Just to get this out of the way: this isn't a review. It'll make sense why in a second. If you're looking for a review of the actual content of MADOKA MAGICA, you can peep my thoughts on the original series here. Got it? Good. Read on!
Last weekend, I attended the US premiere(s?) of PUELLA MAGI MADOKA MAGICA: THE MOVIE, PART I and PART II. Screened in only five theaters across the country, the four-hour-plus double feature quickly sold out here in San Francisco. I bought tickets the nanosecond they were available because, dude - - watching two brand-new, hitherto-unreleased MADOKA MAGICA films in a theater here in the city? Are you joking? I was pumped!
MADOKA MAGICA: THE MOVIE sets out to retell the story of the show, but in, you know, a movie format. The first one - - PART I: BEGINNINGS - - covers the first half of the series and the second one - PART II: ETERNAL - covers the last half. MADOKA MAGICA's premise, for those unfamiliar, revolves around Madoka Kaname, a middle-school girl who uncovers a world of evil-fighting magical girls in her city, and subsequently gets the opportunity to become one. An adorable magical being called Kyubey offers to hook her up with the powers at a price - - once you're in, you're in for life.
Real quick disclaimer: y’all know I love some MADOKA MAGICA, right? Like, the show was the first anime series I’ve been surprised by (or even loved) in a pretty long time. It’s one of my favorite discoveries of 2012 - - and that’s across every medium, not just anime. I’ve recommended it to friends who couldn’t care less about Japanese cartoons, and those who’ve given a shot have all fallen to its charms. MADOKA MAGICA is a great show.
So here’s the part where I tell you about how I didn’t really like the movie. How I was bored by it. How I felt like it was kind of a waste of five hours, 20 bucks and a Saturday night. Weird, right? How could I not like a retelling of one of my favorite stories?
Well, that right there is the first misconception: MADOKA MAGICA: THE MOVIE not a retelling.
‘Retelling’ implies it’s the same events, told differently. MADOKA MAGICA: THE MOVIE is the same events, told the same way, slightly prettier. No exaggeration, it's every episode of the show strung end-to-end-to-end, with only the most minute tweaks throughout. It’s not a retelling; it’s a telling. specifically, it’s the telling that MADOKA MAGICA fans were already told roughly a year ago. It’s really, really weird, and I’m frankly kind of baffled by its existence.
I mean, I want to be clear: they did change things. Plenty of things. They cleaned up some of the show’s sloppier moments of animation. They added a stunning amount of detail to some of the backgrounds. They even rerecorded all the voice acting - - which, to a shameful gaijin like me, made next to no difference at all, sadly. The number of things they changed is not the problem, here; it’s the value of the things they changed. This is, for the most part, the same exact show released twice before (the Blu-ray release had its own set of changes from the original broadcast versions).
The thing is, MADOKA was a good-looking-enough show. Yeah, it had occasional visual stumbles, but they were mostly relegated to background and wide shots and were completely undistracting. In general, it was an attractive and slick production. And at a combined 240 minutes long, the movies work neither as a Cliff’s Notes nor as an extended cut of the roughly 270-minute series.
So why does this exist, again?
To me, someone who watched MADOKA MAGICA all the way through just a few short months ago, most of the movie's changes were totally invisible, and many of the ones that weren’t (different music during climactic scenes, etc.) felt changed for change’s sake. Actually, so few things were significantly altered that some of us at the theater started imagining differences.
At first, I thought an early flashback to Sayaka’s youth was a brand new scene, but during the intermission, another MADOKA fan let me know that it wasn’t. Likewise, the same fan told me how much he loved the addition of little holograms to the DDR pad during the Drug Dog Reinforcements scene, which I know for a fact weren’t actually new at all. When hundreds of a show’s most hardcore fans cram into a theater and can’t totally distinguish the difference between a movie and the TV show it’s “retelling,” what does that say?
That's not to say everyone - - or anyone - - at the showing felt the same way I did. The sold-out theater was packed full of hardcore MADOKA MAGICA fans, bringing with them every otaku stereotype you're probably guessing. And they were psyched. Yelling commentary at the screen, loudly laughing when it was totally inappropriate, and having an audibly erotic reaction to a totally innocuous nudge shared by two 14-year-olds. The whole thing felt like one big excuse for them all to congratulate each other for what big fans of the show they all were.
Crammed between one odd-smelling Madoka cosplayer and a particularly loud group of weebs I shushed half a dozen times before giving up and finding a seat somewhere else, maybe I just had particularly bad luck. But man! Not my favorite movie crowd ever. And being forcibly embedded in that group for five hours probably took a lot of the enthusiasm out of me.
But yeah, about the movies - -
I’ve encountered a lot of talk (both online and at the screening) about how there were significant changes to the dialogue that clarified or better-justified certain aspects of the plot. Unfortunately, I think this is based largely on fansub-caused confusion. Many of MADOKA’s most hardcore fans watched the original show well before the official English localization on CrunchyRoll, meaning they had no choice but to watch fan translations.
As someone who watched MADOKA with the official subs (and pretty recently, too), I can say with certainty that the subtitles in these movies were virtually identical to the official translations used in the series itself. That makes sense, of course, because while most of the major dialogue was rerecorded, the exact same lines were being read, so only the delivery changed. It’s yet another way that these movies are nothing more than a glossy repackaging of the show.
Which is fine! This story fits the movie format well enough, I guess. I still think I prefer the slow burn of having MADOKA’s true nature revealed to you one episode at a time, but as a movie, it’s totally functional. Akiyuki’s phenomenally bold direction absolutely shines on the big screen, and since the films do look and sound better than ever, it’s a great experience. It’s just not a new one.
Which begs the question: why does this exist? The REBUILD OF EVANGELION project made a ton of sense. It’s a from-scratch recreation of the original show that changes and mixes up plenty of things, and given the notorious budgetary issues of the original series, EVANGELION was in dire need of a refresh. Even PERSONA 4: THE ANIMATION had the justification of incorporating the “True Ending” from the game. But with MADOKA: THE MOVIE, I’m just not seeing the necessity.
Look, it’s a great show. And if you’re brand-new to the world of MADOKA, it might be the perfect entry point. Personally, I'm not much of a marathon-watching guy; I tend to watch things one episode per day, at the most, so sitting there and literally watching all 12 episodes of the show in row with a couple negligible differences while being surrounded by occasionally loud and occasionally smelly anime fans was an exhausting and kind of boring experience. Outside of that context, though, maybe it’s more pleasant.
MADOKA MAGICA: THE MOVIE is not MADOKA MAGICA, retold. It’s MADOKA MAGICA, remastered. Whether that’s worth your time and money is totally your judgment call.