Reviewby Theron Martin,
Alice & Zoroku
Far below a particular research facility, there is a strange extradimensional space called Wonderland. One rainy night, a girl with special powers called a Dream of Alice escapes from Wonderland into the vast world, making her way to Harajaku in Tokyo, where she encounters a gruff old florist named Zoroku Kashimura. In the process of thwarting her pursuers, she winds up coming to live with Zoroku and his teenage granddaughter, who take to calling her Sana. Though Zoroku is strict, Sana gradually takes to living with them even as rival factions of the government struggle to reclaim her. In the process, she learns about the wonders of the world outside of Wonderland and what it means to have a family.
The basic premise here – a super-powered girl who's largely a blank slate hooks up with a gruff older man, who reluctantly takes her in but gradually comes to consider her family – is hardly a new one in the field of anime; this title shares essentially the same basic premise and some early story beats with the 2005-06 series Solty Rei, among others. Unlike the grittiness of its predecessor or the sardonic humor of its successor Hinamatsuri, this one cleaves to a more traditional approach on the gimmick, with the presence of the Dream of Alice powers doing surprisingly little to interfere with the cloying, down-to-earth appeal of this story. In fact, if anything the presence of the super-powers actually contribute to it.
That doesn't mean that there aren't some flashy displays of power, of course. The first episode features all sorts of involved tricks as twin girls go after Sana, while most of one later episode involved a protracted battle between two adult Dream of Alice users. Though both action sequences are crucial to the overall plot, they are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to what the writing focuses on. For all of the powers that get thrown around, this is much more a story about a little girl learning what it means to be human and have a family, warts and all.
While the titular relationship defines the story, in execution this is much more a story about Sana than an equal partnership, especially after the first episode. Zoroku's viewpoint is never actually explored much; he remains pretty static as the lovable old curmudgeon who won't tolerate “crooked stuff” and acts as a harsh disciplinarian who nonetheless understands exactly when sympathy is needed. This is the biggest disappointment that the series offers, but it's more than offset by how endearing he is alongside Sana. Watching Sana transform from a brat who insists on getting her way into a more responsible young girl who gradually comes to appreciate the meaning of family is a treat, but the series also wisely never makes her turn too good. She still fully captures the youthful exuberance of someone for whom the world is still a wondrous experience, and she never fully rises above some childish vindictiveness, which leads to some big complications in the later stages of the series. That makes Sana a lot more convincing as a realistic character and not just another anime girl trope.
The series has a lot of other neat low-key touches too. The relationship that Sana develops with Zoroku's granddaughter Sanae has its own charm, as Sanae seems to see Sana like the younger sister she never had. The attitudes of Zoroku's much younger subordinates are also fun to watch, as is the wily government agent Naito, and Sana having to build up her physical endurance because she's always relied on her powers too much is a welcome detail. The different ways that Dream of Alice users manifest their wide-ranging powers is also interesting, especially in the case of antagonist “Minnie C." Little bits of humor also get worked in, especially in the form of an incident with pigs, though the series is never more than lightly humorous.
The visuals of the series, while not bad, are not its strong point. Character designs feature sharp chins set so short that they can disappear when characters are talking, and there's not enough variance in design between the adult female characters in particular. (Adult male characters are more varied.) Younger characters are cute enough without going overboard, which may be to the series' advantage. The icons that appear when Dreams of Alice use their powers are done in CG, which is fine, but the heavily reliance on CG for the action scenes doesn't work as well; some shots just come across as artificial, too detached from the physics of the 2-D animation. The visual high point of the series is definitely its portrayal of Wonderland in the final two episodes, with all of its random design elements derived from any number of children's stories with some extra fanciful imagination.
By comparison, the musical score is steadier in its performance, neither distinguishing itself nor being a detriment. It is generally effective at complementing various scenes because it remains a light background accompaniment rather than a guiding force. Closer “Chant” effectively captures a fairy tale-style whimsy, while opener “Wonder Drive” makes less of an impression.
The quality of Funimation's English dub depended heavily on getting Sana right, but Sarah Wiedenheft does such a stellar job in both performance and vocal quality that I can't imagine it being done better in English. She nails every bit of Sana's character and contributes mightily to making her appreciable in English. John Swasey using his gruffest voice was the natural choice for Zoroku, but he sometimes seems constrained in how far to go with Zoroku's attitude, leaving Chuck Huber as Naito to impress more. Other performances stand out less but pose no problems. Beyond the English dub, the Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack release is unremarkable, with on-disc extras consisting only of clean opener and closer and a collection of promo videos and commercials.
Overall, Alice & Zoroku makes for light enjoyable entertainment with occasional punctuations of heavier or more poignant content. While it does employ some Alice in Wonderland allusions, it doesn't play that angle up as much as it could have, and its final scene is a perfect credit to what the older characters in the series accomplish.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B
+ Endearing portrayal of Sana and her relationship with Zoroku, strong English dub performances
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