Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 30th 2008
DVD - Legend of the Stone of Gelel
Assigned, like the elite ninja they are, to the task of recovering an old man's pet ferret, Naruto, Sakura, and Shikamaru run up against a young knight. Much yelling and exploding later Naruto and the knight, named Temujin, end up in the same traveling caravan, where Naruto learns that Temujin is part of an exploratory force that lives in a giant mobile fortress. Temujin's master, Haido, a utopian with a draconian ends-justify-the-means philosophy, is searching for Gelel stones—mysterious objects with amazing powers—a search that Naruto can't help but interfere with once he witnesses its ruthless execution. In no time flat, it's ninjas versus knights as Naruto and friends face down Temujin and his monstrous comrades. With a little timely help from their scary Sand Ninja buddies.
It's one of the nearly immutable laws of anime that any theatrical adaptation of a currently-running series will be disposable garbage. The exceptions are few and far between (The Castle of Cagliostro being the most prominent), and yet somehow the hope is rekindled with each new film spawned by some popular sensation. Only to be cruelly crushed. Welcome to The Legend of the Stone of Gelel.
Not that Gelel is actively awful. It isn't. It moves quickly and painlessly, inflicting no mental anguish and never embarrassing itself. Though in retrospect, it would almost be preferable if it did. At least then you'd feel something. Gelel is an ethereal wisp of a movie, a ghost of entertainment so slight that memories of it dissolve instantly into nothingness. Aside from some high-calorie eye-candy, it has no substance. It recycles the television series' message of self-actualization and the power of dreams, recycles the characters' established behavior patterns, and recycles the ruthless utopians from dozens of previous anime. The identity of the true villain is obvious from the first slow zoom onto his expressionless eye, and the plot jogs towards its semi-apocalyptic conclusion with listless predictability.
One can't really blame the staff for the airy nothingness of the film. Working from a continuing series places screenwriters in a strait-jacket where the status-quo must be rigidly maintained for fear of violating the continuity of the series, eliminating nearly all suspense—the cast can't even break character, much less evolve or die. Creating something substantial within that framework requires genius (remember, The Castle of Cagliostro was directed by Hayao Miyazaki). In the absence of genius, the best one can really expect is some superior action.
Given that director Hirotsugu Kawasaki was the guy responsible for the bone-crunching action extravaganza Spriggan, that isn't an unreasonable expectation. And he does deliver. Gaara fans will be pleased at the ruthlessness with which he dispatches his enemies, Shikamaru's underhanded analytical combat is refreshing, if visually unremarkable, and Sakura's battle is a lightning-fast fistfight with some nifty choreography. The disappointment is Naruto, who never gets a proper showdown with Temujin, and whose final battle with the true villain occurs largely off-screen and ends with a strategic letdown (anyone willing to lay odds that he'll use the Rasengan?).
Kawasaki handles the visuals with confidence, keeping human movement fluid and never forgetting the dancelike appeal of martial-arts grace. He uses the forest backgrounds well, and Haido's mobile fortress is pretty impressive. The smooth simplicity of the character designs facilitates their mobility, and Kawasaki is fully willing to resort to flashy digital effects—particularly during the massive destruction of the climax. However, his heart obviously isn't in it. Certain details are allowed to slip through the quality control net—keep an eye on the sloppy movements of Haido's transformed minions—and the only flashes of inspiration are during the fights and one moment that references an important event from the television series. Compared to the wild, unrestrained energy of Spriggan, Gelel is downright insipid, not even good enough to be called a shadow. That Toshio Masuda's quirky, rocking mixture of blazing guitars and traditional Japanese instrumentation is diluted by bombastically stereotypical theatrical action themes does nothing to help.
Slight though it is, the movie features a stellar dub. The actors, now long-time veterans of their roles, are impeccable. The English script is as natural and faithful as can be expected, and the dialogue is unusually well-matched with the more detailed lip-flaps of theatrical features. The humor is dead-on, nearly everyone is a world-class pro at bellowing the names of ninja moves, and there's no emoting throwing spanners into the works, so the English version runs smooth, light, and as fun as can be given the substanceless feel of the entire enterprise.
Viz gives the film the kind of lavish treatment one would expect of their flagship title. The two-disc set includes perks like storyboards (half an hour of them), production art, and trailers, along with a nice chat with the director and character designer. A pair of featurettes, one on the movie and Naruto in general, and the other specifically on the process of English adaptation, along with a feature-length commentary track featuring most of the main players (of the production staff, not the actors) provide a nearly exhaustive account of how Viz produced Naruto for an English audience. Dub fans will be more than pleased. Though prior knowledge of the franchise isn't necessary to understand the film, Viz still provides an option for pop-up notes that explain the history of each special move and give pointers on relationships and other television-specific information. And it's all stuffed into a heavy book-bound case that also contains a sizable booklet translated directly from material included in the original Japanese release. All told, a package solid enough to be worthy of use by ninjas—or people who like to think that they are.
If you make it through The Stone of Gelel and find yourself thinking “hey neat” on occasion, consider yourself fulfilled. That is the most anyone, outside of hardcore Naruto addicts, can reasonably expect from the film. You likely won't remember much of it, but it is a pleasant enough way to spend an hour or two... I think.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Solid ninja action; superior production values; amnesiacs and non-amnesiacs alike can watch it and walk away with the same impression.
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