—home to its share of truncated movements and surreptitious short-cutting, but assembled with enough verve and imagination that it satisfies quite fully.
As for the dash of inspiration, that comes in the opening and ending scenes, a pair of wordless bookends that kick-start and tie off the plot, in the latter case with a warm-hearted montage that quietly winds up for a sweet punch right to the heart.
Yasuharu Takanashi's score isn't so different from what he whipped up for the TV series. It has better emotional depth, and doesn't rely so heavily on electric guitars, but is still a step down from his best work. Fujimori, however, uses it quite differently. Not with any kind of avant-garde invention, but sensitively and with the knowledge that sometimes quieter is more powerful.
Funimation's dub doesn't fare so well this time. With Mashima directly involved, everything is brighter, funnier, more intensely felt, and yet Funimation's team delivers the same stoically, unenthusiastically professional work that dragged the TV series down. They deaden Mashima's spirited physical humor with leaden delivery, "spice up" his dialogue with terrible quips, and throw off the timing of everything with awkward rewrites. Todd Haberkorn's toned-down Natsu is still a relief, but Mashima apparently tailored Lucy's film role to Aya Hirano's skill-set—namely her emotional intensity—making Cherami Leigh's emotionally truncated rendition sound positively childish in comparison. Jessica Calvello too fails to sell Eclair's emotional arc, sapping the finale of a great deal of its power.
The boost in video quality (on the Blu-ray, not so much the DVD) is welcome given the superior visuals, but still being spoiled by Aniplex's eye-slaying Blu-ray transfers, I'm not currently very impressed by Funimation's hi-def releases. Other than a clean OP and ED and the usual trailers and promos, this set has only one extra. It is, however, a really great extra: a twelve-minute prequel that adds immeasurably to the film's already estimable heartache. Eclair's life and Momon's fate in particular gain a kind of haunting, lasting power when coupled with it. Heck, even the main villain gets an extra dimension. I'm divided over whether it should be watched before or after the film—the omake gains from the "after" order, the film would probably gain from the "before" order—but either way you're guaranteed an all-around great time. If you're a Fairy Tail person, snap this baby right up.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Brighter, funnier, cooler, prettier, more heartfelt, more stylistically faithful, and just plain better than the TV series; a good-hearted, immensely fun little film.
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