Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 18th 2011
DVD - Season 4 Box Set 1 [Uncut]
No matter how badly you might want to train yourself or hunt for your missing friend, if you're a ninja, your ninja duties still need fulfilling. As often as not for Naruto that means washing the nostrils of Hidden Leaf's Hokage statues or babysitting bratty rich kids. But occasionally his missions do carry him past the borders of his town, and when they do bad things are usually afoot. In the Land of Birds the bad things involve a phantom warrior, a prince who isn't what he seems, and, of course, a usurping grand vizier. The ugliness in Land of Sea involves the remnants of one of Orochimaru's nastier human experiments and a leftover henchman with a pet fish-girl. In the Land of Stars, the theft of a meteorite with mysterious powers reveals foul secrets that seriously muck up a delicate mission. Bodyguarding some merchants in the Land of Greens gets Naruto involved with a coldhearted princess being pursued by a trio of nasty ninja. It's enough to make a pint-sized shinobi despair. Luckily between missions he can relax with such time-honored pastimes as ramen battles and yeti husbandry.
Filler stories are what series do to rest up in between important plot points. They aren't intended to continue uninterrupted like this. When they do, the same thing happens that happens whenever anything lazes nonstop: Naruto gets flabby.
The flab most readily apparent is in the show's visuals. How well the filler fights are set up can be variable, but their execution isn't. They're shoddy excuses for action every one, diabolical attempts to redefine animated laziness. Animation is repeated with insulting obviousness, detail levels head over the cliff and into the ground and character designs go off model while backgrounds, already sadly undistinguished, disappear with impunity. Movement from background to foreground is so hideously cheap that laughable perspective problems proliferate like sloppily-drawn rabbits. Earlier in the filler run it was becoming clear that the animators' hearts were no longer in their work. Now they don't even care whether it's obvious that they don't care. It's a double layer of we-don't-give-a-sh*t, and it smothers the non-active animation as well. While designs for canon characters are decent, if unevenly rendered and occasionally stripped of their relevant details, the new designs display so little investment that they might as well be automatons: bland, inexpressive, and completely interchangeable. Framing, staging, facial expression—all equally uninspired. The series has been feeding on processed food so long that it can't remember what red-blooded entertainment looks like, much less how to cook it up.
And that forgetfulness extends to far more than just Studio Pierrot's animation. These are 28 very long episodes, providing ample opportunity to observe the cycling and recycling of signature behaviors, signature ninja moves, and signature dialogue. Nothing is ever invented or changed, merely repeated ad nauseum. Naruto goofs off and eats ramen. Sakura wigs out and hits Naruto. Shino shoots bugs and says little. Hinata looks adorable and pines shyly after Naruto. One could go on forever about Naruto's "I'll never forgive you" tantrums and the cheap potshots at Rock Lee's training fetish, and it often seems like the series does exactly that. It's constant déjà vu, particularly given that the filler arcs each use the exact same plot: Naruto and a selection of Konoha ninjas go on a mission to another nation, encounter a young person of some variety, run afoul of evil, usually perpetrated by an authority figure, and bash the evil while teaching the young person about friends and dreams and loyalty and all that good stuff. It gets quite tiring after a time.
All of the repetition and throwaway screenwriting may be killing their spirits, but the animators haven't suffered through it without refining their filler storytelling. And this epic box o' filler provides ample opportunity to observe that as well. The set encompasses a great many fairly lengthy arcs, and tellingly not one approaches earlier disasters (Curry of Life anyone?) in irredeemable stupidity. Some of the one-offs do, and at least one—in which Naruto teaches a snot-nosed rich kid that money can't buy everything—handily surpasses them. But the longer arcs not only don't completely fail, they occasionally do something right. Usually one thing, but hey, that's better than nothing. In the Land of Sea arc it's the handy use they make of the long, dark shadow cast by Orochimaru. In the Land of Stars arc it's the creation of a despicable, eminently pummel-able villain. The Land of Greens arc conjures up an array of interesting enemy ninjutsu, and a series of correspondingly interesting countermeasures. The Land of Birds...let's call it the exception that proves the rule. By exploiting their individual strengths these arcs can sometimes tap into the series' deep reservoir of junk-food entertainment, and sometimes even manage a semblance of tension and emotional weight. Of course, possessed as they are of an awe-inspiring dearth of skill and subtlety, the arcs inevitably dissolve into puddles of either cheese or syrup. Again though, that's better than nothing.
This mega-set is the combination of two previous sets, namely numbers 13 and 14. So: same old extras (storyboard comparisons and production art mainly), same old content, same old menus, and same old dub. New space-saving packaging though. The dub sounds slack, but no one can really blame the cast or the crew for that. After all, even the once-cool music has lost heart, throwing out its signature compositions with the enthusiasm of a terminal patient. Occasionally the cast and the script do rise above the content, particularly during the overtly goony episodes when they are given a chance play it loose. The dumb ditty sung during the "Laughing Shino" episode is far superior in English, and some of the little zingers Maile Flanagan slips in are quite fun. The supporting cast also makes the best of their increased screen time, but they might as well be plugging the dyke with their fingers. Which is exactly what their Japanese counterparts were doing, so they're actually quite faithful that way.
"Over 11 hours of NARUTO action!" trumpets the cover. Anyone who sits through this entire set may well argue with the "action" part of that statement—the limp, dead things that it tries to pawn off as ninja fights are hardly worthy of the word—but no one will argue with its temporal boast. Watching as each disc disgorges its cargo of monotonous idiocy, you'll feel every one of those long, long eleven hours.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C
Animation : C-
Art : C+
Music : C+
+ Marginally improved filler arcs; occasionally amusing.
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