Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror stumbles in its quest to break new stylistic ground, attempting to blend and transform a traditional 2D anime art style with more modern 3D animation. In terms of design and art direction, the film is huge success, filled with gorgeous, candy-colored fantasy visuals, but the actual computer animation is frequently disappointing, hamstrung by a visibly limited budget and the same "dead-eye" problem as motion-capture. Produced as part of Fuji Television's 50th anniversary, the studio will certainly be able to look back and say they tried something unique, but whether or not they'll be able to say it was successful is another story.
Haruka (Haruka Ayase) is only a child when her mother is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Before she dies, she gives Haruka a hand mirror and a stuffed animal, both of which become treasured childhood possessions. As a teenager, however, her inability to find these sentimental items, compounded with her hard-working father's physical and emotional distance, only makes her feel even more alone. One night, after praying, she finds herself spying on a mysterious creature poking around in the bushes. The creature steals her keys, and she follows it through a magical portal into another world, where objects forgotten by humans are taken and used to build homes and traded for stamps.
Although the ads for Oblivion Island try to draw comparisons to Spirited Away, a more apt comparison might be a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland and The Borrowers, with Haruka tumbling down a rabbit hole into a vivid universe constructed out of found items. Humans are not allowed on Oblivion Island, so Haruka hides her identity with the help of Teo (Miyuki Sawashiro), whose key-stealing brought her there in the first place. The pair quickly discover that her mirror is special: all mirrors have magical properties on Oblivion Island, but Haruka's is the most powerful, and the powerful, manipulative Baron (Iemasa Kayumi) wants it just as much as Haruka.
Haruka is the film's biggest weakness: she's got no personality, and the film suffers because of it. We get plenty of info about her and the mirror: who gave it to her, and why it's important, but that's not enough for the audience to become emotionally invested. She's the character version of a MacGuffin: her desire to get the mirror is what moves the story forward. Opportunities to flesh her character out are basically wasted or mishandled: she ends up seeming overly bratty to her clueless, workaholic father, who may drink her bottled tea without asking but still remembers to call and see what she wants for dinner. The animation's stumbles are also mostly limited to Haruka, whose big wide eyes can't express anything more than zeroes and ones.
Other characters are more successful. Even though Haruka isn't compelling, her bonding with Teo is, and as a result, a scene where he bawls his eyes out is unexpectedly compelling. Haruka also finds and rescues Cotton (Tamaki Matsumoto), her stuffed animal, who expresses a sadness at being forgotten and happiness at being able to communicate that is unexpectedly heart-wrenching. Something about the bear's sweet innocence pinpoints the kid side of the brain that wants to believe all of their toys were secretly alive, although a part where Cotton rides in on a stuffed horse is pretty silly.
The last 30 minutes ramp up the action pyrotechnics, and one extended sequence involving cranes, planes, and a forward-and-backward ride on a rollercoaster rail is pretty exciting adventure movie material. As a whole, Oblivion Island will probably work well with kids who will find less to complain about when it comes to the story, but the experience is less than the sum of its parts.
Although the disc sent to me appears to be the Blu-Ray disc that will be included in the final product, FUNimation did not provide the packaging, which should include a DVD copy of the film.
The Video and Audio
Although I'd expect a Blu-Ray of a CG animated feature to offer a digital-to-digital transfer directly from the original computer files, a couple of unusual issues are present in this 1.78:1 1080 AVC presentation. Posterization/banding is surprisingly noticable throughout the film. Maybe it's inherent to the image, but I have no way of knowing whether it's a disc issue or an animation issue. One thing that has to be a fault of some aspect of the mastering process appears right before the film's first, brief chase sequence, in which the picture becomes unusually blurry. 90% of the time, this is as crisp and colorful as it should be, but these odd moments get in the way of a perfect score.
Two audio tracks are included: Japanese and English Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Note: Although no subtitles are accessible from the menu, selecting Japanese audio will automatically activate English subtitles -- I almost watched the film in English because I didn't see any subtitle options. Much like a direct-to-video action movie, Oblivion Island has a tendency to sound a little sparse sometimes, as if nobody had any time to think of some ambient sounds to include. Still, the music, dialogue, and sound effects that did make it across the mixing board are sharp, crisp, and vibrant, and the track ramps up the impressive surround activity with a third act that consists mostly of elaborate action sequences.
Several promotional featurettes are included. "Behind the Scenes of Oblivion Island" (5:02), "A Visit to Fushimi Inari Shrine" (5:13), "Battleship Island: An Actual Oblivion Island" (5:25), Greetings at the Premiere" (4:47), "A Word From the Cast" (4:39), "The U.S. Premiere" (8:00), and "Haruka and Teo's Panel Puzzle" (4:08) all seem like content produced for the web or television. "Battleship Island" stands out, in which Haruka Ayase and director Shinsuke Sato travel to an abandoned Japanese island known as Gunkanjima.
"A Journey Through Fox Folklore" (25:20) is a television special about foxes and their place in Japanese culture. I can't actually remember if the film refers to Teo as a fox -- I'm not sure if I noticed before I clicked on this special.
The disc is rounded out by several original theatrical trailers and TV spots, including an American trailer. Two Sierra Leone Relief TV spots (0:34) are also included.
There are some things to like in Oblivion Island, but it's a wildly uneven experience that lacks a compelling protagonist to hold it all together. Rent it if you have younger kids and see if they enjoy it before plunking down your hard-earned cash.
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