★ / ★★★★
For a story that involves jumping between two worlds in which the lives of their respective inhabitants are linked somehow, Yoshiyuki Momose’s “Ni No Kuni,” inspired by a highly charming and emotionally moving video game series of the same name, is impoverished of imagination and wonder. Instead of focusing on world-building; creating convincing character development; and laying out its universe’s complex rules and giving the audience a chance to understand them, notice how the picture is so eager to jump into action out of fear, perhaps, that curiosity would not be enough to garner interest. What results is a movie without soul and magic, just a series of empty disagreements among friends and noises of would-be epic battles. In the middle of it, I wished there was a spell to redo the film because its current state is an embarrassment.
Best friends Yu (voiced by Kento Yamazaki) and Haru (Mackenyu) find themselves transported to a strange world in the middle of their desperate attempt to take their dying friend, Kotona (Mei Nagano), who has been stabbed, to the hospital. In this world filled with humanoid beasts and magical beings, Yu is not paralyzed from the waist down and Haru’s athleticism does not make him feel special. In fact, it seems that in this alternate world, Yu is the special one since he appears to have the gift of magic. It is a workable beginning to a possible rivalry of young men whose friendship is defined by a particular power dynamic. This coming-of-age angle, however, is not explored in meaningful ways because the screenplay by Akihiro Hino leans too heavily on tired fantasy tropes like saving a princess from a curse and the hero falling in love with her, vice-versa. It is boring and does not leave much room for compelling drama.
While watchable on its own, the style of animation fails to match the story being told. The first game in the series, “Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch,” offers animated sequences produced by Studio Ghibli. They are stunning; they compel us to look at the images and examine them. They may be eye-catching and cute at first glance, but as a whole they are designed to immerse the player first and foremost. In this film, the animation comes across as flat and stiff; it does not stand out among other Japanese animated films that fall under the same genre. But this shortcoming can be overlooked if the content of the story were actually captivating. It is so predictable that from the moment we lay eyes on certain characters, we know he or she would end up becoming a villain, for example. There is no curiosity or mystique about it.
Since the screenplay fails to take the time to lay out the important rules, those who have not played the games are likely to become very confused. For instance, during the first scene we are greeted with a possibly senile old man yelling, “Gateway!” at the hospital rooftops. Those who experience the games would know that this is a spell that summons… well, a gateway, between the “real” world and the other world.
But, for some reason, in the film Yu and Haru are randomly able to move between worlds without ever uttering the spell. Instead, they must to endanger their lives in either world—like plunging a van into a river while they’re inside—and soon they would find themselves waking up in the next world. Why is the old man required to cast a spell while the young men are not? This is only one example of the material’s brazen lack of consistency. How can we get involved in the story when are left scratching our heads every other scene?
“NiNoKuni” comes across as a rushed project designed to keep the brand relevant. The soul of this brand is an epic sense of adventure; its heart the lessons it imparts on how one might lead a healthier, happier life despite outside elements that could embitter or numb a person over time. We get no sense of humanity here, and so there is no doubt the film is a failure.