Legend of the Millennium Dragon

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/18/11 15:33:29

"Millennium" Dragon nothing; this thing's got eight heads!"
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The craftsmanship of "Legend of the Millennium Dragon" is remarkable; it's the sort of animated feature where every cel is frame-worthy and the assembly into a moving picture is wonderfully fluid. Like many animated films of its type, though, it's got a "can you top this?" structure that can be overwhelming.

Jun Tendo is a kind of clumsy kid in the present day, but one who is in for a shock when a monster appears out of nowhere to attack him. He takes refuge in a strange temple, where he is transported back in time to the Heian era (the 9th century AD, roughly) - a time he'd been taught was peaceful, but he winds up in the middle of a war between the noble houses and the forest monsters, or oni. The wizard Gen'un tells Jun that he is the one who can awaken and control the eight-headed dragon Orochi and defeat the oni alongside young samurai Raiko. It seems like too much responsibility for the boy, and that's before he meets wounded oni Mizuho and discovers things may be more complicated than he'd been told.

Before all that, though, the film opens with a battle, and it's an impressive visual preview of what's to come: The landscape looks like a painting and the characters like evocative drawings that translate to motion perfectly. The coloring that makes the oni seem unearthly are especially cool, a shimmering effect that may have been a little tricky to pull off in this traditionally animated picture. Digital tools are used extremely sparingly, giving the picture a consistent visual style no matter what wonders it throws at the audience.

And there are many of those. Though the human characters are drawn in a simple style that is expressive without being exaggerated, the more fantastical elements each have a distinct style and weight, from the wispy illusion of the oni to the military solidity of the enchanted warriors to the liquidity of Orochi. The later is inspired by how he represents water in Japanese myth, part of how the filmmakers paid great attention to period and folkloric detail.

That level of detail may be a bit intimidating at times; the latter half of the movie is filled with legendary swords and Four Heavenly Kings that perhaps the native audience already knows about, although a fair amount of it is material and characters introduced minutes before it's going to be used, and that sort of "this magical object can do this magical thing more or less at random" in excess can make the final battle pretty but somewhat uninvolving. And as much as the story is building some good themes of cross-cultural understanding and balance between man's creations and nature, it doesn't have many moments after the finale to let them breathe.

It's a tough trade to make, because even more than with live-action, every minute of an animated film is additional time and effort that might be best spent on something that will knock the audience's socks off rather than exposition. This one piles the bigger and bigger magic attacks on, but without explanation they're not quite so cool as they look.

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