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Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror
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by Jay Seaver

"Lost in a new three-dimensional world."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Though digital production has all but taken over the American animation industry, Japan's has mostly remained dominated by hand-drawn images. Of course, as with Disney in the 1990s, digital tools have been used in many traditionally animated pictures, including those from Production I.G. Their first fully-digital feature, "Oblivion Island", is a nice little movie but I do rather hope that it's not a sign of things to come.

It's a cute enough story. Haruka was given a pretty hand mirror by her dying mother when she was younger, and said she would always have it with her, but at some point it wound up in a closet, and now she can't find it. The reason why she can't find it is because fox-masked creatures take the things humans take for granted, only returning them if appeased with an egg left at a shrine. 16-year-old Haruka (voice of Haruka Ayase), though she thinks that this is just a fairy tale, nevertheless leaves an egg, hardly expecting to actually see one of the creatures! When it grabs her keys, she pursues it to try to get them back, getting sucked into their world. And while it's probably not difficult to get back, she might as well find her mother's mirror while she's there. Except that it happens to be in the hands of The Baron...

The creative team involved is surprising - co-writer/director Shinsuke Sato has mostly done live-action fare, and his next two films are an adaptation of the ultraviolent manga Gantz; co-writer Hirotaka Adachi is better known for the horror stories he writes under the nom de plume Otsuichi. Surprisingly, what they come up with isn't particularly subversive; instead, it's rather standard family fare, with but one truly scary moment. That's not a mark against this movie, wihch is straightforward, charming, and goes down pretty easy. Kids will seldom get confused, at the very least, although the writing does have a bad habit of creating new rules for its fantasy world at the exact second they become convenient.

The animation is something of a mixed bag. It's smooth and has weight; it's no surprise that Production I.G. has maintained their impeccable standards on that count even as they move to a new medium. And yet, the look of it is occasionally disconcerting to these eyes; in some ways, the character designs aren't even where American companies like Pixar and DreamWorks were when they started, but closer to the lesser studios that used fewer points of articulation and didn't do much to model things like hair, fabric, and vegetation. The other side of that is that this may be intentional; conventional anime frequently worked with simplified character designs and animation, and this may just be the equivalent.

What cannot be denied is what a striking world has been created. We are told that the people of Oblivion Island can't/don't make things like humans do, so everything on the island is made up of cast-off items and the designers seldom repeat themselves, no matter what corner of the screen one looks in. Haruka also seems to shrink a bit in size in the transition between worlds, so there's a nifty out of proportion thing going on, too. Vehicle designs are impressively jury-rigged things, and Sato takes advantage of the flying camera that digital animation makes practical to give us some exciting high-speed chase and high-flying action scenes.

The characters are enjoyable to watch, too. Haruka is not just the typical wide-eyed Alice down the rabbit hole; she's assertive and kind of pushy even when a bit dumbstruck by what she's seeing. Her lack of patience with her frequently-absent father is much funnier than those scenes often are (nice voice-acting by Haruka Ayase). Her reluctant guide to the island is Teo (voiced by Miyuki Sawashiro), the sort of loner who tries hard to convince himself it's by choice. The one that steals scenes, though, is Cotton, a lost toy of Haruka's given the power of speech that is initially angry but soon grows to be a swashbuckling hero.

As weird a production as "Oblivion Island" seems to be, it is one that works more often than it doesn't. I can't help but wonder whether it would look more polished as a traditionally animated film, but then again, I'm much older than the target audience of kids who aren't as yet stuck on the idea of how something is expected to be done.

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originally posted: 07/20/10 15:10:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Traverse City Film Festival For more in the 2010 Traverse City Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Shinsuke Sato

Written by
  Shinsuke Sato
  Hirotaka Adachi

  Haruka Ayase
  Naho Toda
  Mitsuki Tanimura

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