Movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
This anime epic now available on DVD successfully presents a convoluted story and a creative approach to the integration of 2D characters (shaded to look 3D) and 3D graphics. It overcomes many of the standard clichés of Japanese anime (power suits, plucky big-eyed heroines, and a fetish for firepower and hardware). It avoids some of the pitfalls (e.g., screwy sidekick, cuddly pets/creatures). So even though there are some plot and character development holes that caused this viewer to either groan or pop out an occasional "huh?" I really enjoyed it.
I like how the film and characters look. By not attempting the physical character realism of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the creators have produced here a full-motion, gloriously detailed graphic novel, complete with kick-ass surround sound. These are cartoons set against wondrously detailed futuristic sets, but with two key features that make them stand out.
First, the characters are cartoons but are significantly more expressive -- i would even say "more elegant" -- than typical cartoon characters. Much of the 2D character drawings have been processed using something the commentary refers to as the "Toon Shader." The effect is to make movements of the faces through space more realistic and fluid, while retaining the classic appearance of the Japanese cartoon character. I like this effect and feel it is a valid approach to this subject matter.
Second, character movements have been modeled on human live action. I believe that one term used to refer to this effect is "rotoscoping," a classic process used as far back as Disney's "Snow White." The practical impact here is that, the drawings being based on live action, the movements appear real. So they seem here -- and this coupled with the character facial animation again makes them seem like a graphic novel come to life. This realism is especially true with some of the subtler physical movements -- reaching, touching, leaning, etc.
I enjoyed the plot twists, even though the overall theme of humans co-existing with artificial humans is getting to be a bit old hat. (This theme is much better explored in Spielberg's AI Artificial Intelligence.) Also, some of the finer plot points and character development details appear to have fallen to the cutting room floor, since character motivation -- particularly that of the "bad guys" - is not always clear.
Nevertheless, this movie is quite an accomplishment. Even though we don't really warm that much to the characters, the story is solid, albeit somewhat talky. But the action scenes are first rate and extremely well executed. Overall, it's a very interesting and occasionally thoughtful film.