Film / Reviews

'Ni no Kuni': Two worlds but little life to be found

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

Two things about “Ni no Kuni.” 1) It features a protagonist who uses a wheelchair, an admirable display of diversity and inclusion in a medium that rarely features characters with disabilities. 2) There isn’t much else to like about the film.

“Ni no Kuni” hit theaters on Aug. 23, but if the title sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the video game series on which it’s based. Those fantasy role-playing games featured the involvement of legendary animation house Studio Ghibli, with some of the studio’s top talent contributing character designs, artwork and animated sequences. And, like many of Ghibli’s best features, the games featured a soundtrack by composer Joe Hisaishi. “Ni no Kuni” was a revolution: a game that practically felt like a playable “Ponyo.”

The film version of “Ni no Kuni” does not feature the participation of Studio Ghibli — a fact its producers are hoping, no doubt, that audiences fail to notice before entering the theater, because once the film starts rolling, it’s impossible not to.

Ni no Kuni (Ni no Kuni)
Rating
Run Time 106 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOW SHOWING

Visually, “Ni no Kuni” is far from a Ghibli masterpiece. In fact, it’s a flat, lifeless slog. Its hand-drawn action scenes limp across the screen, while its computer-generated monsters, vehicles and extras look like something out of a decade-old video game — unless that decade-old video game happens to be, you know, a “Ni no Kuni” title.

While the games were about a 13-year-old boy on a journey to save his mother, the film version of “Ni no Kuni” centers around three high school friends — wheelchair-bound Yu (Kento Yamazaki), star athlete Haru (Mackenyu Arata) and their mutual love interest, Kotona (Mei Nagano).

After school one day, Kotona finds herself stalked by a mysterious, otherworldly assassin. Yu and Haru race to the rescue, but not before Kotona is stabbed and the boys are suddenly transported to a world of swords, shields and magic spells called Ni no Kuni — literally, second country.

It turns out that world and ours are linked, and that when someone dies in one, so does their counterpart in the other. The Kotona in the world of magic is none other than the princess of a vast kingdom — hence the assassination attempt back in Tokyo.

The boys manage to infiltrate the castle, which has alarmingly lax security, and even save the princess, earning the trust and friendship of the king and his counselors. But as they learn more about the connection between the two worlds and continue to travel between them, the duo realize their quest is far from over. Mo’ worlds mo’ problems.

All in all, the plot is about as lifeless as the animation. If you’ve ever seen a swords-andshields fantasy film, very little here will take you by surprise, and when Yu and Haru are briefly pitted against each other at the conclusion, it’s all too obvious they’re bound to reunite to bring down the big bad. All this not-especially-dramatic drama is buoyed by a soundtrack by the returning Hisaishi, which sounds like it belongs in a much better movie.

It’s hard not to see “Ni no Kuni” as anything but an attempt to capitalize on Studio Ghibli’s current absence from the movie market. But in a year that’s yielded an embarrassment of theatrical animated riches (and it’s only August!), anime-hungry audiences need not fall for knockoffs of dubious quality. And hey, they can always stay home and play the video games instead.

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