Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 3rd 2014
Blue Exorcist: The Movie [Limited Edition]
Every eleven years, True Cross Academy holds an enormous festival in conjunction with the renewing of its anti-demon wards. The festival is based on an ancient legend about a boy who took in a demon and the exorcist who eventually put the demon down. During the festival preparations, Rin, Yukio, and Shiemi are tasked with exorcising a demon train. Rin and Shiemi's actions drive the train berserk, and it escapes—but not before wrecking a small forgotten shrine and freeing a small forgotten demon. Mephisto assigns Rin to guard the demon, whom Rin dubs Usamaro. Usamaro is innocent and childlike and Rin responds to that, but is he truly harmless? Or will he visit untold mayhem on True Cross's grand festival?
The format is different and the director too, but even so Blue Exorcist is still Blue Exorcist. The franchise's first film—and one truly hopes that this is only the first—has all the usual hallmarks of a cinematic outgrowth of a shonen franchise. It is self-contained, sentimental, and even revolves around the main character playing mentor to a spunky kid in need of a few life lessons. In broad outline it could any of a dozen different but equally dispiriting Naruto films. This is Blue Exorcist however—a franchise that specializes in doing the shonen thing and doing it exactly right. And it certainly does right here. The Blue Exorcist movie is a sumptuous spectacle with a warm, beating heart—a tightly-constructed romp with enough humor and headlong action to earn its shonen-action label but that never forgets that real feelings always trump fantasy fightin'.
The film weaves its spectacle-with-a-heart from three intertwining plot threads: The festival, the renewing of the wards, and the freeing of Usamaro.
The wards contribute action. While renewing them, the Exorcists temporarily weaken the protections cast on their little city-state. This means demons can sneak in, which means demon-busting ensues. Some of which is pretty hilarious. Rin's trainee comrades—Bon and Renzo and the rest—spend the entire film being comically drenched with various hues of ooze. (And, in another scene, being worn to personality-altered nubbins of their former selves). Mostly, though, it's spectacular. The film opens with a rampage through the Academy city atop a demon train, which transforms partway through into a hideously mobile agglomeration of teeth, slime, and eyes. The film ends in city-shattering anarchy, as a harmless dusting of floating pollen-demons pulls together into building-devouring snakes of smoky black evil and the Academy comes crashing down around Rin and his comrades.
The festival contributes eye-popping pageantry. You can't help but be impressed by the meticulous, sometimes surreal beauty of True Cross. It is recognizably the same place that Rin and company hung out in in the TV series, but expanded and infinitely deepened by the gorgeous cinematic artwork (and fluid camerawork) of A-1 Pictures. It is a joy to behold, even in the film's most unassuming moments. But you don't understand quite how immense the film's artistic powers are until the festival begins. Until ships, bedecked and carven, afire with festival colors, come plowing through smoke, to dock like cruise-liner dragons at the city's shores. Until Arthur Auguste Angel stabs a figurehead, sending a spurt of glittering red confetti onto the seething mass of revelers below. Until you see Rin and Usamaro surveying the revelry from a shingled rooftop, silouhetted against the darkened city as crimson paper flutters down.
The freeing of Usamaro gives us the movie's heart. It's a heart with great potential for pap and sap, but that does an admirable job of not fulfilling that potential. Rin's rapport with adorable little Usamaro is cute and sweet, but firmly grounded in Rin's joy at having found the little brother that Yukio was too smart and responsible to be and in Usamaro's believably burgeoning attachment to his new brother-figure. It's also shot through with chilly little spikes of worry as Usamaro's powerful abilities begin to manifest and exert a potentially disastrous influence on Rin. To say what those abilities are would be unkind, but I will say that they cleverly explain the puzzling legend at the heart of the True Cross's big festival and allow Usamaro to rain all kinds of terror down on the city without crossing the line to antagonist or even adversely affecting his huggable lovability. At heart, Usamaro is just a good kid with big powers and no idea how to use them responsibly. It's when we see what that combination wrought in the past—Usamaro looking on in childlike incomprehension as the humans he befriended turn against him—that the film is at its most heartbreaking.
Whatever you think of their pricing, Aniplex of America puts together a fine product. These two Blu-rays come packaged in a sweet little box, generously adorned with the film's dazzling art and snugly packed with booklet and postcards, these also awash in beautiful, glossy, full-color art. The booklet favors eye-opening conceptual and unusual promotional art, along with some samples of the film's stunning background artistry. On-disc there are two full-length commentary tracks, featuring a good cross-section of the Japanese staff/cast and a good deal of charm and energy. The second disc is comprised of thirty-odd minutes of interviews with the main staff.
Perhaps the biggest extra, though, is the English dub. Not all AoA releases have them, and that it's a reliable one makes it an even better bonus. Anchored by a nice, energetic turn by Bryce Papenbrook (as Rin) and featuring good solid work from the rest of the cast, it's a clean, faithful rendition of the film that loses little in comparison with the original. David Vincent's Arthur Angel is a bit painful to listen to and Cassandra Lee has some perfectly understandable trouble keeping up with Rie Kugimiya's typically great rendition of Usamaro, but otherwise there's nothing wrong with it. Of course it helps that the film relies so heavily on execution—specifically the emotive mobility of Keigo Sasaki's designs and the wonderfully cinematic score by Hiroyuki Sawano—for its emotional impact. Even if the actors stank the joint up, the film would still have survived.
Execution is Blue Exorcist's watchword, perhaps more so in this chocolate bon-bon of a film than ever before. Do not take that as a "style over substance" slur however. Great execution is no simple or easy thing. Take the opening action set-piece. It's Rin and Shiemi's compassion, as they enter the demon train to rescue its cargo of innocent ghosts, that sets off the demonic rampage. Which in turn leads to a lyrical interlude when, in the aftermath, Shiemi and Rin free the ghosts to rise in a gentle spiral of winking firefly lights as Yukio watches ambivalently from afar. It's a lovely and efficient bit of filmmaking, telling us everything we need to know about all three main characters in the midst of a haunting bit of eye candy. Blue Exorcist is hardly a work of staggering genius, but with craft like that it can't help but be a joy.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Lavishly animated, gorgeously illustrated, and pleasantly bittersweet; doesn't skimp on action; Usamaro is the cutest thing this side of the Panda Cam.
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