Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 6th 2011
Naruto Shippuden The Movie: Bonds
Hidden Leaf comes under attack by swarms of flying ninjas armed with industrial-strength war machines. The attackers are remnants of the Sky Ninjas, who were thought to have been destroyed by Hidden Leaf in the second ninja war. Much to his dismay, Naruto is passed over for the counterattack mission and is instead sent to escort ninja doctor Shinnou and his apprentice Amaru back to Amaru's stricken village. Naruto does his duty, and soon finds that his seemingly innocuous mission may have more to do with the forces arrayed against Hidden Leaf than he thought.
Naruto is a veteran of the TV-to-screen game, so you'd think that it'd be homing in on what makes for a good film adaptation. And in some ways it is. This time the franchise taps talented, underrated action director Hajime Kamegaki for directing duties and even ties the movie a little tighter to the larger series by tossing the absent Sasuke into the mix. And yet still Bonds is a bland bore, just like the umpteen films before it. It's enough to make a man lose faith in shonen franchise films.
If the film really wanted to break ranks with its predecessors, maybe it shouldn't have used the same plot that they do. You know, the one where an invading force threatens the Land of Fire, Naruto is sent on a mission, meets someone roughly his own age, and teaches them the true meaning of friendship (oops, I mean bonds) while facing down the evil dude at the center of it all. The final showdown in a throne room at the enemy's command center and the ally who turns out to be a villain are both straight from Naruto's second film; an attack on Hidden Leaf was used in at least one of Shippuden's filler arcs; and the kid who learns a lesson from Naruto has been in every bit of TV and movie filler since the franchise opened its doors. Really, bringing in new directorial blood and heavier ties to the franchise's main body isn't going to help if your script is an assemblage of used parts.
Not that the film's ties to Shippuden proper are much of a boon anyway. It's so eager to fit in everyone's favorite characters that it attaches an entirely unnecessary subplot to house some of them and sews others onto the main plot like dozens of little vestigial limbs. Sakura and Hinata are included in Naruto's mission only to be shunted aside at the first convenient moment and the whole business with the invading army is pretty much an excuse to bring in all the Leaf ninjas that a single mission would leave out. Sasuke adds some welcome tension to the final showdown, but even his inclusion is gracelessly contrived and ultimately just a device to extend the central fight. The movie does something similar with the series' signature ninjutsu, fabricating situations during which Naruto's Nine-Tails transformation or Sasuke's curse mark need to be dusted off because...well, just because. The result is a messy and often disjointed film, made more so by a headlong pace that leaves no room for characters to properly introduce themselves or for dramatic developments to gather force.
In a reversal of the usual shonen-film pattern, what strength the film does have comes almost exclusively from the new rather than the old. Making the kid Naruto helps out (minor spoiler incoming) a girl rather than a guy helps to complicate the usual Naruto-as-life-coach dynamic, and Amaru's romantic fixation on her much-older mentor introduces an atypically uncomfortable element of romance to the usual ninja-adventuring and villain-pummeling. In that respect, the addition of Kamegaki also proves fortuitous. He splits his directorial time pretty evenly between high drama and action, often within the same series (Ceres for instance), so he handles the mechanics of Amaru's emotional crises well. This is a man who knows how to get sadness from the rounded lines of a girl's face and who understands the subtle art of animating tears. Particularly nice is the way he feminizes Amaru with just a hint of lip color and a change in head gear once her sex is revealed. Simple and effective; the sign of true pro.
Without anything approaching well-written emotions, however, Kamagaki's mechanics don't actually benefit the film much. You can appreciate how well he does tears; that doesn't mean you'll be shedding them. Action being somewhat less dependent on quality writing (though certainly not independent of it), he fares rather better when getting his whiz-bang on. The latter half of the film features more massive destruction than your average natural disaster: exploding aircraft carriers eaten away by insects, ninjutsu dogfights, a flying fortress crumbling into a roiling sea. With a theatrical budget to work with and simple art to assist the animation, the action runs fast and wild and slick. When it gets in close Kamagaki starts to use more shortcuts, but he keeps things lucid and exciting nonetheless. And he knows when to deploy all his resources to keep the crucial cool factor up.
That includes knowing when to ramp the guitars up to eleven and when to cut off musical support altogether. Naruto and Sasuke's parting is a textbook example of how to use musical contrast to create visual effects, achieving slow-motion grace with very little actual slow motion. The raw quality of the score is no better than that of Shippuden at large, but it is deployed with noticeably greater skill.
Viz turns out a great, lively dub for film. Working from a script that unobtrusively improves on the original, the cast delivers with surprising enthusiasm and welcome humor. Of particular note is Michelle Ruff, who as Amaru almost manages to make the cheesy ending (and a few of the cheesy developments in between) genuinely work. That is no mean feat; not when the same task thoroughly defeated the usually reliable Motoko Kumai.
It's still pretty cheesy, that ending. And the rest of the film is still choppy, overstuffed, and forgettable. You can look forward to some good fights and to Amaru's chemistry with Naruto, especially in the English version, but don't raise your expectations any higher than that. You'll get burned, guaranteed.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D+
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Looks good; fun fights; less conventional than previous Naruto films emotionally speaking; excellent dub.
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