Reviewby Rose Bridges,
Black Butler: Book of the Atlantic (English Dub)
Sebastian and Ciel's latest adventure brings them aboard a luxury cruise liner, the Campania, on its maiden voyage. Ciel's betrothed Lizzy invited him to come along with her family, and he's intrigued by a suspicious medical group meeting on the ship: the Aurora Society. The group claims to be able to cure any ailment, possibly even bringing the dead back to life. Unfortunately, they're really just making their patients undead—zombies. Just as the hordes overwhelm the boat's passengers, it crashes into an iceberg and starts to sink. It's a race against time for Sebastian and Ciel, saving the passengers from both zombies and icy waters. At least they have the assistance of some old friends to help them out. Or do they? Close quarters might bring them some disturbing new revelations about former allies.
It's an interesting time to be a Black Butler fan, watching the anime franchise redefine itself as a horror anthology series. In the first two seasons, Sebastian and Ciel had plenty of one-off adventures, but now that the anime is following the manga more closely, each installment brings a new arc plot to riff on an existing work or familiar subgenre. Its third season featured a creepy circus, and the Book of Murder OVA detailed a Sherlock-Holmes-esque murder mystery (complete with a cameo from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself). Black Butler: Book of the Atlantic continues this tradition with its own twist on the story of the Titanic. Add in some zombies, and this romantic tragedy becomes fast-paced horror. As with the previous installment, Book of the Atlantic keeps elements of the camp and homoeroticism that initially made the series so popular. Still, the horror stakes are much higher and scarier this time than they were in the first two seasons.
The story is largely standalone, following the tradition of these manga-faithful installments. That said, the movie takes pains to reprise as much of the established cast as it can. Beyond the expected regulars like Grell, Snake from Book of Circus plays an important role in the conflict, and the movie even manages to sandwich in Lau and Ran-Mao for a brief pre-departure scene. (Jerry Jewell's slightly sinister and slithery Lau is one of the best in the dub voice cast.) Never mind the logistics of how everyone Sebastian and Ciel know happened to end up on the same ship; they'll need all hands on deck for this caper.
More interesting is what Book of the Atlantic does with its regular supporting cast, as the story reveals some hidden depths for familiar faces. This includes a bigger and unexpected role for one major female character, which is a nice departure from Black Butler's usual pattern. One of the series' narrative weaknesses has always been a waste of the female cast, limiting them to small stereotypical roles and motivations (even Madame Red). Book of the Atlantic is a step in the right direction. Taken all together, the film does a good job of telling its own one-off horror story while also advancing larger character arcs and world-building. That's been present to some degree with all of the "Book of…" seasons and specials, but Book of the Atlantic goes the furthest in combining these appeals by far.
The story is also the perfect size for a film. It would be a little thin for a full TV series (as was often the problem with Book of Circus), but far too much for one or two episodes. It unfolds in roughly three acts, with its many revelations slowly unwinding across the story. Previous seasons often suffered pacing problems, rushing through some stories while lingering too long on others. It's nice to see the franchise get a better handle on which format works best for each arc, as its popularity allows it to breathe when adapting material.
The voice cast is more than up to its usual standard. J. Michael Tatum (Sebastian) and Brina Palencia (Ciel) have had time to get comfortable in these roles, and it shows; Palencia in particular sounds much stronger than in her early-season performances. I always found Cherami Leigh's Lizzy bratty and grating, but she puts a lot of emotion into the role this time—which is good, because she has more to do this time than usual. Basically, you'll continue to feel however you already felt about the Black Butler dub's array of over-the-top, stereotypical British accents. Personally, I think it adds to the campy charm of the show, and the sense that no matter how dark things get, we're never supposed to take it all that seriously.
The most frustrating thing about the film is its animation quality. Typically, feature films have better resources than TV anime, providing a chance for a long-running series to ramp up its visual chops. Black Butler has never been a well-animated show, but it always had the potential to be in better hands. Unfortunately, it's clear that Book of the Atlantic won't give us this upgrade from the very first scene. Viewers first see the ship in clunky CGI, with robotic character models milling about on it. Even 2D scenes feature way too much repetition in character designs among the passengers and zombies. I don't expect everyone to look like a distinct individual, but they reuse models so much that it's noticeable in every battle. It's an especially bad idea to reuse the design for the very first zombie we see, whose awakening establishes the Aurora Society's secret in a dramatic, high-stakes scene. Half the female zombies in the film look like riffs on this first creature.
The film still gets in a few compelling visual choices, though. For example, one important character flashback is shown as a faded silent film. It provides a nice contrast to the more saturated aesthetics of the rest of the film, and it also recalls the way grim reapers harvest memories as film reels, a bit of world-building that becomes important again. Unfortunately, Book of the Atlantic overall suffers from similar art problems to its predecessors. Many scenes are hard to watch because of how (literally) dark they are.
The biggest thing justifying Book of the Atlantic's adaptation to the screen is the musical score. It's not as quietly unsettling as the music from Book of Circus, with fewer creepy choirs and booming organs. Instead, it favors loud orchestral decadence, fitting the luxury of the Campania and the much higher stakes of the conflict. Black Butler has always been good at the musical side of things, especially in adapting its choices to different moods and stories while consistently maintaining its gothic Victorian flair, and Book of the Atlantic is just as impressive as its predecessors in terms of soundtrack.
Black Butler: Book of the Atlantic demonstrates the same strengths and weaknesses as the last several TV series installments. It's one of its strongest stories so far, both silly and scary at the same time, and it sounds terrific in terms of the acting, music, and sound effects. Unfortunately, the art and animation suffers, especially for a feature film outing. If you like the show already, Book of the Atlantic will be as good a time as ever. Just don't expect it to look any better on the silver screen.
Overall (dub) : B
Story : A
Animation : C-
Art : B-
Music : A-
+ One of the tensest and most high-stakes Black Butler stories, cool new twists on fan-favorite characters, musical score lives up to the franchise's high standard
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