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Napping Princess
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by Jay Seaver

"Mostly delights with its car kingdom and magic code."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I judge animated movies based in part on niece-appropriateness these days, and roughly five minutes into this one (originally titled "Ancien and the Magic Tablet"), I was seeing a fantasy about an awesome little girl whose magic power is basically knowing how to code, so, heck yes, I was ready to pencil it in as a Christmas present right away. The movie doesn't live up to that great beginning all the way through - it's got kind of a big problem toward the end - but a bad climax is not really a deal-killer, even if it tries.

Mostly, though, it alternates between two related stories: It opens in Heartland, where everyone's job revolves around the auto factory in the castle, and Princess Ancien (voice of Mitsuki Takahata) is a powerful sorceress, able to change the world with her magic tablet. This, it turns out, is the recurring dream of teenager Kokone Morikawa (also voiced by Takahata), a few days out from her last summer vacation, which coincides with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. She lives in Okayama with her auto-mechanic father Momotaro "Jersey" Morikawa (voice of Yosuke Eguchi), with childhood friend Morio (voice of Shinnosuke Mitsushima) just arrived home from college. There's also a more sinister visitor - Ichiro Watanabe (voice of Arata Furuta), who has Jersey arrested, claiming he has stolen Shijima Motors property, leaving Kokone to figure out what is going on.

There's something genuinely charming about both halves of the film. Heartland is openly and unapologetically a fantasy, but the 2020-set scenes have a lovable looseness to them, feeling like they're being played out by regular people who may be mechanically-minded but not conspiracy naturals. It's fun to watch them stumble both forward and back, as the case may be; it's the source of a lot of laughs and humanizing. The way they reflect each other actually allows writer/director Kenji Kamiyama to come at car culture from opposing directions, showing both the delight of innovation, speed, and maneuverability on one side while also questioning the overbearing corporate weight and inertia of the automobile industry. Each half is, on its own, a perfectly enjoyable story, and Kamiyama does a fine job in making them reflect each other, even if things get a little fuzzy when it's time for them intersect.

The animation itself is pretty nice, too, a classic style that certainly owes a debt to Ghibli, although it draws from a slightly different, more sardonic library of facial expressions. It's occasionally a little bit creaky in the present, but makes delightful imaginative leaps in the dreams, offering adventures and a mystery just the right speed for the younger viewers. The Japanese-language voice work is generally energetic and appealing, zeroing in on the cores of the characters' personalities but still giving them room to work in the moment, and the actors voicing people in both settings, like the artists drawing them, tend to do a good job of making the parallel characters just distinctive enough for the story's purposes (I cannot speak to the English-language version).

As frequently wonderful as the dream segments are, Kamiyama stumbles fairly hard when the time comes to bring them together. To be fair, what an adult viewer figures out fairly early might not be quite so obvious to the younger folks in the audience, so the delayed explanation/acknowledgment might not be quite so frustrating. Far more important is that, while he and his team build some thrilling action/adventure sequences, there's little denying that the one at the climax is almost insanely excessive, to the point of being exhausting. It's as if the filmmakers were determined that every single digital asset created for the movie needed to feature in this finale, and it's not only visual overload, but brings up a lot of questions about just what all this alternate world stuff means after it's been explained quite well and emotionally. The way the under-the-credits flashbacks are used is kind of weird too, although kids are less likely to be preemptively nervous about where it seems to be heading than its parents.

Will the excesses in the last act bother little kids like my brothers' girls who might otherwise really like Kokone and Ancien? Heck if I know, although the big action sequences might scare the youngest ones. It's a strange mistake to put the movie's biggest fantasy-action sequence at a moment when it makes absolutely no sense to have one, but it doesn't hurt the rest of what is charming about the film nearly enough to keep me from recommending it.

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originally posted: 09/07/17 03:00:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  08-Sep-2017 (NR)

  18-Aug-2017 (PG)


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