NYICFF 2010: Oblivion Island, Waiting for Cotton Gaiden.

As a person who tends to be absent minded I get a certain amount of dread whenever I cannot find something and wonder if I have lost it forever. So I acutely understand the pain and loss of losing track of something precious. But I think that it a universal misfortune that everyone has faced at one time or another. Oblivion Island taps into this feeling while tying it into a fantasy adventure story that uses Japanese myth to tell a tale of friendship and the bonds of family.

I wasn’t very interested in Oblivion Island, but really I don’t know why that was. I had heard of the film, but not really gone out of my way to learn more about it. The real draw in the end was that it is by Production I.G. And considering the fact that you shouldn’t look the gift of a film festival in the mouth, I ended up with a ticket to the last-minute-added showing.

The opening scene is a young girl named Haruka being read a picture book while visiting her sickly mother in the hospital. The story is about foxes who take things which people no longer appreciate. We then fast forward to Haruka in her teens. Haruka notices that the mirror her mother gave her, who has since passed away, has disappeared. In trying to find the mirror she follows a fox named Teo back to his magical homeland. Teo decided to help her find her missing mirror so he can get rid of her before everyone else realizes he has let a human discover their world. But they soon realize that in the world of Oblivion Island the mirror has great power and its new owner will not give it up easily.

The plot is steadfastly simple, we are taken in by Haruka’s adorable child-self and the very relatable plight of looking for something that was once important only to find it has disappeared from neglect. The world of the Kitsune, who are really all kinds of strange looking creatures who just wear fox masks, is colorful and vibrate with life. The looming evil a foot, which doesn’t ever get a good grip on just what it is doing, adds some stunning machine and battle moments. As the teen Haruka encounters this strange otherworld, she regains not only lost items, but lost feelings and memories as well. However, as the story goes on the connected feeling from the beginning moments is neglected and you never truly feel the what is displayed, you merely see it.

Haruka is a normal teenage girl with a bit of spunk to her. We get the sense that she has a decent social life and is slightly estranged but hardly cut off from her salary man father. She is not as fiercely strong as a Miyazaki heroine but she holds her own. Teo is the classic lovable loser character. He is a hard working and honest dreamer but sort of a nerd with no real friends. He dreams of flying and being successful but mostly seems to accept his lot in life. The evil Count and his minions are rather cartoon villains with cartoon villain motivations. Heck the Count is one step from being a kids’ movie version of Dr. Hell. I would be remiss in not mentioned Cotton who appears half way through the movie as he steals most of the scenes he is in. He is a lost stuff animal of Haruka’s who joins them on their journey. At first he is cold towards Haruka for forgetting about him but he eventually becomes a strong ally and a cool dude.

I also found Haruka to be much the regular teenager complete with a little selfishness and a little anger that is compounded by the loss of her mother and her subsequent pushing away of her father. But I never really felt we got to know her beyond the surface level and each time they try to insert some character development for her, it falls flat. Her growing friendship with Teo should be a great source for Haruka to shine, but it’s really Teo who ends up being the more full and changed character. At one point he mentions that he is just “junk,” it is a sad and heartfelt confession but when Haruka then joins in saying she is also “junk,” it came off as completely unfounded. Teo’s dream of flight also bolsters the huge climatic battle at the end quite nicely. Though I did find the ensuing idea that you can’t move people with your words, but you sure can with your money, a little off putting. The appearance of Cotton is also a poor attempt at Haruka growth as she never once mentions him prior to the dramatic reunion. However, it was perfectly dramatic as the director of the play Cotton was in says from off stage. And atleast Cotton is really cool!

Knowing that Oblivion Island is from Production I.G you are safe in the fact that the animation is solid. That being said Production IG is clearly not the Japanese Pixar when it comes to CG animated productions  But I would go as far as to say you could claim they are the Japanese Dreamworks. The characters were all very pleasant looking and to me and I did not feel it fell into the Uncanny Valley I know that one of the people went to the movie with did feel this way. I thought there was some really well done scenes and Karuka’s character model seem to have a good deal of attention paid to it. But there were some scenes that were way to frenetic and busy to fully see what was happening and at times some of the characters were obviously skimped on. Production IG has a good idea of how to do CG animation but they need to refine their art a little more. I hope to see improvements in the next CG works.

While I too enjoyed the visuals of Oblivion Island, that was the best part of the show (and Cotton!), Haruka just didn’t have soul. When the film finished I said to myself well it was okay since it was a kids’ film. But the more I think about that statement, the less comfortable I am with it. Is being a kids’ movie a free pass for plot holes and clunky characterization? Plenty of children’s film, television, and literature rise to the challenge and transcend into being great for kids and entertaining for adults. And Oblivion Island is entertaining once through, but it’s a bit insulting to forgive all the problems in the narrative because it’s “just a kids’ movie,” especially at a film festival that is all about bringing more to the table. Oblivion Island is a passable and visually interesting movie and nothing more.

I think of the five people who went to the movie I enjoyed it more than anyone else. It was a fun kid’s movie but it was squarely a kids movie. Something you could take kids to that they would love and you would not want to kill yourself. On the other hand it is harder to recommend just watching on your own. I do not regret watching the film in theaters but I am hardly rushing to buy it on DVD. I am curious to see the anime industry’s next CG film. I don’t want to see traditional animation go away but it is a good medium that they could do some very good work in.

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