As with the series (reviewed here), the film opens with a young man, Yukito, wandering into a seaside village, following a quest for a mythical "girl in the sky" his mother once described. The film offers more room for Yukito's arrival, fleshing out his backstory a pinch - and yet the whole "girl in the sky" angle eventually becomes fairly unused. (More on that in a moment.)
The film also gives us a longer introduction to Misuzu, the young girl Yukito befriends during his stay. We learn she's been absent for an entire year of school due to illness, and now she wants a summer project to help her catch up; she's assigned the task of studying the town's history. This leads her to a shrine where she learns of an ancient legend involving Kanna, the world's last winged girl, and Ryuya, the noble samurai who guarded her.
This is the film's wisest choice: instead of separating this tenth century story from the rest of the plot, as the TV series does, screenwriter Makoto Nakamura smartly interweaves the modern and the ancient stories, revealing deep parallels. Both girls desperately wish to be reunited with their mothers (Kanna's mother, a magical creature, is exiled out of fear by the local priests; Misuzu's mother died years ago, leaving her aunt to play the parental role), and both girls long for the love of the older men in their lives.
That's a notable switch from the series, and one that presents a major problem with accepting this as a moving love story. Neither Misuzu's nor Yukito's ages are given, so we're left to guess that Yukito is in his early-to-mid-twenties and Misuzu is in her early teens (and given the clichés of anime design, she looks like she's around ten). In the series, the bond between the two is more familial, like that of an older brother or father figure (there are crush elements, to be sure, but it stays fairly safe), but in the movie, the script pushes for all-out romance. Things don't go as far as the "bishōjo" game that launched the whole franchise (which rewarded players with sex scenes involving the characters), but the mere notion of a twentysomething pining for, and then swapping spit with, a junior high student pulls the rug out of the notions of timeless love the movie wants to portray. And with the series' multiple subplots removed to help squeeze the story into a tight 90-minute run time, there's no way to escape such squicky thoughts. They're up front all the time.
Doing away with the subplots also leaves Yukito's main mission - the quest for the girl in the sky - getting mangled. The film hints that Yukito and Misuzu may be reincarnations of the tragic lovers of our flashback fable, but only to a point; the script is more comfortable separating the past as fantasy and the present as straightforward realism. (Unexplained, then, is the telekinetic powers Yukito uses to perform a puppet show, but that's an element that simply gets muddled in the story's reconfiguration.) But if Misuzu is not the girl in the sky, if her spirit does not float in the clouds, awaiting her return, why bring the point up in the first place?
The rest of the film suffers not from storytelling problems (although being locked into the franchise's dying kid-equals-melodrama story, there's too much manipulation and not enough genuine emotion), but from its presentation. The animation is rougher here than in the series, which is fine, as it matches nicely with the game's sketchier artwork. But the animators take great shortcuts with this, often replacing entire shots with still frames apparently lifted from the game (or built to look as such). It's a cost-cutting distraction that essentially turns the film into a cinematic picture book. If the whole film was like that, fine, that'd be its unique style. It's only used in random moments, however, making the whole thing look cheap and riddled with shortcuts.
The movie also gets plastered with split-screen effects that never quite work; the tone of the story requires something calmer and gentler than the visual frenzy of rapid-cut multi-image frames. There's a feeling that the filmmakers were eager to try anything to help separate them from the game and series, but there's no clear reason to the gimmicks they use. Was this a rush job? Perhaps - it would explain why some unneeded elements remain intact.
But not even a removal of such visual tricks would save the story, which is broken at its core. With both the series and movie failing, perhaps there's just something about the franchise that gets too lost in translation.
Video & Audio
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sparkles, with excellent colors and great detail. Dirt and grain is absent, as are digital artifacts.
The original Japanese soundtrack and the English dub are given the 5.1 treatment. Both tracks are just fine, if nothing spectacular, with clear dialogue and solid music and effects. Two optional English subtitle tracks are provided; one track presents complete translation of dialogue; another delivers translations of the theme song and on-screen Japanese signs only.
None, except for a batch of previews for other FUNimation releases. A trailer for "Tsubasa: Volume 12" plays as the disc loads.
A slight improvement over the TV series, "Air" the movie still crumbles under the weight of its own bad choices. Skip It.