Background: Americanized anime has been a staple of syndicated television for around four decades now, essentially changing the words and stories to fit homogenous package deals, with a wide variety of results. If you compare a series like the original Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom), Speed Racer (Mahha Go Go Go), or many others shows; the differences would be relatively small. If you compare some of the space opera shows, such as Robotech to the three series ruthlessly edited together (the main one being Macross) to make it by Harmony Gold's Carl "The Butcher" Macek, the results were markedly different. Whereas Robotech was a pro-war tribute to the patriotic mood of the mid--1980's, the original story was about as anti-war as you will find, complete with reluctant hero and a set of circumstances that explain a lot of the trickery used to distract audiences in the edited version. With that in mind, I got a look at the recently released feature film based on the Americanized version of the show called Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, released by FUNimation.
Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles is designed to give fans of the Robotech series more of the action they crave with familiar enemies, heroes and situations. I'll be the first to admit that when I first saw the series, I adored it despite the many lapses of judgment by the characters and the bizarre way the narration was used to fill in the blanks (often making no sense). Those were the Reagan years in the USA and the conservative mindset so many embraced made such a show all the better for those of us in the military and I'm not going to suggest the show was any worse simply because times have changed. No, what made the difference for me was eventually getting to see the unedited original version of the show, lifting the veil from my eyes at the complexities it offered and depth of characters that were missing in the "shallow as a rain puddle" Robotech version. It's tough to go back once you've seen the big city, making all versions except the original markedly inferior to me, even though a few friends have claimed I'm being too hard on the bastardized version. That said, here's a quick look at the movie, noting that others will review it soon so if you're a die hard fan of the edited version, feel free to see what they have to say:
The Movie: Okay, the movie takes place before the end of the original series with the Reflex Point attack about to commence. If you haven't watched the show in awhile (ADV Films has released numerous versions for completists), you might want to brush up since this one takes some liberties and plows ahead after relatively little exposition of what has taken place beforehand. If you've never seen the Robotech series, prepare to be hopelessly lost but that might give you reason to seek out the original titles so it could be a good thing for you. In any case, Earth has been in the clutches of an alien invader called the Invid; a bug-like race with a hive mind that feeds of a substance called protoculture; a living energy source in the form of a plant, for years. Small resistance groups have fought a guerilla war against the race for a long time, rarely making much headway for numerous reasons. Admiral Rick Hunter, the hero of the original series, is off in another part of the galaxy and the forces of Earth have been preparing for a final assault.
Most of the original cast is relegated to bit roles or written off altogether with Scott Bernard, the leader of a particularly effective resistance group, taking center stage. The attack is a limited success and the result is that the Invid leave Earth after a climactic battle, but take the protoculture with them, depriving the humans of their energy source. The humans have allied themselves with another alien race with advanced technology called the Haydonites, a race they know little about for a number of reasons. Needless to say, much of the story this time deals with how the Invid and Haydonites have been at war for a very long time, neither side trustworthy and both possessing secrets that only a jerk would spoil for you. Keep in mind that all three races have different motivations and some half breed characters come into play that incorporate the idea of mutual cooperation in such a limited fashion that you'll think they were as tacked on as in the original series.
One of the biggest flaws of the movie is that the producers went out of their way to find some of the biggest slavering fanboys of the Robotech series and had them come up with the story. If you've read some of the online fan fiction over the years, you'll see why that was a mistake. There is definitely such a thing as being too close to a subject to allow you the perspective to handle such a project as this. It also serves to force the movie to cater exclusively to those who have seen the original series in its entirety, preferably recently, or end up as an 85 minute exercise in eye candy like you'll see from some videogames. With all due respect to the franchise, any sequels might want to include a feature called "what you need to know to make sense of this movie" given the way it was designed. The mystery elements were so shallow as to broadcast the theoretical surprise plot points way too far in advance, and I had made it a point of watching it cold since too many places in print and online think outlining everything that happened makes for a good "review". The other big flaw was the dialogue seemed to be written by the guy that taught George Lucas, the stilted jokes only being part of the problem as the overall "feel" of the vocals leaving me wondering if perhaps it had been written in another language and translated from a book.
So, hate me if you will but aside from stating the obvious (watch the original three shows that comprise Robotech before commenting please), but the project fell markedly flat out of the starting gate and never got back up. Franchise projects made two decades after the original release can be that way and all the rose colored glasses in the world aren't going to change it. For slavering fanboys of the modified version only, I rated the title as a Rent It strictly because of how it catered to that limited audience but all others should stay away in droves (while those who loved Robotech will already have a copy of their own, maybe even two copies).
Picture: Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles was presented in the original 1.78:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen color as directed by Tommy Yune and Dong Lee. It looked very solid with few real issues in terms of the edge enhancement, moiré, or pattern noise but some of the CGI did not mix well with the limited style of animation applied to the characters. There were times when I thought the creators were trying for a campy retro look and others when I thought the budget must have run out or they simply ran out of time on a tight schedule to finish it before a specific deadline. The best way to sum up the animation of the movie compared to the series would be "Three steps forward, two steps back" since certain elements did indeed look better (though not 20+ years better) but others simply did not mesh well at all.
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English track or a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo English track; with no corresponding Japanese track since this was an original production. Okay, I always like hearing Mark Hamill play a character in animation (he is a childhood hero of mine) and fans of Deep Space Nine will enjoy hearing Chase Masterson again but some of the voices stuck out as being a bit wooden and ill prepared to flow with the others. Whether it was their fault or the audio engineer's fault, I can't say though the dialogue was often bad enough to make me wonder if someone involved in porn helped write the screenplay. The separation of the vocals was fair on both tracks but the lack of headspace or placement on the vocals made me think "budget/deadline" issue again. The score was another area of contention with many of the bits sounding like they were inspired (if not lifted entirely) from old videogames or television shows in syndication; hardly the advertised "awe-inspiring" mentioned on the box cover. This was an area that the crew should have shined with, not shined the audience over, so I hope any future efforts will spend more time here.
Extras: Aside from the trailers and slipcover, the only extra was a single featurette about the making of the movie. Robotech: Birth of a Sequel: The making of... provided a lot of information about what went wrong with the show. From the geeky fanboys involved so heavily in making the movie to the scores of well meaning fans that the camera caught at conventions, I have to give credit that the feature was more interesting to watch as a blueprint for a train wreck than the movie was as a tribute to fans of the show. I thought that relatively minor tweaks would have made this a decent flick given what was shown and said, making the end result all the more tragic but at least understandable with the lengthy extra providing more value for dissecting what went wrong than I think those involved with making the movie realize (perhaps the editor knew and geared it that way).
Final Thoughts: Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles may well be the best anime release of the year for some of the slavering fanboys that will surely adore it based on their devotion to the Americanized series. There have been so many projects that never made it past the drawing board that I'm sure they will view this as a payoff and accept it as the best they can hope for given the marketplace for anime at this time. Technically, it isn't even anime according to many people but I'm not going to split hairs over the semantics of the matter, referring those of you that like the show to the company website instead. It may not have been terrible but the limitations of the material made me wonder if anyone was hired for quality control this time, something that FUNimation tends to be exceptionally good at from my experience. In short, pick up a copy of Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles if you've never seen the unedited version of the shows the Americanized version was based on but have seen the domestic version recently. Otherwise, you may find the derivative plot and other elements to be more of the same old stuff done better elsewhere.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.