ANIME & MANGA - Review
15:24 - 8th May 2013, by David West

Oblivion Island: Haruka And The Magic Mirror

When Haruka was a little girl, her mother told her a fable about the foxes that carry off any items that their human owners have forgotten about or cast aside. 'What you neglect, we collect!' chant the foxes as they go about their scavenging. Before she died, Haruka's mother gave her a hand mirror that Haruka promised to treasure for always and forever, but years later, when Haruka is a teenager, the mirror lies forgotten in a storage shed - a prime target for light-fingered foxes. One day, while visiting a shrine, Haruka sees a strange little creature at work, as it gathers up a toy plane and her house keys before scampering away. She follows it and finds herself sucked down into the world of Oblivion Island, a place where the foxes keep all the possessions that they have brought back from the human world. Haruka vows to find her mother's precious mirror, but humans are forbidden from setting foot in Oblivion Island, and the Baron, who rules the island, has plans for the mirror of his own.

After the blood and guts of the two live action Gantz movies, Shinsuke Sato might seem a strange choice to direct a children's movie, but he has proven his box office pedigree in Japan with the two-part alien hunting manga adaptation, so should be a safe pair of hands to steer this ship. In one respect if no other, Oblivion Island, like the Gantz franchise, comes with a considerable weight of expectation upon Sato's shoulders. The movie is the first 3D, all-CGI outing from the celebrated studio Production IG, the brainy folks behind the seminal Ghost In The Shell films and TV series. Reflecting the western preference for CG animation, Oblivion Island aims to show the world that Production IG can compete with Pixar and Dreamworks on their own terms. It's a great start, but the studio is not quite ready to challenge Pixar's supremacy just yet.

Sato co-wrote the screenplay with Hirotaka Adachi, and their film is squarely aimed at younger viewers. Part of the key to Pixar's enormous success has been their ability to create films that appeal to children, teens and adults alike, a feat that Oblivion Island can't match. The simplistic narrative and the lack of detail in many of the characters mean that adults may find that there is not enough depth in the material to hold their attention, although kids will eat up the numerous high spirited chase scenes and noisy slapstick.

As the heroine, Haruka experiences a satisfyingly full emotional journey over the course of her adventure in Oblivion Island. At the start of the story, she is an angry teenager, alienated from her father who is always working late, and still acutely feeling the absence of her mother. There is a lovely, heart-string tugging scene late in the tale when Haruka relives her memories of her mother and sees, for the first time, what her father has been through. It packs by far the biggest punch of the film and will insure sniffling in all but the most cynical of viewers.

Haruka's companion on her journey is Teo, one of the fox-like critters who relieve unsuspecting humans of their possessions. Teo's character arc is less compelling than Haruka's, as he goes from being withdrawn and timid to standing up for himself and his new friend. It is more than a little predictable, and, next to Haruka, Teo is definitely the sidekick rather than equal partner. In nervous mode he narrowly avoids being tiresome, but he comes into his own as a character as his confidence grows.
The villain of the story is the Baron, who lords it over the residents of Oblivion Island in his airship. He has an evil scheme, but the story never really explores who he is or what drives him. Instead, he serves as a gaudily dressed plot device - Haruka and Teo need a nemesis, so the script provides one. Similarly, the Baron needs Haruka's mirror for his nefarious plot, but why that mirror in particular is not really clear. Teo explains to Haruka in one scene that the reason they need to bring objects back to the island from the human world is that they can't build things from scratch themselves - a rule that seems to apply to everyone but the Baron. Details like that will pass by many younger viewers, but will limit the film's appeal to adults.

The design work on the island itself is lovely. The buildings are a rainbow coloured patchwork of objects piled together, and the backgrounds are rendered in gorgeous detail and vibrant colours. Action scenes are delivered at breakneck pace with Teo and Haruka careening through the scenery like runaway rockets. The character animation is definitely a big step forward from other Japanese CGI movies like PlanZet, with much more engaging facial expressions and fluid movements (and hair that actually moves when the character moves - yes, we're looking at you Vexille!) That said, the figures do not always seamlessly match the backgrounds in terms of the style of the artwork. The landscapes and backdrops are often rendered in an impressionistic style, while the figures have much cleaner, stronger lines. The contrast between the two elements is not overly intrusive, just a sign of a studio still learning as it moves into new artistic territory. Unsurprisingly the lip syncing matches the voices far better in the original Japanese than in the English dub.

Oblivion Island has parallels with Alice In Wonderland and Spirited Away, with a feisty young heroine transported into a strange new world. It is not quite up to the lofty standards of the best of Studio Ghibli or Pixar, but should find a warm reception amongst kids with a taste for cute critters, brave girls and brightly coloured spectacle.
SCORE: 3/5
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