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Two years after fighting the villain Sephiroth and restoring the balance of Lifestream in their world, Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockhart have retreated to a simpler life, running a delivery business. However, the Lifestream rumbles once again when the Geostigma infection breaks out, which is somehow linked to a trio of gray-haired ruffians who are searching for their "Mother," the godlike being Jenova. The remaining members of the once-avaricious Shinra Corporation call on Cloud to deal with this trio and the Geostigma, and although he's resistant at first, he soon finds himself thrown into battle. Old friends Tifa, Barret, Yuffie, Vincent, and Cid are in for the ride, but it might be a bumpy one as Sephiroth's specter still lingers over the world.
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children is undoubtedly the anime movie of the year, if not the last eight years—at least for fans of the franchise. The sentimental favorite of an entire generation comes back with cutting-edge animation, resulting in dramatic imagery and eye-popping fights that raise the bar and blow it away. Underneath that glossy exterior, however, is a superficial quest that barely lives up to the original. Not only that, but knowing the key plot points of the original game is a prerequisite for understanding the movie in full. Biting into this piece of eye candy may be a delight, but watch out for the hollow core.
To everyone who considers anime a superior form of entertainment to American fare: Congratulations! You've just been tricked into watching a Hollywood movie. The plot is something that you could see at any multiplex theater between the months of May and August, and usually the rest of the year too. It's just an excuse to get the hero involved in some dazzling action scenes, and when it's all over, Cloud saves the day in an unsatisfying deus ex machina that leaves everything open to interpretation. It's a cheap win that doesn't feel like the culmination of previous events. Where are the arduous labors? The intense mental, physical and emotional challenges? If all it takes to save the world is beating up a whole lot of bad dudes, it must be pretty easy to qualify as a hero.
And who are these heroes anyway? Unless you've played the game (or watched a friend play it, or seen some cosplay, or read some information online), there's no chance of getting to know the characters. Most sequels have that problem, but here it's magnified because the original was about 40+ hours' worth of gameplay. Compare that to a two-hour movie and that's a whole lot of back-story to catch up on. The movie tries to explain things with some introductory narration and willy-nilly flashbacks, but after trying to advance the story for 40 minutes, it just gives up and switches to pure action and fighting. There are even some cute comedy bits early on, but the lasting impression is one of fighting, fighting and more fighting. For old-time Final Fantasy fans, it's a thrill to see various characters reunite and join in the battle, but pulling on nostalgic heartstrings to say, "Hey, remember THIS guy?" is no substitute for real storytelling.
For all its flaws in the story department, however, Advent Children is still a stunning work of animation. With enough budget to put developing countries to shame, media giant Square throws computers and animation staff at the project until the end result looks like nothing that's ever been accomplished before. There's no shortage of technical quality, especially among the character designs that take the original anime style of the game and transform the cast into supremely fashionable human dolls.
The real star of the movie, however, is the nonstop action that seems to have absorbed every major blockbuster film of the last decade. If you ever wanted to know what it'd look like to watch The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Fast and the Furious, Star Wars, and their brethren all at once, it's right here. Square even contributes a new technique to the visual language of action films: the use of vertical space. In a world where gravity is optional, Cloud walks on air (getting the occasional boost from his friends) and scales walls at dizzying camera angles that could only be possible in animation.
Such fantastic sights deserve fantastic sounds as an accompaniment. Just when everyone thought they had Nobuo Uematsu all figured out, the legendary composer breaks ground again with an ear-pounding, rock-infused music score. Uematsu's trademark style of symphonic bombast and heart-rending piano balladry still dominates, but it's the roaring electric guitars and drums that make this soundtrack distinctive. Although Final Fantasy is a ubiquitous part of every fandom pianist's repertoire, the most exciting music in this movie is the kind that can't be replicated on a piano.
The English dub matches the high production values elsewhere in this movie, with a voice cast that suits the characters surprisingly well. Even Hollywood stars like Rachael Leigh Cook prove their abilities in the animation world; although there's no single standout among the cast, everyone delivers a solid performance worthy of a blockbuster movie. The dub script itself is easy to follow, despite the inevitable jargon popping up, and sticks so close to the subtitles that rewordings only happen when it's absolutely necessary to match the mouthflaps.
The main movie disc comes with a "Reminiscence of Final Fantasy VII" feature, which recaps the original game's storyline. Don't expect it to give you a firm grounding in the story, though; the rapid pace is just as confusing as the movie and is more of a refresher for those who have played Final Fantasy VII. The second disc, only in the Special Edition, is more fulfilling, with a half-hour making-of feature at its core. Interviews with the main staff provide new insights (so, Nobuo Uematsu was trying to channel Jimi Hendrix?) into the creative process, although some of it just descends into pseudo-philosophy that tries to make the movie sound deeper than it really is. Other extras include trailers, deleted scenes, and an abridged 25-minute version of the movie shown at the Venice Film Festival.
Ultimately, Advent Children is an act of nostalgia that feeds on a young generation's sentimental attachment to a hit franchise. Take away the iconic names like Cloud, Sephiroth, Tifa and Aerith, and it's just another action movie where the hero saves the world with lots of motorcycle riding, swordfighting, and letting mysticism take over in the end. Even so, it's a visual masterpiece that CGI animation studios will look to as the new industry standard, even if they don't have the money to match it. Just think, though—if some of that animation budget had been spent on story development, this movie could have transcended its status from high-priced fanfiction to a timeless work of art.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : D
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A
+ Outstanding animation that heralds the next stage in CGI.
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