Reviewby Rose Bridges,
Ancien and the Magic Tablet
Kokone keeps falling asleep when she should be studying for her university entrance exams, but who could blame her; what she finds in her dreams is far more fascinating than her studies. She's transported to another world where she is the princess Ancien, on the run from her gilded home of Heartland because of the monsters she seems to attract with her powers. All this ties into long-buried family secrets involving Kokone's mother and her family's mysterious connections to a technology company that's planning a big reveal for the upcoming 2020 Olympics. The link between both worlds may be her father's magical tablet computer, which holds strange powers that summon all of Kokone's desires—and make her a magnet for her father's professional enemies.
Did you ever wonder what a Mamoru Hosoda-style story would be like if it were directed by Kenji Kamiyama of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Eden of the East? That's basically the easiest way to describe Napping Princess. At first glance, it's a stylistic departure for Kamiyama and then some, a fairy tale film geared toward a family audience. Yet Kamiyama still gets his unique sensibilities all over it, from the pro-technology themes right down to the Tachikoma-esque design of Kokone's morphing robo-motorcycle.
This doesn't mean that you need to be familiar with Kamiyama's previous work to enjoy this film, but it definitely helps to appreciate some of its more out-there character designs and especially its plot twists. From the summary alone, Napping Princess sounds like it's throwing a bunch of different elements at the wall to see if they stick. Magic computers, but also princess dreams and the Olympics? Its plot logic is a little hard to follow at times, especially if you want to carefully trace the similarities between the real-world and dream-world conflicts. The film invites those kinds of comparisons, since the princess story is an elaborate metaphor for Kokone's family situation, but they don't always gel right. The Olympics connection feels especially tacked-on, not coming up until near the end.
Thankfully, this film nails the most important thing by making its audience feel. At heart, Napping Princess is a story about family and coming to terms with the past, as well as teens learning to make their own way through the world. All that emotional work pays off, as the movie beautifully mixes epic thrills and heartstring pulling from the beginning. As much as the story confused me at times, I could never look away for so much as a second. Napping Princess draws you into its worlds, both the everyday slice-of-life one and the fantastical one, even if you're not quite sure why.
It also has well-crafted memorable characters, despite how simple and archetypal they initially appear to be. Kokone is both spunky and caring, risking everything to help her dad and learn more about her family, forming the film's beating heart alongside her friend Morio, the everyman and audience surrogate. A lot of the second act is spent with the two on the run in the real world, mixed in with visions of Ancien doing the same in hers. The team said they were consciously working toward a slice-of-life feel during the talk before the film at AnimeFest, which means the story must be built on character interactions. For all the convoluted mystical and sci-fi stuff surrounding them, Kokone and Morio behave and think like real teenagers running from their responsibilities, which makes it easier to believe this is really Japan in the near future.
It's in those moment-to-moment scenes where Napping Princess really shines. You might have trouble tracing the connective tissue through the larger plot, but you can really lose yourself in the individual set pieces, from the opening backstory to the thrilling conclusion. The road-movie middle part is the strongest, as it lets viewers linger in that world, getting to know it station-by-station alongside the characters.
Napping Princess also puts a unique twist on one of anime's most tired character tropes: the dead mom. We learn early on that Kokone doesn't have a mother, and this seems to be just a sad backstory note like in so many other anime that will at most explain her closeness to her father. Instead, Kokone's mother is a crucial part of the film's story, especially the technological marvel that holds the key to the finale. She's a character who feels unique for anime, impactful even from beyond the grave.
Kamiyama and his team definitely have something to say in this film, but it seemingly gets buried in the twists and turns of the plot. I also got the sense that some of the message was lost in translation, perhaps based on commentary about Japanese businesses that Western viewers might struggle to identify. What does come across—the stuff about family and general technological advancement—is simplistic for an adult audience, especially as the film seems to be building to something bigger. Still, it's an interesting cocktail of familiar Kamiyama fixations and family movie tropes both anime and Western. It's not much that experienced viewers will find shocking or new, but the sentimental and heartfelt core works well.
Ultimately, the messy plot of Napping Princess is just a vehicle to get us from moment to moment, idea to idea, and especially aesthetic marvel to aesthetic marvel. Napping Princess is a gorgeous-looking film, with a softer storybook visual style than Kamiyama's previous work, but it's still able to blend in his signature designs where they're needed. It also has terrific music, by Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy XV composer Yoko Shimomura, which is always perfectly placed to bring the right emotion to each scene. The score goes a long way in drawing the viewer into even some of its riskiest story ventures.
Your experience watching Napping Princess will benefit from letting it take you for a ride. It hits all the right emotional beats, and if you watch it with your heart instead of your head, it's a completely fulfilling experience. Once you stop to think about the plot logic or what it all means, the story could lose you, but luckily there's enough going on emotionally and aesthetically in this beautiful film that it isn't necessary to rely on the plot. This ambitious and sweet story has all the flow it needs to sweep you off your feet.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A+
+ Emotionally gripping from start to finish, stunning art and animation, arresting musical score, great for audiences of all ages
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