Reviewby Carlo Santos, Sep 18th 2012
Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror
Blu-Ray + DVD
Haruka is a high school girl whose mother died when she was young. Her most treasured memento of her mother is a decorated hand-mirror, but it's been missing ever since their family moved house. One day while visiting a shrine, Haruka follows a mysterious fox-like creature wandering the temple grounds ... and is pulled into another world where people's missing items are stored! The creature, named Teo, introduces Haruka to this world known as Oblivion Island. Haruka realizes she can find her mother's mirror there, but many obstacles stand in her way. The island's denizens don't take kindly to human intruders, and a cruel Baron has taken the mirror for himself because mirrors hold magical powers in that world. With only Teo to aid her, Haruka embarks on a quest to get her mirror back—and safely return to the real world.
In the anime industry, 2D animation is still king, and computer-generated 3D graphics are usually reserved for giant robots and big-budget sci-fi experiments. So when something as mainstream as Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror goes for the full-out CGI look, heads are sure to turn. The movie isn't the first of its kind to come out of Japan, but no other tries so hard to be universally appealing, with its plucky young heroine, fairytale-like premise, and heartwarming finale. Given the visual style and family-friendly themes, comparisons to the works of Pixar are inevitable—which is hardly fair, given the world-class quality that comes out of those studios. This one aspires to be like the best, but only gets as far as "pretty good."
Indeed, the first half of the movie is practically a watered-down copy of better children's fantasies about traveling to far-off worlds. Everything happens according to the template: Haruka follows a curious character headed down a mysterious path; she experiences lots of hostility and awkwardness trying to blend into a new society; and of course she goes on wild chases and battles fantastical monsters on her quest. Anyone who knows their way around Spirited Away or Up can pretty much predict which scene comes up next throughout the film—and the only time the tedium is broken up is when clumsy pacing forces a sudden jump to the next plot point.
Oblivion Island's true sense of adventure doesn't kick in until the movie takes a darker turn, with a twist of betrayal and the arrival of the Baron as the main villain. That's when Haruka and T.E.O.'s actions are finally driven by their own personal motives, rather than blindly following a plot-point checklist. Heroic characters take a stand, lives are put on the line, and action scenes chained one after another provide an exhilarating rush. Some moments are still predictable (daring air rescue!), and logical loopholes remain (How did a certain character get from Point A to Point C? What makes Haruka's mirror so special amongst all other mirrors?), but at least everyone's having fun.
In the finale, a magic-induced accident causes Haruka to revisit old memories and reflect on her parents' love for her, giving the movie enough emotional weight to balance out the action. But even the heartfelt message about family relies on a well-worn plot device—it's a basic father-daughter conflict that has to be resolved so that everyone can go home happy.
Much like the story, the visuals take the safe route, going for an acceptable level of quality rather than taking a risk on grand innovations. Haruka, of course, is designed to be the charming everygirl heroine, with T.E.O. in tow as an adorable (if species-confused—is it a fox, piglet, or rat?) animal sidekick. Meanwhile, the supporting cast allows the animators a little bit more leeway with character designs, resulting in some memorable creations like the flamboyantly evil Baron. In the end, however, it's the background animators who truly get the CGI playground all to themselves. Every structure on the island is constructed from "neglected items," giving rise to a wild, multicolored townscape that is part junkyard, part Miyazaki. This is only outdone by the Baron's flying ship, where fanciful rooms (like a giant hall of mirrors) and dizzying mid-air shots provide uniquely breathtaking views.
On the technical side, however, the animation has its rough spots: human characters sometimes hold objects awkwardly, subtle gestures can be hit-or-miss, and many surfaces still have that fake, computer-generated plasticness to them. Granted, there are enough sweeping action scenes and edge-of-your-seat chases to distract viewers from these minor details, but those little things hold it back from greatness.
The soundtrack, too, settles in the province of good-but-not-great: it's got all the elements of a proper movie score, with a booming full orchestra to punctuate epic moments and solo instruments adding color to the quieter scenes, but there's nothing particularly melodic or memorable. The ending credits also round out the movie with a pleasant but somewhat bland acoustic-guitar ballad by veteran band SPITZ.
Even though the movie relies on familiar old story elements, the cast of the English dub does everything to make it sound fresh and full of heart. The clearly-defined character types make it easy for the actors to step into their roles, from Christine Marie Cabanos's sweet-voiced Haruka to the campy, villainous tones of Patrick Seitz as the Baron. The fantastical setting also means that the movie is equally convincing in both English and Japanese; an alternate-world journey is something that works independently of any particular language or culture. Yet the traditional folklore of Japan—specifically the "trickster fox" trope—provides a foundation for the story, as explained in one of the many extra features contained on the disc. Other segments are less informative, however, being mostly publicity clips involving the Japanese cast and staff. The most interesting one is a visit to "Battleship Island," an abandoned residential and industrial island that could well be Japan's real-life Oblivion Island.
Although it stands out from mainstream anime by being fully computer animated, Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror isn't trying to make a bold artistic statement about what Japanese animation is capable of. Rather, the movie is simply an attempt at lighthearted entertainment for all ages, and on that front it succeeds. But this brightly-colored, action-packed romp also tries desperately to follow a specific formula that has already been perfected elsewhere, which makes the flaws that much easier to see. The animation is still rough around the edges, the pacing and logic make odd leaps, and the story often moves in certain directions just because the formula says so, rather than because of the characters' motivations. Haruka's journey is a fun one, but the path is far from smooth.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B+
Music : C
+ An all-ages adventure full of exhilarating action and capped off by a touching ending. Bright colors and fanciful designs are sure to capture the eye.
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