Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 30th 2009
Sub.DVD - Complete Collection
Mikan loves her best friend Hotaru to distraction. No matter that Hotaru sees her more as a source of funds than a buddy. So when Hotaru disappears without a word to attend the mysterious Alice Academy, Mikan packs her bags and follows. Unfortunately for her, Alice Academy is no normal school and Hotaru no normal girl. The Academy is a refuge for children with supernatural abilities (called “Alices”), and Hotaru is among the gifted. But, wouldn't you know it, as things turn out so is Mikan. Overjoyed that her seemingly useless Alice (the “Nullification” Alice) allows her to live her dream of being Hotaru's schoolmate, Mikan soon learns that her dream is a little more like a nightmare than she would like. Assigned to the lowest rank in the school (the rank responsible for garbage collection and dish-washing), she's picked on incessantly by the snooty elitist girls and bratty herd-minded boys of her class. And just to make things worse she must also contend with a faculty that is inexplicably hostile towards her Alice, a violent anti-Academy movement (kidnappings and invasions, oh my!), and a teddy bear that beats the living heck out of her whenever she wanders into the forest. Throw in a three-story baby chick, a variety of exploding and malfunctioning robots, and more troublesome superpowers than you can shake a stick at, and you have one seriously screwed-up academic environment. Not that it's any match for Mikan's indestructible spunk.
On a scale of 1 to 10 of series that resemble their lead characters, Gakuen Alice is about a 9. Like Mikan, it's hyper, kind of stupid, and tries way too hard. And like Mikan, its heart is so obviously in the right place that you can't really hold any of that against it.
Kodocha is an obvious influence. Gakuen Alice's supercharged mix of out-and-out weirdness and goopy sentimentality (to say nothing of its inter-sex classroom rivalries and pig-tailed ADD lead) owes much to Akitaroh Daichi's seminal comedy freakfest. It's just too bad Daichi wasn't on hand to steer it aright. As it works through its twenty-six episodes, Alice hits everything from wackoid comedy to playground puppy love, familial angst, political intrigue and psychic action, but rarely does any of them convincingly. The politics, especially Narumi's ambiguous manipulations, feel distinctly out of place in what is basically a children's series; the comedy is more energetic than funny; the blandly executed psychic action feels like an afterthought; and the heavier material tries so hard to be touching that it's irritating as often as it is affecting.
Actually it isn't just the angst that tries too hard, it's the entire series. It wants so badly to please that it stumbles all over itself. Rather than allow the cultural festival and its inherent little dramas play themselves out, the series just has to throw a kidnapping in. Every moment has to be crammed with strange inventions, classroom hi-jinks, or big, blundering emotions. One gag will never suffice when two (or three) can do, nor one platitude when a fleet will serve. Episodes come to feel naked without at least one wig-out, chase or explosion, and no scene is complete without an affirmation of how zany and wondrous Alice Academy is. All this madness has its comedic benefits (take, for instance, Mikan's doomed rivalry with the misanthropic Bear), but can also leave the series feeling strained.
The series' serious side isn't lost amidst all this comedic and narrative noise. It's far too loud for that. Just like the zaniness, the characters' feelings are shoved in our faces at every opportunity, on the off chance that we might otherwise miss them. Any important change in emotion will be mentioned aloud enough times that there is no possible way, short of total hearing and sight loss, to miss them. While the overkill approach can work with comedy, it never works with emotions. Even if the emotions weren't already too heavy for the template-forged characters to support (and weren't template-forged themselves), the utter lack of subtlety would destroy them. The result is a series that's busy but artificial, lively but not alive.
Which is exactly where everything would stand were it not for one fact: it's also terminally good-natured. From its opening frame, the series exudes a pure, honest desire to entertain that is no less endearing for not being backed up with the skill to pull it off. Even the out-of-place and over-intense action and angst are presented with a guilelessness that makes them impossible to hate. However, not surprisingly, the series is at its best when it doesn't take itself too seriously. When it's poking fun at Mikan's wildly misguided friendship with Hotaru or dealing with pugilistic plushies, it's easy to be swept away by the series' enthusiasm while forgetting—for a time at least—that it's hell-bent on stomping the fun into you whether you like it or not.
Quantity over quality is the creed of Alice's animators. It's a time-honored approach: give viewers so much to look at that they haven't time to notice that none of it is very impressive. The characters are cute but unremarkable, the settings colorful but undistinguished, and the mecha wacky without being particularly imaginative. But there's a lot of them packed into any given moment, and the effect is far from boring (though it definitely gets overbearing). The animation follows a similar tack, opting for lots (lots) of simple movements over complex ones, resulting in high energy without the high cost. All of your usual shortcut friends are in attendance, and there is little if anything that approaches the fully animated. There are, however, a few fairly impressive computer effects scattered throughout. Once again, not distinctive, but never boring.
Given the series' effort to pile on the wackiness, it's a bit of a surprise to find that it's score is so seldom used. A lot of Alice plays out to little or no musical accompaniment. When it does come out of hiding the score leans towards silly little compositions befitting the show's silly little plots. A few melancholy tunes round out the score. The opening is a fun bit of pop fluff and the closer a quieter bit of pop fluff.
One thing Right Stuf does well is putting together releases that make you feel as if you got your money's worth. Gakuen Alice is no exception. Twenty-six episodes over five discs with translator's notes on each, all in a sturdy thinpak box. And all for fifty bucks. No English dub, but by this point no one expects one.
One can't help but regret that there isn't one, however. This is after all a children's series, and despite its often strained feel, it's an entertaining one. By releasing it sans dub, Right Stuf has made it inaccessible to much of its intended demographic. Adults will be split between those who can tolerate its insistent tone and those who are annoyed by it, but even the grumpiest of viewers may find themselves eventually won over. After all, it's hard to hate something that so obviously just wants to be liked. Plus there's something undeniably refreshing about a children's show that aims to entertain rather than sell billions of dollars of merchandise.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B
+ Energetic children's show whose straightforward desire to entertain may well win over adult audiences.
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