Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Dec 6th 2013
Hana never predicted her life would turn out like this. While attending classes in her first year at university, she meets a tall, shaggy stranger and instantly falls in love. The man of her dreams, however, turns out to be a wolf-man: the last descendant of an ancient line of mystical Japanese wolves. Unfazed, Hana decides to drop out of school and start a new life with her beloved wolfy stranger, but fate has other plans. After disaster befalls her sweetheart, Hana is left raising two children alone, and both of them equal parts human and wolf. They shift back and forth at will, howling at night as often as crying, and chewing on table legs while waiting for dinner. Older sister Yuki is rambunctious and reckless, eager to explore the wild outdoors and pick fights with any challenge in her way. Younger brother Ame is shy and thoughtful, afraid of his own shadow and wary of a judgmental world. Both push Hana to her limit, desperate to raise them safely in the countryside, away from prying eyes, but unsure of what future her wolf children will choose for themselves when their instincts send them wandering.
Director Mamoru Hosoda has oft been referred to as "the next Miyazaki," now more than ever in light of his new film, Wolf Children, with its pastoral setting, willful n' resilient female leads, and yes, themes of self-reliance, unusual family bonds, and environmental preservation. But this is unfair, not only to the uniqueness of his work, but to the man himself and whatever paths his still-youthful career may take in the future. Miyazaki is Miyazaki, Hosoda is Hosoda, and he has his own strengths, weaknesses, and interests as a filmmaker worth exploring. One of Hosoda's most prominent interests has always been the portrayal and perspective of children, and it is there that Wolf Children diverges most strongly from anything Miyazaki might create.
Children in Miyazaki's fantasies are admirable, headstrong, destined for greatness through the strength of their spirit. They're special in a way that some children may be, but certainly not most. Hosoda's fantasies paint children as they are, "unfantastic," special only in their jagged imperfection with all their fears, erratic energy, and yes, sometimes pure stupidity on full display. This is evident not only in how he chooses to characterize his Wolf Children, Ame and Yuki, but even in how they are animated, sprangly limbs grabbing at every dangerous thing in reach, mouths open miles wide every waking moment to cry or chomp or drool. We don't have to be told that raising these feral puppies is exhausting for Hana; we feel it in every frame where pillows are shredded and dragged through the house or a bureau topples down shelf over heavy shelf. Wolf Children is honest about the gross reality of raising kids (and pets) while still leaving room for fantasy, which is really the only way a movie about single motherhood can work for a general family audience, as Wolf Children largely does.
Sweat, tears, puke, blood, pee, and even breastmilk are all lovingly detailed without letting grime override beauty, and the film is frequently beautiful, although not in every aspect. The character designs are reminiscent of those in Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, but even mushier and less distinct than in those films. This makes the characters' transitions between wolf and human faces more effortless, but lends them a little less character and identity too. Watching them grow up becomes distracting when we notice the mother doesn't age at all from 19 to 30 to even older, and at times the ages of the children seem amorphous too. (The wolf designs and animation are also distracting, and can border on student-filmy in their unrefined literalness, recalling more DeviantArt than Ghibli.)
That aside, where the film really shines is in the world these characters live in, every environment teeming with life, insanely detailed, and strikingly spacious. Few anime films have such a glorious sense of scope and texture without divorcing their world so much from their characters that the backgrounds become distracting and a cold spectacle separate from the heart of their story. Hosoda's enormous mountains, teeming meadows, and bustling cities all seem tangible and connected, either so well lived-in or awe-inspiringly untouched that it all begs to be believed in and felt through the screen. Wolf Children's world is so alive that it speaks to the audience, conveying meaning through a quiet summer storm or a river transitioning into a waterfall in unique ways that, unfortunately, the plot itself does not.
Unfortunately, Wolf Children has real, demanding problems with the construction of its many lovely pieces, and most of them are rooted in a sorely confused overall perspective. If Hosoda's honesty with his films' children is his great strength, his lack of perspective on the mothers who raise them is his great weakness. In his previous films, the guardians to his pre-pubescent leads have been perfect bastions of wisdom. They have also always been women, from mothers, to aunts, to grandmas. Hosoda has intimated that the film was largely based on his own single mother and mothers he knew later in adulthood. He clearly reveres the female mentors in his life, and that comes across strongly in the film...what doesn't is an understanding of their lives as human beings, with all the same flaws, vulnerabilities and messiness as the children they raise.
Hosoda can never really bring himself to tell the story from his heroine Hana's perspective. The story is narrated by her daughter, Yuki, who tells us what Hana's emotions must have been at various stages of her life, but this is never enough to give us Hana's perspective on her own story. In fact, Yuki's narration is uniformly a disservice to the film. It runs through the entire movie as if it was her memoir and not her mother's, and only elaborates on things we can plainly see or fills in details about people's emotions or thoughts that we would much rather have seen through their actions. This becomes even more confusing when the focal point of the film's last third (and its climax) is Ame, who we have learned very little about as he shrinks behind the skirts of his family members.
Even so, neither Yuki nor supposed protagonist Hana feel like fully realized characters. Yuki only starts to define her own beliefs and aspirations at film's end when she becomes a (very) young woman, and already-grown Hana is largely a cheery cipher. Unflappable to a fault, responding perfectly to every crisis life throws her way, she is a mother as a toddler might see their mother, and it is the toddler Yuki who is telling her story. What about the wolf-man did she fall in love with? What were her dreams before dropping out of school? Is she in any way afraid of her children? Did she leave friends or family behind to devote her life to them? These questions and more are never answered. The romantic idolization that dominates the film's tone, along with the journal-esque emphasis of explaining rather than showing, makes spending two hours with these characters cloying and frustrating at times. We know there must be more to them under all the idyllic simplicity, but when it comes to adult matters, all we get is the fantasy, the ideal, a parade of emotions with no earth under their feet.
This in no way means that Wolf Children is too corny to suffer through, or even that any part of it must be "suffered through." On the contrary, even glacial spaces of time where the family learns to grow a garden or explores the forest (just for the sake of exploring it) pass by effortlessly. It's an extremely watchable film, accessible to a large variety of audiences, but neither is the whole experience confectionary, as powerful moments peek through the gentle journey at unexpected times. There are pauses to revere complex emotions and the honesty of circumstance amidst all the adorable adventure. In fact, Wolf Children is easily the most rustic and sorrowful of Hosoda's films so far. It is not, however, the most well-written, and too often feels like a series of diary entries without cohesion. Near the end of the film, Hana asks one of her children, "What did I manage to teach you?" and the temptation to reply "I don't know!" in the ensuing silence is overwhelming.
Silence being a dominating force in large parts of Wolf Children, (or at least "quietness," certainly a lack of dialogue,) there's not much to comment on regarding the dub or the original language track for that matter. Dialogue is minimal, and performances are serviceable in either language. The standout in both cases is itty-bitty Yuki, played by actual child Momoko Ono in Japanese and pretty-good-at-sounding-like-a-child Lara Woodhull in English. Due to her large amounts of growling, crying, and shouting, Yuki is a taxing part vocally, but Woodhull is easily one of the most flawlessly four-year-old sounding VAs Funi has cast in anything, and does a great job sounding obnoxious and cute at the same time without breaking the illusion.
Wolf Children is ultimately an atmospheric piece, rooted to specific moments and feelings and points of change in life without, unfortunately, connecting them to a larger point of resonance that would really make the film shine. As it is, the story passes akin to how Hana describes raising her children: "Like a dream, like a fairytale." Thanks to Hosoda's hearty understanding of kids, realism isn't wholly absent from the experience, but for the most part, it all passes by without much bite.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Pleasant, charming, uplifting, often gorgeous, with a few inspired scenes and entertaining beginning to end despite its minimalist story and protracted pacing
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