Every once in a while, a random movie we pick, a movie we don't know much about besides the poster or the cover art and a brief blurb about the plot will genuinely surprise us.
Just going by the Blu-Ray cover, Hal The Movie looks like one of those overly cutesy anime shows or movies I'm usually not interested in. I'm not a huge fan of anime, but I do appreciate some of the smarter science fiction that comes out of it, like Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Cowboy Bebop.
Hal's cover showcases a young happy anime couple cuddling around a color explosion background, not very promising for anyone looking for a smart and heartfelt hard science-fiction story. The plot summary looks more interesting, it's about a selfless, idealist girl, Kurumi, who lost her boyfriend, Hal, in a tragic plane accident. Kurumi was a source of joy for the elders at a local hospital, so they decide to turn a robot into a perfect artificial recreation of Hal for her to come out of her depression.
The premise looks good on paper, but there were still many ways its execution could have fallen flat from a possible saccharine approach to the subject matter. However, to my delight, Hal turned out to be nothing short of a mini hard-science-fiction masterpiece inside an impeccably paced 60-minute package. Within barely a feature-length running time, it manages to pack as much emotional and intellectual depth as a classic science-fiction novel that deals with the thin line between artificiality and reality.
At first, Kurumi rejects the artificial version of Hal, deeming him to be nothing more than a pale copy of the person she once loved and lost. The robot Hal himself has been programmed to love Kurumi unconditionally. He receives tips from messages written on a mysterious Rubik's cube, supposedly left by Hal before he died, in order to find out how to please Kurumi. However, like any relationship, Kurumi and Hal's was based on a balance of give and take, not just on one side serving the other.
In fact, it turns out that Kurumi and Hal were having some problems regarding Kurumi's charitable business ideas, which Hal thought was too naïve. As a series of Kurumi and Hal's home videos from a damaged "data button" that robot Hal gradually fixes become more and more available, a shocking revelation regarding this relationship presents itself.
Hal has the rare distinction of being able to construct a twist ending that's not only genuinely unexpected and original, but manages to add more depth and insight into the story's many themes surrounding love, grief and artificial intelligence. It would be a disservice to anyone if I revealed anything more about Hal's story, it really deserves to be experienced with as little information about it as possible.
Hal is animator Ryoutarou Makihara's first feature (Yes, 60 minutes still counts as a feature) and it creates a gorgeous mix of traditional 2D animation and 3D CGI. The story's supposed to take place in the near-future but it also manages to create a sort of fantasy world where an old fashioned Japanese town is seamlessly interconnected with advanced robotics.
Just like A.I. and Metropolis (The 2001 anime, not Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece), two vastly underrated films, Hal uses its science-fiction shell to deal with a very human subject, the intricacies of the very personal grieving period after losing a loved one and whether or not an artificial representation of that person stands a chance of filling that void?
Hal's 1080p presentation, which sports an AVC encode that sticks close to the high 30s bitrate, is absolutely perfect. This is a film that begs to be seen on the Blu-Ray format. The colorful and invigorating animation, blending cell and computer work perfectly, is a treat for the eyes. The detail presented on this transfer is so strong, that one can easily observe the various organic designs on the cell animation coming alive frame by frame. This might sound like a disadvantage for fans of clean, clinical computer animation but to me it infuses the project with so much more life. Through the Blu-Ray, the film comes truly alive. A quick look at the DVD that comes with the package reveals the same transfer in standard definition, which will look pretty on an upconverted DVD player but the Blu-Ray is the way to go if you have the means.
There are two options, an English DTS-HD 5.1 and a Japanese DTS-HD 5.1 track. As a traditionalist, I watched Hal in its original Japanese track with the English subtitles that were thankfully included. The mix on both tracks seem to be the same, except the change in dialogue of course, but this is a clear and clean track that takes full advantage of the beautiful score that comes to life on every channel of the sound system. To be honest, the English dubbing makes the film sound cutesier and more shallow than it is so I'd stick to the Japanese original.
Actor Commentary: A completely disposable commentary track, especially if you watched the original Japanese version, since it consists of voice actors from the English dub discussing their approach to the characters.
Making of, Production Process and Animatics & Scratch Tracks: Two 10-minute commentary tracks from the filmmakers over footage of various stages of the animation process. They're very valuable crash-courses in animation especially for those looking to become animators.
We also get an Original Trailer, The End Credits Song Without Text, US Trailer and a a whole bunch of Trailers of other FUNimation releases.
The Blu-Ray also includes three alternative covers you can slip into the case if you're not satisfied with the design of the original cover. This is a thoughtful and interesting addition from FUNimation.
Hal is a genuinely inspired, heartfelt and original hard science-fiction story presented through some of the most breathtaking visuals I've seen recently from modern animation. Give it a chance, it'll surprise you.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, Beyazperde.com, and Bitch Magazine.