Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Dec 12th 2013
Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie Part 3: Rebellion
Limited Edition Blu-ray
With their world wholly altered following the events of the first two Madoka Magica films, Homura and the other magical girls continue their lives fighting evil, in whatever form it may take, finding new purpose in life through their relationships with one another. But all is not as it seems in Mitakihara City...familiar faces seem altered, while strangers watch every move the girls make from the shadows. The new order can't last forever, and rebellion is brewing...the fate of the universe lies solely in Homura's hands, and everything will change when she is ready to choose what she really desires.
In case the title itself wasn't a tipoff, Puella Magi Madoka Magica The Movie Part 3: Rebellion is a conditional experience. Appreciating the film at all is conditional on having seen either the first two movies, or the original TV series, which have essentially the same content, minor tweaks aside. It makes no attempt to coddle new viewers or even refresh the memories of old ones by much. The movie firmly assumes you know your Madoka Magica and care deeply about the characters, their world, and all the minutiae of “how things happened” and “what might happen” in the continuation.
That ultimately makes a review of the movie conditional as well. In order to meaningfully discuss what, if anything, the events of Rebellion add to the story of Madoka Magica, the tiptoeing and spoil-shielding devices of most written reviews have to be tossed aside to dig out the devil in the details of where the movie succeeds or fails. Before diving directly into spoilers and franchise navel-gazing, however, it's only fair to answer the question: “Should Madoka Magica fans see this movie? Is there anything of value in it for them?” Most fans probably aren't asking, and will see the movie regardless, so if any big fans are teetering on the fence, there's probably a different question on their minds: “Wasn't the end of the original series perfect as it is? Does this movie do anything to add to an already excellent conclusion?”
Well, let's say that Madoka Magica, the story as concluded by the TV series or the first two movies, is an ice sculpture, flawlessly crafted with all the loose shards of snow brushed away to reveal a pristine creation with precise edges and curves in all the right places. It is a finished work of art. However, the powers-that-be decide that more entertainment can be gotten out of this sculpture, even if there's no more work to be done on the surface. They have two options. They can watch it melt, slowly, (through episodic installments of the girls fighting the darkness, introducing new magical girls, Shonen Jump-style, ad infinitum.) Or they can stick a charge on that baby and blow it up. Rebellion blasts the franchise sky high, which results in an experience about as satisfying and horrifying as that sounds, and demands to be seen, although not necessarily enjoyed.
SPOILER WARNING: The rest of this review reveals major plot points and discusses the ending of Rebellion.
The number three fits Rebellion well, not only because it is the third film in a series, but because the movie seems split into three separate ideas not-so-seamlessly blended into one story. It is a series of what-ifs that don't directly involve one another, weaved into a chunky epilogue that can only be described as canonical fanfic. It's not that the film's pieces aren't connected through the writing; they are, but due to the Matryoshka-like nesting of the twists within twists, every time the story shifts gears, all the concerns of the previous "what-if" vignette become irrelevant and easily forgotten in light of the new status quo. It's easiest to look at Rebellion as three statements with three very different reactions attached to them, which might be why so many viewers walk away from the experience not knowing how to feel.
The first what-if, and unfortunately the first hour and change of the movie, is "What if Madoka Magica was a regular magical girl show?" Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer, it seems, as the first half of Rebellion is a flippant, mirthful plod through fan-pandering transformation sequences and crazy fights with all five girls together for the first time! and having fun taking down bad guys! with adorable mascots by their sides! One of these is the Mami-munching Charlotte, now named Bebe, and the other is of course Kyubey, who now only says "kyuu kyuu!" It's like if Madoka Magica wasn't interesting, subversive and unique at all, and was just made to sell toys to little girls and grown otaku! Isn't that cheeky and fun!
It must be emphasized at this point that Rebellion is lavishly animated, thoughtfully choreographed, and eager to entertain every moment of its runtime, so it can't justifiably be called "boring." But the initial trip through Homura's Happy Friendship Hour verges on tedium regardless of production panache. The audience knows the story we're following, and knows not to take the cutesy-poo happiness in front of them at face value. The film seems to know this too, rolling around in its own irony with joke after joke about how Bebe calls Mami a tasty piece of cheese. The franchise has earned itself some narcissistic indulgence, but it's still a chore to sit through a five-minute sequence of magical girl gun-fu just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
When Rebellion is finally done pretending that it's the first episode of the TV series, we get our second, and much more interesting what-if: "What if Kyubey, unhappy with the new system that Madoka's wish created, decided to fix things in his favor again?" Needless to say, this requires a lot of wheedling and infodumping and may or may not completely make sense, but the emotional believability of Kyubey's actions is more important than the temporal hoops he'd have to jump through to become the bad guy again and thematically, this part of the film rings strong and true. Exploding with frenzied visual metaphor and haunting imagery, this half-hour or so of movie stems from one of the series' greatest strengths: Homura's arc.
Shockingly, it turns out it was possible to make Kyubey even more despicable and Homura and Madoka's relationship even more powerful without taking things too far or pushing anyone out of character. In fact, apart from the meticulous attention to detail visually, the (mostly) consistent character writing is the movie's greatest strength. Urobuchi knows his world and the people in it. He knows where Kyubey's insatiable craving for knowledge and efficiency will take him, how Homura will choose to fight it, and how to wring the maximum amount of pain and joy from the audience's hearts in displaying it. Homura's soul darkens into a witch state as she chooses to take Kyubey's heartless experimentation on alone, while Madoka refuses to let her; their fates teeter on the border between salvation and destruction. It's an exhausting and yet satisfying "final battle" that comes closer than anything else in the movie to feeling like a "necessary" addition, the last drop of closure for thirsty fans.
But that leaves one last what-if, and one last layer to peel away and fold over the previous two. On the one hand, it's the most fascinating and complex part of the film. On the other, it's a big mess.
The final question Rebellion decides to answer is "What if the Puella Magi universe was rewritten not through an act of selfless love, but an act of selfish love?" This is not only a third film containing three ideas, but a third rewriting of reality for Madoka's world. Thanks to an unfortunate side effect of Kyubey's experimentation, Homura is no longer the same girl fans once knew and loved by the time Madoka arrives to rescue her. In fact, she has no desire to be rescued, ever again. In the space of ten minutes or so, everything we know about the character of Homura, Madoka, and the world they created together is overhauled through a magical plot device. One little egg is all that needs be laid to keep the franchise chugging onward, and just a few lines of exposition written to about-face Homura's character.
Thanks to Kyubey's experiments, Homura is evil now. Capital-E evil, complete with a revealing, gothy outfit, dark lipstick, and opulent jewelry. This looks exactly as ridiculous as it sounds. Having become the Ultimate Witch to mirror Madoka as the Ultimate Magical Girl, a Devil to Madoka's God, she decides to rectify Madoka's sacrifice and re-make the world in her own image. Madoka's story originally ended in a victory for true love, where love means one person giving up everything for someone else, resulting in a universe ordered by forgiveness, acceptance, and hope. Rebellion ends in a victory for selfish, possessive love, where love means getting everything you ever wanted from another person, resulting in a universe ordered by vengeance, denial, and despair. It's not all that different from the world Madoka created, on the outside, but it's the little changes deeper down that make Devil Homura's victory feel tragic and hollow, which is decisively the tone the movie ends on, gaping open for sequels.
The concept itself is a rich one, but it's executed quickly and gracelessly, as if to say "Didn't see that coming, did you?! Don't you want to see more now?" No one saw it coming because it's ludicrous and out-of-character, and there very little foreshadowing or support for the change. There could have been. Homura's turn to "ultimate evil" could have been built through her character's actions and dialogue, as a perfectly understandable rejection of reality due to the sustained trauma she's been through. But the film prioritizes a "gotcha" reveal glorifying the twist and resulting spectacle over any character verisimilitude. One minute Homura is pleading with Madoka to abandon her, determined to sacrifice herself to protect the ones she loves, and the next, she has stepped out of the "evil box" and molded a world where she is happy to be in a position of power above Madoka, who is finally hers and hers alone. The audience's desire to see more of this nonsense mostly stems from just wanting to see how the writers will repair what they broke gleefully in front of us. Top to bottom, it's a story justified through its own silky-tongued and thorough ramblings, but never earned, functional only as a deliberate reversal of Homura's arc, meant to explore an inverted theme from the TV series' conclusion. It's a dirty trick akin to the ones Kyubey played on his magical girl victims: elaborate logic sculpted to obfuscate a truth turned "wrong."
Aniplex's release of the film is a sparkling beauty, not just in flattering metaphor, but literally: it sparkles! The soft and glossy box has little pixie dust sparkles across its white surface that catch the light and make the pretty package look truly expensive (which it is; MSRP is $80 for this, but you'll likely pay $70, which is still outrageous for a single 116-minute film.) Extras include on-disc trailers, commercials, and some pre-theater courtesy instructions from a series of Monogatari characters. For physical extras, the movie's soundtrack is included on CD alongside the requisite postcards, but the real gem of this release is the small production booklet. It's filled with production artwork, bonus promotional art, and a couple 4-koma strips with a lighter take on the dark film. The niftiest section composes the largest part of the booklet: an in-depth look at the "Nutcracker" Witch's labyrinth, how it works, and what its familiars are like.
The movie's English dub is consistent with the TV series effort, if not a little superior thanks to the voice actresses' increased familiarity with their characters. The eternal problem of casting English-speaking actresses to these "peak moe" archetypes that have no established English-language vocal equivalent still hangs over the dub a little, but they do the best they can with the parts they're given, and the top-notch adaptive script helps too. Adapting the "Cake Song" into English is not an easy feat, and the fact that it not only flows nicely but rhymes and makes sense is impressive. The only new cast member in Rebellion is Bebe, played by Xanthe Huynh in a perfectly adorable echo of the Japanese version, whether the character is speaking normally as Nagisa Momoe or babbling nonsense in witch form. All around, it's a well-crafted dub that stands up solid next to the Japanese track, barring that inescapable hurdle of "moe voice" just not really being an English-language thing.
Rebellion isn't an unpleasant experience, just a cynical one. It is enthusiastic to a fault, with surprising things to say and beautiful things to show us. Wringing extra thought out of a franchise that should be out of things to explore is still laudable, even if it takes far too long to arrive and the tricks used to get there are cheap. An admirable cashgrab is a cashgrab nonetheless, and Rebellion's indulgent lack of focus and mean-spirited twists beg to be rejected as a conclusion to the work that preceded it. At best, it is a clever "alternate idea," impossible to analyze without discussing the strings barely holding it together, and the puppeteers rubbing coin together between their fingers.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Gorgeous and mind-bendingly creative, far more fascinating and entertaining than it had any reason to be, works very hard to justify its grand shift in theme
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