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Letter to Momo, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Sometimes the monsters at a kid's new home aren't all bad."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You can do a movie like "A Letter to Momo" with live-action nowadays, and it's increasingly common, but animation of the traditional variety still seems the best medium for this sort of fantastical but relaxed family entertainment: It makes everything part of the same world and allows for things to slow down a bit, and is especially fitting here, were drawings literally come to life, in a fashion.

After the death of her father, 12-ish Momo Miyaura (voice of Karen Miyama) and her mother Ikoku (voice of Yuka) move from Tokyo to Shio Island on Japan's Inland Sea, where Ikoku grew up. Momo, who carries a note her father started to write her (without getting beyond "Dear Momo"), is not especially thrilled with her new home, and that's before discovering that they are not the only new arrivals - although nobody else can see or hear goblins Iwa, Kawa, and Mamé (voices of Toshiyuki Nishida, Koichi Yamadera, and Cho).

Parents shouldn't worry, though - A Letter to Momo is never in any particular danger of turning into a particularly scary movie. The goblins are more pests and comic relief than any kind of real threat, although it's understandable if Momo initially thinks otherwise. The design and animation of the trio is particularly clever in this regard - despite the resemblance to the Edo-era drawings that inspired them being absolutely unmistakable, the filmmakers manage to twist them into something friendlier. For example, the way Iwa's massive mouth is always open to display his pointed teeth comes across as sort of dumb and vacant rather than intimidating.

The goblins have their story which ties into Momo's and Ikoku's rather smoothly, but the humans would be worth watching even without the monsters. Momo's just self-centered and occasionally aggressive enough not to seem overly shy or sensitive without really being a brat or bad kid. The voice-acting and animation for Ikoku as well as Momo does a very nice job of showing them having a hard time dealing with not just the world at large but each other specifically after their loss, though it comes out in every way but confronting it directly and they clearly still love each other. There's a nice range of supporting characters, with even the smallest given their own personality.

The animation in general is very nice (Production IG being the studio behind a film tends to be a pretty good sign). The big thrill-ride scenes are well-done, with the climax being built from a very cool visual that is used impressively rather than being diluted or overextended; there are nifty effects throughout. Writer/director Hiroyuki Okiura is able to get plenty of comedy in without the movie crossing over from whimsical to silly, and builds a detailed world without ever overburdening the screen with distractions. He seems to use more close-ups than is typical for animation, especially given the smooth features given to Momo and Ikoku, but it works.

There's a lot in "A Letter to Momo" that may come across as familiar themes or structures; it's the sort of animated film from Japan that one can't help comparing to certain Ghibli productions for its combination of everyday life from a child's point of view and helpful spirits. It can hold up to those comparisons, though - it's a beautiful, precisely crafted movie that both children and adults can enjoy.

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originally posted: 07/30/12 00:01:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Hiroyuki Okiura

Written by
  Hiroyuki Okiura

  Karen Miyama
  Toshiyuki Nishida
  Koichi Yamadera

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