Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Yo' mama so old I told her to act her age, so she died

Sayonara no Asa ni Yakusoku no Hana o Kazarō

Conceptually rich, yet insubstantial and entirely unsatisfying, Maquia takes a great idea and runs it into the ground, then under the ground, then it ends, too short to make any sense out of the world it's created, too long and too repetitive to not get really, painfully dull.

Written and directed by Mari Okada

Spoiler alert: moderate

There are three things wrong with the film released internationally as Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (translated vaguely and not entirely successfully from a title that only makes sense in its original Japanese idiom), and two of these things are comparatively minor flaws, and one is extremely serious.  In ascending order, then, the first is an animation technique that builds upon a lot of recent Japanese animation to hybridize the traditional 2-D figures of anime with the wide-open possibilities of digitally painted 3-D backgrounds and computer-boosted lighting effects, and the results are, at times, stunning vistas that only such a hybridization could achieve.  Consider a hyperreal sunrise that's one of the most beautiful frames in any cartoon ever made, or a "dolly shot" (so to speak) through a cavernous ceremonial building that's being destroyed by the monster chasing our heroine, or any number of other examples; yet, honestly, it's the smallest things that might be the most impressive, like the operation of a loom with its thousands of tiny threads, or the way light bounces off a wooden banister.

Then there are the other times, when it's jarring and uncanny and off; like when it barely looks like anything more than naked CGI with hand-drawn figures (or figures that are made to replicate "hand drawings") pasted on top of it—Deep Canvas on steroids, but without the money.  Perhaps the worst of it is another dolly shot, through another piece of architecture, and the difference is probably that you can see the floor in this one, emphasizing the recycling of background elements and foreground elements, so that it rather appears that the harried 2-D king is running on a 3-D treadmill rather than fleeing his castle, and it's fathomlessly terrible.  Of course, usually, the more dynamic the camera move, the more noticeable the effect, and there's never much sense of prudence to it.  (Makoto Shinkai has used the technology in, like, everything he's done in the last eight years, but he's far more obviously aware of its limitations.)  Still, like I said, this truly is a minor problem: mostly, it's a pleasant-looking work of animation, not exactly spectacular in its finer points, but good, with likeably neat designs, representing characters who are asked to run a lot without quite enough thought going into how people with musculoskeletal systems run, but, you know—likeable.

The second thing is the rationale behind the running, which is that Maquia drops us into the middle of a high fantasy world that generates a high fantasy plot, neither of which are cotangent to Maquia's actual plot, and both of which Maquia has to care about anyway, wasting a great deal of time on expository conversations and ancillary characters and battle scenes and stuff, even though they don't really matter—or, let's say, even though they might have mattered, but only in a movie that allowed them to do so.  I've seen it remarked more than once that it feels like an adaptation of a preexisting work that had to leave a lot out, and I grok that, though to me it feels more cynical, like a way to load a trailer with action and cool creature designs, and thereby get a movie made that, in truth, isn't terribly interested in either.  More charitably—and, in fairness, probably more accurately—it's the natural but unfortunate result of wanting to ground Maquia's fundamental premise in a world of mutually-supporting fantasy elements, and things just kind of got out of hand for writer-director Mari Okada (in her directorial debut, after a prolific screenwriting career), as she saw, within these other characters and concepts, mirrors and metaphors for her core characters and concepts, that were probably very clear to her, but show up in the film itself more as a presumption of artful parallels than they do as actual artful parallels themselves.  Hence Maquia is, in some sense, the victim of its own ambition—and whatever else it is, it's genuinely ambitious.  It's a film that, I guess, wants to be about adulthood, symbolizing this with the retreat of magic from the world, and wants to be about the people and stories who are lost in the implacable flow of time, and wants to be about the horror and inevitability of our own, individual mortality, but only ever achieves any of these goals in very limited ways, mainly the third one, and mainly that one because it would be incredibly difficult for it not to, given that fundamental premise I was talking about.

The premise around which Maquia's world grows, then, is the curious case of the "Iorph," a reclusive race of immortal, ethereal blondes, barely distinguishable from one another in countenance (sometimes even in sex), who presumably have a whole lot of different specialized roles, given that they live in large stone cathedrals and work on early modern machines, but whose society's greatest calling is to weave the history of their people and the world into the so-called "hibials," long cloth banners that chronicle events in a code of thread.  One of their number is a certain Maquia (Xanthe Huynh in the English dub), 15 and (according to a single unstressed piece of obtuse visual storytelling, and a line of dialogue uttered about one hour later) an orphan.  She's almost old enough to stop aging, and lonely amongst her people, though she has cordial-enough relations with her more outgoing and carefree acquaintance, Leilia (Cherami Leigh), and Leilia's consort, Krim (Kevin Collins).  Soon enough, their world will be, effectively, destroyed, when the soldiers of the kingdom of Mezarte storm the Iorph village from atop their beastly flying mounts, which look like winged skeletal dinosaurs, and are called "renato."  (It's a small thing, but one may find themselves wishing that this movie would stop coming up with its own names for concepts that already have them.)

At this point, Maquia branches off into an A- and a B-plot, the B-plot being concerned with Leilia, taken captive by the Mezartians as breeding stock for their royal family, in the hopes of securing immortality for their bloodline, and this ties in with the broken dragons they've turned into weapons, presently dying off from an ailment that is scarcely more defined than sadness.  The A-plot concerns Maquia herself, carried off by one of these dragons as its illness manifests in the form of a berserker rage.  Dropped in an unknown forest, Maquia wanders off, considering suicide, until she hears the cries of a baby still clutching its dead mother's bosom, the work of bandits (or maybe more Mezartian soldiers).  She takes the child as her own and vows to protect it.

And this is Maquia's third problem.  Carelessly, I saw Maquia in its dubbed version, and it is conceivable that there are things lost in translation—whether it's an apt translation or not, it's as risibly-performed an English language dub as I've heard in years—but I cannot imagine getting to a good screenplay from what's on display here.  Maquia is a series of vignettes, played out as the child, named Ariel, ages to young adulthood, and as his adoptive mother ages physically in no significant way at all (the one tell is that her hair grows longer, and, for reasons that make more sense in terms of symbolism than pigmentation, grows a few shades darker from platinum to strawberry).  The idea is plain enough, to demonstrate in a literal way the pain of knowing that, as a parent, you've created a life, and hence, whether you yourself live to witness it or not, you're responsible for a death; and that is a very solid idea indeed.  (When informed of the logline for Maquia, my first instinct was to say "that's Game of Thrones meets Adventure Time," and I wasn't even that far off, though in each respect they do it better: GoT does "sleazy dynastic politics with dragons" better and Adventure Time does "immortal mommy issues" better.)

The problem is that every one of these demonstrative snippets is terrible, caught in an endless loop of normative declarations that go "a mother is X" or "a mother does Y."  One may feel inoculated to the earnestly declamatory style that inheres to a lot of anime (particularly in translation, which tends to flatten any nuance and humor that was originally there), but Maquia drowns you in it: I don't even think I'd be exaggerating if I were to claim that 50% of the nouns in its screenplay are "mother" or variations like "mom," "mommy," or "mama," and even that's leaving out "mother" as a form of address, as in "Mother, I hate you."  It is tell-don't-show storyelling at its worst, with almost literally no scene in the entire film that presents their relationship as a living, breathing, human experience without immediately smothering it with commentary and theme.  This is probably apophenia talking, and it might even sound stupid, but I suspect Okada wanted to pull off a kind of animated Malickian voyage through time and into a world of symbol—about halfway through, there's what I have to assume is a Days of Heaven reference, in that it doesn't go anywhere and doesn't make much sense outside of being a Days of Heaven reference—and I would be totally down for animated Malick.  But Maquia never arrives at the kind of dreamy mood modern Malick films thrive in, or the sense of contemplation they inspire, let alone the impression of a permanent now.  It's an entirely straightforward narrative film that barrels towards its plotty conclusions.  And, on a more banal level, "shouting themes out loud" works better in breathy voiceover than it does in dialogue delivered by mediocre VAs.

So it is trying, tedious, and incredibly boring, presenting itself, entirely and without compensation, as a featureless exposition of Maquia and Ariel's exhausted mother/ungrateful son archetypes, the only exceptions being in the very infrequent moments when it does anything specific and interesting.  Admittedly, there are a few: the film made me laugh, hard, when Maquia, in her first day on the job, attempts to suckle her child directly from a cow.  I think it's the last proper joke in the film, and henceforward Maquia is more-or-less completely submerged in her pretty-damn-thankless gender role, a nobody in what amounts to a world of nobodies even less important than she is, and only in the final minutes does the movie find the thread of its (essentially morbid) mission, and with it, a mote of true visual poetry, rather than mere technical spectacle.  (In fact, until then, Maquia's immortality is denuded of any practical meaning; for the bulk of the film, she's either 15, or 20, or 30: i.e., the same age as any teenaged mom.)

Meanwhile, you've got that B-plot just dying on the vine—it also involves a mommy, in this case a biological and unwilling one—and, actually, trying to parse this film's sexual politics as relayed by its symbols seems like a bad idea, so I'll simply say that the attempt at constrasting Maquia's legacy with Leilia's comes off as, at the very least, incomplete; if for nothing else, then because Leilia barely exists in the film.  That's a pity, because it at least seems like her story would be more exciting, though this could, of course, simply be an artifact of Maquia's story being so dull.  In any event, Leilia's closer to the dragons, and as Maquia is a movie about dragons where the dragons barely do anything cool after the first fifteen minutes, it says something that this seemingly-damning flaw doesn't even quite make it onto my list of big problems.

Score: 3/10

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