Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 14th 2013
Naruto Shippūden: The Will of Fire
Young ninja Naruto Uzumaki has always had plenty of respect for his teacher, Kakashi Hatake—but his dedication to Kakashi is about to be tested in an unexpected manner. A rogue ninja named Hiruko has been capturing those with the powers of Kekkei Genkai (inherited technique), and Kakashi's famed Sharingan Eye is the final piece that will grant Hiruko complete invincibility. Rather than put others in danger, Kakashi decides to give himself up, leaving the village under Hiruko's mind control. If he sacrifices his life, he might have a shot at defeating Hiruko ... but Naruto catches wind of this suicidal plan and will have none of it. Teaming up with Sakura, Sai, and other allies from the Hidden Leaf Village, Naruto sets out to rescue Kakashi and stop Hiruko's plan. But how will they defeat a ninja who can counter every possible move?
Is Naruto Shippūden: The Will of Fire a filler movie? Yes. Is it tied to major plot points in the Naruto series? Also yes. This may sound like a contradiction, but it's because of the way the movie is plotted: two of the most important, character-defining events in The Will of Fire don't even take place during the film. The first is Kakashi's personal epiphany as a young man, when he realize that "those who break the rules are scum, but those who abandon their friends are worse than scum." (Fans will also recognize this as the Kakashi Chronicles side-story—an example of filler done right.) The second key moment is Naruto's first lesson with Kakashi, where he must retrieve a pair of bells from his master or go hungry—and after Naruto fails, it's Sasuke and Sakura who share their meals with him, understanding that friendship trumps all.
These touching moments resurface as flashbacks in The Will of Fire, giving the story the depth it needs to show why Naruto would disobey top-level orders and go on what is practically a suicide mission. But when it comes to execution, the movie is utterly pedestrian: it moves from one set-piece to another, churning out a linear series of fights until Naruto takes on big bad boss Hiruko all by himself. And if Naruto or any of his allies should be hopelessly overmatched ... voilà, more supporting characters arrive at just the right time! Who needs to worry about logical things like speed and distance when ninjas always show up exactly when the plot needs them? The only time the story shows signs of uncertainty is at the beginning, when the Kekkei Genkai ninja disappearances and Kakashi's departure are posed as mysteries waiting to be solved. But as luck (or rather, poor characterization) would have it, Hiruko is one of those cheeseball villains who insists on explaining his evil plans to everyone, so the mystery doesn't last long.
The film makes a few attempts at complexity, but these efforts don't get very far. There's a superfluous plotline about village leader Gaara going missing and the ninja nations getting all flustered about it—but this political posturing is merely that, a pose, and serves as an excuse for Naruto to battle Gaara in the wilderness. The characters also bring up the "Will of Fire" (the desire to overcome impossible odds) as a recurring catchphrase, but it seems like a contrivance just so that the movie's title shows up in the script. The only deep idea that really works is the concept of inheritance—the original Japanese title is "Inheritors of the Will of Fire," and the pivotal ninja powers in the story are known as inherited techinques. In the end, it's the personal philosophy that Naruto "inherits" from Kakashi that is his key to triumph, rather than any special ability.
Let's be honest, though: not every Naruto fan is going to be reaching for such deep thoughts. They might just be here to watch some great fights, which the movie delivers eminently. Whether it's secondary characters going after Hiruko's goons, or Naruto unleashing his rasengan in the final battle, the animation is wonderfully fluid—big-screen Naruto is all about squish and stretch and dramatic camera angles, rather than simplifying the visuals to meet a budget and a deadline. Even during transitional scenes, the added shadows and highlights give the characters a realism that TV viewers (and manga readers) would miss out on. The background art is also top-notch, with elaborate structures and sweeping landscapes that Naruto and friends must pass through on their adventure. Perhaps the only artistic limitation is in the character designs, which have to remain true to Masashi Kishimoto's original creations—but since everyone has such a distinctive appearance, the creativity speaks for itself. The villain designs aren't quite as inspired, however: the "bondage" look of Hiruko's minions seems more like a silly costume-party outfit than a seriously threatening warrior.
Although the story proceeds in a predictable manner, the soundtrack is anything but. Low, eerie sounds, with barely a melody to speak of, dominate the early part of the movie as the mystery surrounding Kakashi builds up. Even when Naruto and his friends head out, the musical mood is more urgent and troubled than enthusiastic. Battle scenes, too, take the less-traveled route with lots of heavy percussion and dissonant outbursts. It seems unusual that such a conventional story should have such a dark, serious-minded soundtrack—but it does add tension to action scenes where everyone already knows the good guys will win out anyway.
In addition to quality animation and dramatic music, the movie also benefits from high-spirited voice acting. The English dub gets a confident performance from the entire cast, none more so than Maile Flanagan as the fiery-voiced Naruto. The Japanese audio sounds more veteran and self-assured, but there's a raw energy from the English recording that makes it enjoyable in its own way. The Blu-ray disc, however, comes with little more than the movie and the alternate language tracks—there are trailer clips from its Japanese run, plus production sketches and a creditless ending (which seems pointless considering that the ending is just a slideshow with credits running along the side). Fans who want to make the purchase will basically want to consider how much HD quality means to them (and it does make a striking difference, especially compared to Naruto releases on DVD or online streams).
Naruto Shippūden: The Will of Fire is truly a contradiction. It has a stand-alone plot—Hiruko's emergence and defeat ultimately don't affect the main series—yet the viewers who will get the most out of it are those who have followed rest of the series thoroughly, knowing what Naruto and Kakashi have been through. Or one could simply watch it as a fantastic collection of fight scenes, with dazzling visuals and mind-blowing effects that could never be possible on a week-to-week schedule. If only the staff had put as much effort into the storytelling as they did for the animation, perhaps this would have come out as a more complete product.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : D+
Animation : A
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Will impress viewers with polished animation, high-octane battles, and a major connection to past events in the series.
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