Reviewby Tim Maughan,
Welcome to The Space Show
In a small rural village in a remote part of Japan, five kids have gathered at their school during summer break to spend a week away from their parents and teachers. They're meant to be studying and learning to be independent, but soon get distracted when one of them finds a badly injured dog in the woods, and nurses it back to health. Instead of wagging his tail to show his gratitude, the kids are shocked when the canine takes a far more direct approach to saying thanks, and talks. Turns out that he's not a dog at all – but actually an alien botanist named Pochi, here on earth to research a plant that is incredibly rare and valuable throughout the universe, but fairly common on Earth – well, at least in Japan.
Pochi takes a shining to the kids, and offers to repay them for their help by taking them on a trip to the far side of the moon, where despite NASA's best efforts at exploration there is actually a secret, sprawling city, populated by thousands of different aliens from across the galaxy. It's only meant to be a fleeting visit – for a start, the children's parents are coming to the school to collect them in a few days – but things start to go wrong when Pochi explains to the galactic authorities how abundant the rare and powerful plant actually is in Japan, and all flights back to Earth are grounded. Trapped on the moon the children are forced to find jobs to pay their way, until things turn dangerous when dark forces find out that one of them has unwittingly brought some of the precious plant along with them, triggering a chain of events and adventures that see them traveling even further into outer space.
Coming from the director/writer team of Koji Masunari and Hideyuki Kurata – who brought us the popular TV series Read or Die – the first thing that's clear about Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW is how much they want it to be a family movie with as wide an appeal as possible. In particular, they seem to be aiming for a work to rival that of commercial giant Studio Ghibli, which is both an admirable and daunting task.
The problem is that the result feels like A-1 Pictures has paid a little too much attention to the works of Hayao Miyazaki (among some other notable directors) to the point where you begin to sense a lack of originality or innovation. The film's opening - set in a rural environment and based primarily around two young girls (Amane and Natsuki) encountering a strange but friendly creature – is instantly reminiscent of My Neighbor Totoro. As the story shifts to the moon, and the focus is more on the group of five kids trying to find work, it is again impossible not to be reminded of the themes of children having to take on adult responsibilities presented in Spirited Away. And then, as everything suddenly changes pace and scale again as the group is forced into travelling across the galaxy on a deep space express train, the movie is undeniably taking cues from Leiji Matsumoto's 1970's classic Galaxy Express 999. While these are all fantastic works to take inspiration from, sadly the end result is that the story quickly becomes a mess. Any of these elements, if focused on and given a touch of originality, could have resulted in an engaging and charming experience for the audience – but instead none of them are given time to develop or space to breathe. Just as the viewer is investing their attention in one plotline, the film decides to switch to another, and this happens enough that it becomes not only hard to be emotionally attached to the characters, but sometimes tricky to follow what is going on. In fact, by the (admittedly incredibly action packed and frenetic) third act it's hard to remember who is meant to be doing what, and why.
However, to say that Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW just apes Ghibli films is also to do it a disservice. It has a much edgier attitude than any of Miyazaki's works, a more modern sensibility and a great sense of humour – it has more than one genuinely funny moment, especially in the opening act. It's also an undeniably beautiful looking film. From the opening scenes in Japan, through the futuristic shopping mall-like lunar city to its surrealistic climax it has some fantastically produced background art and design work. Throughout the story are littered many, almost awe-inspiring, crowd scenes featuring a multitude of bizarre and unique looking alien races, demonstrating a wide range of innovative and unusual character designs. Similarly it has some great action sequences, which despite the confusion of the plot are frequently tense enough to get the audience on the edge of their seats. It's easy to imagine that the care and attention put into the film's animation and all-around production value is the main reason the storyline feels so weak and badly paced at times, as though several plots have been awkwardly bolted together to link a series of already-created designs and set pieces.
How much you enjoy Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW will depend largely on how much you value a coherent narrative. If you can focus entirely on the film's amazing production values, complemented by detailed and extremely colorful animation, then there is more than enough here to keep you enthralled for a whopping 2 hours and 15 minutes, as it is unmistakably a gorgeous spectacle of a movie. But if a well-paced and thought-out story is important for you to be engaged, then you might find yourself fidgeting in your seat and your attention wandering.
Overall : B-
Story : C-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ Fantastic production values and great animation coupled with colourful background art make it enthralling to behold. Also very funny in places.
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