Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 19th 2012
DVD - Complete Collection (Lite Box)
Mikan is an elementary school student leading an ordinary life—until the day her eccentric best friend, Hotaru, moves away to an exclusive boarding school called Alice Academy. Each student at the school has a special ability called an "Alice," and they are training those abilities for the good of society. Desperate to stay with her friend, Mikan follows Hotaru to Alice Academy, but is there any room for an ordinary girl whose only talent is getting herself into trouble? The school authorities suspect that Mikan has a unique Alice of her own and decide to accept her—but being accepted by her own peers is a totally different challenge. It won't be easy dealing with classmates who can create fire, levitate objects, and even read minds. But an even greater danger lurks among the school's teachers and former students, who are hiding some shocking secrets about the Alice program.
There's only one tricky thing that needs to be clarified about Gakuen Alice: the word "Alice" can refer both to the special power or to a person who wields that power. However, everything else about the series is simple to the point of banality: everyday girl-next-door meets kids with superpowers, kids show off their powers, and then everyone conquers their inner demons while learning the value of friendship. In other words, it's a typical schoolyard comedy-action-drama ... in a world already crammed with schoolyard comedy-action-dramas. Between that and the cheap animation, it really would take a viewer with superhuman abilities to sit through this.
The series starts out with the usual world-building segment, which turns out to be one of the more interesting parts of the story. The first few episodes are strung together by cliffhangers, with Mikan's challenges rolling out one after another: first she must find her way to Alice Academy, then get into the school, then try to survive her new classmates' taunts. After the establishing the academic system and how Alice powers work, however, the series backslides into dull, predictable material where Mikan does everyday boarding-school things like taking classes and trying to contact her folks back home.
Midway through, some drama emerges as a former student stirs up trouble at Alice Academy and exposes the dark side of the system. (What, you thought a government-sponsored program for training kids with superpowers would be run entirely for their benefit?) Although this brings some action and suspense into the mix, it only lasts for about three episodes before the storyline once again gives in to pointless antics. The school festival, for example, takes a full five episodes just to get through all the obligatory clichés—a haunted house, a play, a bonfire dance, and others. That's about four episodes longer than any school festival should last.
The villain from the series' midpoint re-emerges for the last few episodes, hoping to end things with a bang, but instead just ends up rehashing the same talking points from last time. Exploiting children, using one's powers responsibly, and personal duty versus personal freedom are all interesting ideas to bring up, but nothing terribly new. This lack of originality is also clear to see in the large but stereotypical cast of characters: two of them (including Hotaru) get tagged with the "aloof on the outside but sensitive on the inside" trait, and we also get the goody-two-shoes class representative, the stuck-up class queen, and the charming teacher with a dark past, among others. And since it only takes Mikan the first half of the series to win everyone's friendship (or at least grudging respect), it's no wonder the storyline gets bogged down in fluff—there's just no conflict until the grand finale.
The mediocre animation does little to help the series' cause; a choppy framerate and bland color schemes prove that most of this was produced with as little effort and budget as possible. The character designs stay true to Tachibana Higuchi's original manga, but that's not actually a good thing, considering that the entire cast is a catalog of mix-and-match hairstyles and eyes tacked onto identical face templates. Master goofball Shinichi Watanabe occasionally steps in to direct some of the episodes, resulting in a number of high-energy slapstick scenes, but far more common are the awkward gestures and freeze-frame poses that try to pass for character movement. The flat, poorly detailed backgrounds add another eyesore to the mix, and even various props—like Hotaru's robotic creations—are designed to look cute and silly but never convincing. The only artistic strong point is Mikan's repertoire of over-the-top reaction faces, which should make it clear where the series' priorities lie.
Surprisingly, the soundtrack has moments of daring and creativity, most notably during suspense scenes where strains of avant-garde jazz trumpet set the mood. More conventional, but still well-produced, are the tuneful ballads that start playing whenever the characters reach an emotional turning point. However, moments like these are offset by all the comedy and school-life segments where goofy, synthesized tracks are the norm. That style also applies to the opening theme song, which in its quest to be peppy and cute ends up being downright annoying instead. Fortunately the ending theme is more sedate, but again relies on a musically lightweight arrangement.
As a space-saving reissue of the subtitle-only DVD box set from two years ago, there isn't really any new material on these discs. Still, Nozomi Entertainment goes beyond most other distributors by including translation notes and character profiles among the usual extras (textless credits and trailers). As a relic from the mid-00's, the series is doomed to standard-definition 4:3 visuals forever, but given the animation quality it's unlikely that HD would have helped it that much anyway.
Gakuen Alice has little to say that hasn't already been said elsewhere: respect one another, do your best, friendship triumphs over all, and with great power comes great responsibility. Perhaps the only reasons for buying this release are because you missed the first boxset from 2009, or because it's hard enough finding a kid-friendly, school-themed anime amidst all the teen- and mature-rated dreck that airs at odd hours. Although there are occasional sprinklings of intrigue and drama, is it really worth sitting through all the classroom antics and poor animation quality just for that? There are plenty of other series about going to school and making friends—and even the prospect of superpowers in this one doesn't make it particularly special.
Overall (sub) : D+
Story : D
Animation : D
Art : C
Music : B-
+ Along with the usual message of love and friendship, a couple of story arcs raise questions about the ethics of using one's talents.
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