Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Thoma and the Children of Befort continue their search for Helga in the oversized Greecian spaceship belonging to Tina's uncle. But Helga is in the hands of the slippery Dumas, who has no intention of relinquishing his hold on the girl. In the meantime, Thoma and the remaining Children stumble upon a host of revelations that shake them to their very cores. The doorway to the Zone gapes ever wider, the wheels of fate turn, and the journeys of all finally spin to a halt.
After the delicate dance of heightening mysteries and piecemeal revelation of the first half of the series finished, the burning question was whether the second half could survive once there were no teasing half-truths or dark conspiracies to cement one's attention. This volume lays to rest any such speculation. Through volumes of massive exposés and alien history, Fantastic Children has successfully made the transition from a quiet tale of inexplicably intertwined destinies to a grand adventure of galactic scale.
The show hasn't discarded its first half. The entire cast of characters is present, their pasts and purposes now laid bare, but their stories far from finished. The narrative threads of the first half—the Ged Institute, Detective Cooks, Thoma and Helga, the Children of Befort and Dumas—all continue on, now woven into a single plot. The paradoxes and dilemmas faced by all of the characters still lurk, although the plight of the Children and their human families remains on the back burner for the majority of the volume. Even the onion-skin exposure of character truths continues with a revelation that, while not unexpected, is guaranteed to drop your heart directly into your stomach acids.
But, like the characters, the story has changed. The stakes have increased, the action quotient is higher, and—aside from one final mystery—the story has shifted from slowly unfolding puzzle to straightforward adventure. Fear not, for the adventure—like the puzzle before it—is firmly rooted in the emotional realities of its protagonists; its climax is a mental rather than physical battle, and its conclusion quiet and affecting rather than explosive and exciting. It may be adventure, complete with the trappings—fist fights, life-threatening developments, tense confrontations, and even a maiden in distress, but it's an adventure grounded in its characters and wrapped in a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. And it's every bit as dark and delicious as it ever was.
The visual execution is almost as flawless as the narrative construction. There are obvious earmarks of quality: a general lack of noticeable shortcuts; characters that move with natural ease through their surroundings; an awe-inspiring spacecraft rendered in minute detail; settings that feel real and interactive—not backgrounds but spaces in which people exist. But the care with which it was made also manifests itself in more subtle ways: the expressiveness of its deceptively simple character designs, the haunting beauty of everyday settings after the grand vistas and unfamiliar technologies of Greecia, the eerie synchronized way that the Children of Befort move, the way Wonder dips under the additional weight of Thoma dropping onto it. The very occasional indistinctness of some of the background art (usually when moving through forests), and a shortage of truly dynamic scenes sets it apart from top-of-the-list big-budget efforts, but that's merely nit-picking an otherwise excellent production.
The soundtrack, with its slow, deliberate, mildly asymmetrical background music, quietly memorable main themes, lyrical opening, and beautiful, achingly sad closing song is the kind of music that would sound great while wrapped in a blanket on a rainy day. It also sounds great while watching the series.
The supreme importance of good acting is never quite so apparent as when it gets botched. And botch it the dub does. Actors sound as if they are going through the motions without really bothering to act or understand their characters. Some speak in dull monotones, even at the worst of times (check out Gherta's monologue at the end of episode 23), others have bizarre inflections (why does Hesma sound as if he's constantly fighting a bad case of constipation?), and almost all of them have halting, unprofessional delivery at least part of the time. The problem extends beyond just the acting. Some lines are recorded without the proper atmospheric effects (e.g. echoes) such that they sound like, well, actors speaking into mikes. Thorny, complex emotions, action and high drama alike get smothered under the bland, uninspired dub. It isn't wholesale butchery (that would require changing the dialogue so that Chitto is the main character and giving everyone else nasal voices with heavy East-European accents), but... Whether one sheds a tear or two during the Japanese will depend on one's constitution, but I guarantee that the only tears anyone will shed during the English version will be in mourning for all of the fine moments killed dead by awful acting.
The only real extra on the disc is the “special ending.” It claims to be “special,” and it is. Do not miss it, under any circumstances.
Shows that allow you to think circles around yourself are fairly uncommon, but ones that can do so while so effectively forcing you to live the fear, pain, and, ultimately, happiness of its cast are rarified to the point of being treasures: pure, glittering jewels floating in a river of anime. Reach in and pick it up.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Engrossing, occasionally devastating end to an already excellent series.
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