Alita: Battle Angel Review

Going into Alita: Battle Angel, I had no preconceived notion of what to expect, or what it was even about. All I saw in the previews was a wide-eyed, CGI girl kicking butt and taking no names, so I figured it was the perfect flick for me.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on a Japanese manga series Gunnm, and directed by a true filmmaker’s filmmaker, Robert Rodriguez (known for movies like Spy Kids and From Dusk till Dawn). Known for making his most awesome films on a modest budget, he often mixes practical (low cost) effects with computer imagery to get the results he wants. Alita‘s Hollywood blockbuster budget of 200 million is a welcomed, difficult change of pace for Rodriguez’s style. A change that ends up simultaneously working for and against Alita: Battle Angel.

Taking place hundreds of years into the future, after a massive interplanetary war left the world ravaged, we see the remaining people of Earth have come together and built Iron City. A multiculturally vast city with scrap metal and junk plentiful, above Iron City floats the mythical utopian city of Zalem, a place everyone dreams of travelling to.

The story focuses in on a cyber-doctor named Ido (Christoph Waltz), who finds a young Alita unconscious in a scrap yard. When Alita finally comes too, she has no recollection of her past self, only that she has a lust for combat. As Alita explores the new life she’s been given, Ido attempts to protect Alita from her inexplicable past life.

An incredible amount of time is spent building up this larger-than-life, post-apocalyptic world that Alita interacts with, and it’s a huge payoff for the audience. We see a diverse mixing pot of cultures interacting within the context of this cyberpunk society. Scenes are chock-full of what can only be described as “stuff”. Marketplaces, battle arenas, seedy underbellies, everything in Iron City is explored in-depth and beautifully brought to life.

Rodriguez knows his stuff when it comes to directing combat scenes, because Alita consistently shows off fluid and thrilling fight sequences throughout. Utilizing lots of CGI and high-flying acrobatics, the action is quick and to the point. Alita packs such a violent punch that I am surprised they held onto their PG-13 rating, especially considering that several people (humans and robots) get chopped in half. One guy even gets a severed hand in the eye, how brutal.

The acting could get a little wooden and hokey at times, but in a charming, Robert Rodriguez sort of way. In many respects Alita reminded me of Rodriguez’s film Spy Kids. It too got super silly, uncomfortably sentimental, and occasionally dropped off the uncanny valley. But both films have this indescribable sense of fun and wit that pulls the viewer in despite reservations.

Unfortunately, Alita gets to the point where it’s juggling too many characters, too much plot, and not enough time to satisfy the story. Before you know it, you’re halfway into the movie and suddenly they’re talking about newly revealed villains and random, unestablished plot threads. This is most painful in the final twenty minutes, where Rodriguez was clearly too preoccupied with setting up for sequels that he forgot to end Alita on a high note. Every major narrative thread is hurriedly wrapped up in the last couple of minutes, with barely enough content left open for another movie anyways.

The film even repeats itself several times in rapid succession. Without spoiling anything, something tragic happens to one of our lead protagonists, twice, within a span of five minutes. The first time it was emotional and sad, the second time I was so dumbfounded I couldn’t help but laugh.

And that was what stood out most for me while watching Alita: Battle Angel. Even when the film wasn’t making any sense, or the characters nosedived of the uncanny valley, I was still having a great time watching it. Just like the Spy Kids franchise, it has a unique charm and undeniable sense of excitement that can’t be artificially replicated. And it has some pretty badass action stuff too.

The Verdict: B-

-Zachary Flint

Spirited Away Review

Having really enjoyed reviewing the film Howl’s Moving Castle, I have decided to review some other major Studio Ghibli titles. Therefore, I feel it would be proper for me to start with my most favorite of Ghibli’s films, Spirited Away.

Spirited Away is about a young girl named Chihiro, who is with her parents on their way to their new home. They all stumble upon an abandoned amusement park that, at night, magically comes to life with mythical creatures. And through an unfortunate turn of events, Chihiro’s parents are magically turned into giant pigs. The only way she can get them back is to take a job working at a bathhouse that serves these mythical creatures.

Spirited Away showcases the always amazing talents of Studio Ghibli and their ability to put even the slightest details into their animation. You could pause the film at any moment in time to analyze and admire every little component of the animation. Each and every image is awe-inspiring, and all together they create a visually gripping story.

Throughout this magical journey that the audience gets to experience, we meet a wide variety of imaginative creatures that have now become cultural icons of their own. The biggest is probably No-Face, a semi-transparent spirit that can absorb the personalities of others when he eats them. Not only are characters like No-Face interesting and complex, but they leave a lasting impression on the viewer. Even minor characters you don’t see for more than a few seconds I remember ever so vividly (like the giant yellow ducks with leaves on their heads).

I feel that Spirited Away takes a very relaxed and laid back tone to its storytelling. Even at its most intense or sad points, Spirited Away still manages to maintain a happy mood. It’s the kind of film that I can watch at any point in time and not have to be in any particular emotional state to view it.

The soundtrack of the film creates a fun and adventurous mood that draws the viewer into the magic. The music is very similar to Howl’s Moving Castle, both in sound and how they create a lighthearted mood. Spirited Away’s soundtrack is among my favorite soundtracks to any kids film and is worth checking out on its own.

All in all, Spirited Away remains one of my favorite animated movies. It has everything that a film should have and more. The characters are fantastic, the story odd and adventurous, and the animation is some of the best I have ever seen. If you have never gotten a chance to experience the magic of Spirited Away, by all means I implore you to see it immediately. Spirited Away affirms Studio Ghibli’s place as one of the greatest animation companies of all time and will continue to astonish audiences around the world for many years to come.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Howl’s Moving Castle Review

One animation studio you can always count on to turn out a decent film is Studio Ghibli. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been a huge fan of their films Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, and my respect for them only continues to grow. So today I made the decision to review Studio Ghibli’s very own film, Howl’s Moving Castle.

Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a fictional world full of war torn kingdoms, witches, and magic. Our main character, a young hatter named Sophie (Emily Mortimer), is turned into an old woman by the curse of an evil witch. Sophie seeks out the help of a well known wizard named Howl (christian Bale), who lives in a giant portable castle. Sophie learns that the king endlessly attempts to recruit Howl to fight in a brutal war going on with the neighboring kingdom. Sophie decides to aid Howl in resisting the king’s wishes. Along for the journey, the audience gets to meet a plethora of colorful and unique characters.

I would like to start by discussing the animation, because in usual Studio Ghibli fashion the visuals are breathtaking. Every frame of animation is a beautifully hand drawn painting, with exquisite attention to detail. This film is full of beautiful images of grassy landscapes, early 20th century city life, and creative fantasy creatures. I know the process for animating films like Howl’s Moving Castle is lengthy and time consuming, but damn is it impressive.

Studio Ghibli movies often take on a lucid form of storytelling, especially in Howl’s Moving Castle. Our characters just kind of go with the flow in terms of the plot, and the direction the film takes is always subject to change. Our protagonist will set out to do something, have her goal changed by some event, then will precede to roll with it and (as I said) go with the flow. I love this aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle because it makes the film unpredictable. You think that a series of events is leading to one thing, then suddenly the film u-turns and goes another direction.

The characters in Howl’s Moving Castle are diverse and very interesting. One of my favorites being a little fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), who runs Howl’s castle. He is very snarky and gets into arguments a lot with the other protagonists. Every second Calcifer is on screen is pure gold, as Billy Crystal gives him a lot of personality (just as he did Mike Wazowski in Monsters Inc.). I have a feeling other viewers will love the characters like Calcifer just as much as I do.

Howl’s Moving Castle deals heavily in the theme of war, mostly in opposition to the Iraq War. It takes a pacifist look towards war and all the pain it causes, which is an interesting angle. There is some unique imagery of war, including a fight in the dark between a group of airships. We see a lot of explosions and destruction caused by the airships as well as one of the protagonists injured badly by them. Some might find the film a little on the preachy side with the all anti-war messages and themes. I rather enjoyed these messages, however I think it’s understandable if some are irritated.

The musical score of Howl’s Moving Castle is very reminiscent of other Hayao Miyazaki (director of most Studio Ghibli productions) films like Spirited Away. The music is very soothing and relaxing, but also full of wonder and adventure. It’s something that really sticks out to me in Howl’s Moving Castle and for good reason.

The film ends on a very satisfying note. There are a few elements of the ending that seem a little on the convenient deus ex machina side. However I think that’s just how Studio Ghibli operates, and it’s totally fine. Their endings to films are always very different and unpredictable, delivering a satisfying conclusion.

I’m not sure exactly how Howl’s Moving Castle has alluded me for so long, but I am very glad I got the chance to experience it. The characters, story, animation, and music are all a delightful treat. It’s an odd film, but it deals with a lot of different themes in its own unique way. If you have an interest in animated or kids films, Howl’s Moving Castle is definitely one you should check out.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint