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by Jay Seaver

"A good way to catch three quality shorts on the big screen."
4 stars

Unsolicited advice to Studio Ponoc and GKids: Do not put the short with unsubtitled dialogue up front in a movie like this; depending where people see it, they will either assume the disc is defective or that the theater or Fathom Events screwed things up, especially if there's already a bad reputation there. But do keep making short films and packaging them for theaters like this; it's a nice anthology, both in terms of the individual shorts being good and the whole working as a unit.

That first short is "Kanini & Kanino", with the two title characters (voices of Fumino Kimura & Rio Suzuki) a pair of tiny water sprites whose mother has just gone off to give birth, leaving them with their burly, loving father until he is swept away by the current while trying to rescue Kanino. Frightened but brave, they set out to find him, a dangerous prospect when you're only a few centimeters tall and a good-sized air bubble may as well be a boulder. Writer-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi finds great adventure in this while keeping it maybe a little less than epic; this isn't a story where all of some land or other is in danger if the father isn't found, but one where the focus is on the kids finding their courage and ability to be older siblings and eventual adults. This, perhaps, is why what dialogue there is in the segment is limited to characters calling out each other's names; it forces Yonebayashi to stick to what can be explained visually and with a bit of pantomime.

His telling that story visually is great fun, too. Though the character designs may be simple and in some ways familiar (nowhere else in the film is it quite so clear that Ponoc was created to be a sort of successor to Studio Ghibli), they're expressive and communicate big emotions. Yonebayashi will occasionally linger on a shot not just so that the audience notices details, but so that they can see characters noticing details, giving a sense of how this place works. There's a bit of whimsy, such as in the staffs topped with crabs' claws and how these underwater creatures cry bubbles, but also danger; a fish, for instance is a monster with pointy teeth and bugging eyes. That this CGI creature doesn't quite fit with the hand-drawn environment is not exactly a problem, in that it appears alien, although some of the shots of the water from above serve as reminders that liquid is harder than it looks on a budget.

That short ends with kids playing, while "Life Ain't Gonna Lose" (aka "Samurai Egg") opens with children in a more serious situation, as a bunch gather in a children's hospital to see how many pancakes they can eat, as the ingredients will test their allergy tolerances. Shun (voice of Sota Shinohara/Henry Kaufman), who can't come into contact with eggs - even his classmate's saliva can be deadly if they've recently eaten - taps out early. He's an active, upbeat kid, though, loving baseball, and with a number of close friends. Filmmaker Yoshiyuki Momose keeps things simple and grounded, demonstrating how Shun and his mother (voice of Machiko Ono/Maggie Q) handle such a dangerous situation when she can't be there every moment. On the one hand, it's informative to watch the step-by-step methodology without it ever seeming like a tutorial; perhaps more interesting is how Momose and the voice actors contrast their attitudes toward the situation: Mama is on high alert even if she's not always tense, likely to let anger come out at the prospect of the school not doing much to help her son survive a field trip; Shun is often kind of resigned in similar situations.

The story is mostly told from Shun's point of view, but this doesn't manifest as Momose hiding anything, but instead as an art style with solid colors and very clear lines. It does not actually look like a coloring book, but it's got a lot of the same characteristics and thus gets the audience into his frame of mind. It also lets Momose shake things up with the mother's flashbacks and the moments when Shun does inevitably come into contact with his allergen. It's an impressive use of animation to tell a story that doesn't have a fantasy element.

There may or may not be one to the final segment, "Invisible", in which Akihiko Yamashita tells the story of an invisible man (voice of Joe Odagiri/Liam O'Brien) - and not just invisible, despite the audience seeing the clothes he's wearing and moped he rides, but undetectable by machines and nearly intangible, as he carries weights to hold himself to earth. Or does he? Is he some sort of ghost, or is this just a metaphor for how he feels massless, as if he is barely making an impression on the world?

That would be telling, but Yamashita makes the most of the scenario either way, conveying this man's body language by how clothes hang off him or how the rain strikes him; it's remarkably clear, especially since the extent of how slight his footprint in reality is does not truly reveal itself all at once. The backgrounds are a bit fuzzy as well, painted so one can see the watercolor brushstrokes, a little indistinct compared to the solid purple and things in the foreground but still more tangible than he is. Most memorable, though, is a final set of chases that initially seem to spring out of nowhere but tie all of the great work that came before together, impeccably gravity-defying but working in large part because one can feel the panic coming from what is visually a void at the center of the screen, the soundtrack suddenly developing a thumping urgency that it didn't have before, in any segment.

Considered individually, this is a rather charming set of showcase reels, but they work quite well as a short collection. That Studio Ponoc aims to become the new Ghibli is obvious throughout, but there are worse goals to strive for. The animation is fairly nice, and the fact that the segments have something of a common style with interesting variations, along with a shared family-friendly tone, unifies them into a nice little picture better than many with more explicit overarching themes and frames.

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originally posted: 01/13/19 01:07:20
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