Friday, January 10, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review: A Letter to Momo

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Before Hayao Miyazaki was introduced to the United States, the majority of the best known animation from Japan was action-oriented anime involving monsters, robots, words, guns, and superhero-like costumes. Miyazaki’s worlds centered on mystery, fantasy, mythical creatures, and the imagination of childhood. Now he has a list of former apprentices, protégés, and imitators who continue to produce interesting animated stories following his tradition. A Letter to Momo, from writer-director Hiroyuki Okiura, is like a tame version of a Miyazaki fantasy.

A young girl named Momo moves from Tokyo to a remote island with her mother after the death of her father. Momo is racked with guilt over a fight and some unkind words which were the last she spoke to him. All she has left is the first two words of a letter he began: “Dear Momo.” She begins to see and hear strange things in her home. Local farmers complain about animals raiding their tangerine crops. Eventually three strange creatures reveal themselves to her as guardians. They never stop eating and they love tangerines.

The film beautifully straddles the line between imagination/fantasy and reality. Unlike the American style of popular animation where humans interact with animals and creatures as if it were the everyday norm, Japanese animation tends to use the opportunity to create imaginative drama that drives the story. These creatures could be a product of Momo’s imagination, a means of coping with her loss and abrupt life change. The point is that as far as she is concerned, they are absolutely real.

It doesn’t have all the sparkle and razzle-dazzle of American animation. Whether it’s Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, or Fox, animated films in this country all tend to look more or less the same. Sure, each studio has its hallmarks and occasionally a hand-drawn film appears, but it’s always so market tested and profit-driven. It has to sparkle and shine. A Letter to Momo is a fine example of how animation can be kid-oriented and feature a young protagonist as well as fantasy creatures without being cloying.

I don’t need animated films to wow me with empty pizzazz. Story and character are paramount. A Letter to Momo has more imagination and character in any given scene than some big money-making animated hits have in their entirety. Even considering this is a more minor success that pales in comparison to anything by Miyazaki, I’d take this over Disney’s Planes without a second thought.

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