OBLIVION ISLAND may very well be the least friendly title ever devised for a family film, but don’t be scared away - - this delightful fantasy adventure is absolutely perfect to share with the young and young-at-heart in your life.
Actually, it’s a little mystifying to step back and realize how few of the ‘toons covered on Anime Vice are as suitable for kids as this is. There’s plenty of kid-targeted anime out there, certainly, but little of it ever comes my way. And the ones that do come my way are rarely material I’d ever watch unless I was getting paid to.
Actually, this is an important point to stress, up front…
Maybe it’s a touch hard-hearted to say so, but there’s a particular… er…. stock plot arc that’s over-used to the point of irritancy in children’s fantasy. You know this story. At the beginning, somebody in the lead kid’s family is either sick, dead, absent or estranged for some reason; so that kid slips down into a fantasy world which symbolically represents the psychological turmoil going on in her life. At all times, it’s made clear that every character she encounters isn’t real and that all the adventures she goes on aren’t actually happening.
Finally, our heroine reaches some catharsis that settles both the faux drama of the fantasy world and the real life turmoil back home. She wakes up from the dream you’ve been watching for the better part of 100 minutes and, two times out three, the villain she's defeated will be somebody in her life who’s been “playing” a dual role with blissful unawareness (because the writers think they’re the first to really figure out what made THE WIZARD OF OZ work, right?).
This plot can be trite enough to incur eye-rolling like a gag reflex. Forget about clichés that telegraph nearly every beat from Frame One, there’s nothing worse than a story - - intended for kids, grown-ups or anybody in-between - - that continually reminds you that everything you’re watching, and ostensibly getting invested in, doesn’t really “count.” It renders the whole adventure into a non-event.
In this instance, it’s 16-year-old Haruka who lost her mother at a young age and subsequently suffered a strained relationship with her father after he totally threw himself into work as a way to cope. Recalling a bedtime story about gnome-like “Foxes” who snatch all the little things humans forget, she goes to the family shrine to look for a misplaced mirror her mother once gave her.
At the shrine, Haruka actually catches sight of one these foxes - - a cute little scrapper named Teo - - and follows him down into Oblivion Island. Like some Island of Lost Toys or Borrowers’ kingdom, this is the place where all those forgotten things are taken to. Down there, she disguises herself as a fox to infiltrate this secret network and retrieve her lost mirror. It's not long, though, before her activities quickly attract the malicious attention of "the Baron." It turns out that this greedy despot in a garish Vaudevillian doll armor is the one who stole the mirror and, now that he’s got Haruka in his sights, the Baron wants to steal her into his thrall, too.
Maybe it just comes down to the fact that the Baron isn’t actually a doppelganger for Haruka’s mean uncle or something, but OBLIVION ISLAND somehow makes all the familiar plot beats outlined above work wonderfully. Or perhaps it’s because the director, Shinsuke Sato, has also helmed intense and bloody pictures like GANTZ and, because of that, he was just as leery about the potentially hokey clichés in the genre.
Certainly a lot of the credit has to also be given to FUNimation for putting together another superlative dub (led by actresses Christine Marie Cabanos and Cassandra Morris) that blends so unobtrusively with the animation that you’re only ever thinking about how much humanity every creature in the movie is imbued with.
CG animation has gone through its share of hiccups whilst chasing after the personality of traditional toonin’. Most of those hiccups revolve around awkward integrations of 2D and 3D, so once again, it’s a marvel how OBLIVION ISLAND’s able to make something worthwhile out of something that so often flounders.
Creatively, CG characters are placed onto matte painting locales that have been diced up and fed into a multi-plane to foster the ol' illusion of depth. While this occasionally creates the odd appearance of cartoon characters standing in front of green screens, for the most part, it captures the strengths of both techniques while still evading their weakness. Quite often, the scenery looks wonderfully full and detailed in the way that CG animation can skimp on. Every frame has an utterly unique look that no other such animated feature can claim.
This isn’t about technology and technique, of course. Haruka and Teo have a very touching friendship, and the flick ends with a legitimately moving note - - not a maudlin or melodramatic one - - about how Haruka's neglected the many kind things her father’s done for her. It's enough to make even the grumpiest critic get a little misty eyed. Truly, this ought to be used as a superlative example to show would-be children's fantasy authors how to handle this sort of story properly.