Out of all the genres in anime, ‘Magical Girl’ is one of the hardest to crossover and comprehend for non-anime fans. The basic premise is relatively simple – an ordinary girl is granted a power to save the world/family/etc – and is the basis for many comic, movie and TV series Western fans are accustomed to. But it’s the cogs and bolts of the ‘Magical Girl’ genre that separate the concept from others and make it difficult for non-anime fans to really ‘get’, whether it’s the elaborate (and often revealing) transformation sequences and outfits, the logistics of one girl facing danger by herself with the power of ‘love’, or just simply that it’s too cutesy or girly for most audiences. And yet, the genre houses one of the biggest global hits in history, Sailor Moon, and many others in the genre from Cardcaptor Sakura to Cutie Honey to Princess Tutu have been widely recognised among anime and non-anime fans, not just for fun value but also for telling incredible stories. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one of the more modern examples that has gained huge attention worldwide and been incredibly successful for its unique take on the genre; with relatable characters, tragic twists in story, unique animation style and phenomenal music. So, of course, due to its success, a three-part movie series was commissioned with the first two retelling the 12 episode TV series, and the third embarking on its own story, giving the original a new ending.
This review will cover the first two films where our story begins with ordinary school girl Madoka Kaname who one day meets the mysterious new transfer student Homaru Akemi. Homaru warns Madoka that, if she cherishes the life she currently has, she must not wish for anything to change it. Not long afterwards Madoka’s life is suddenly turned upside down when she and her friend Sayaka Miki becomes trapped by an evil entity known as a ‘Witch’. Witches inflict pain, suffering, and death upon the world and only Magical Girls have the power to defeat them. Luckily, a Magical Girl by the name of Mami Tomoe comes in and saves them both. A cute creature called Kyubey at Mami’s side offers a contract to make Madoka and Sayaka into Magical Girls too in exchange for one wish. As the girls decide what to wish for, Mami shows them what being a Magical Girl is about, and as things unravel it becomes clear that there’s far more behind the magic and Kyubey’s cute face than meets the eye…
Transforming a long TV series into one or several films is nothing new in the anime industry, but it’s hard to find an example that manages to capture the soul of the series and what made fans love it in the first place, and condense it into a much shorter time frame. That is,until now; the first two Madoka Magica films are thankfully one of the better, if not best, examples of how to do it right. There are a few minor bumps on the road but overall the movies accomplish bringing the magic of the series onto the big screen. The movie’s story is exactly the same as the show and by some miracle, the creative team manage to keep nearly all the character revelations, emotional points and plot beats the same as in the TV series. There are a few minor cuts, mostly in the first film, such as Sayaki’s knowledge of her weaker abilities as a Magical Girl, and the revelation of why Mami choose to become one, but in the grand scheme of things, keeping 95% percent of the original show is still a fantastic accomplishment.
One of the reasons the TV series is as lauded so much is because of its pacing; the story throws many gut-punching tragedies at the characters and the audience, and the pacing of the series allows them all to come out brilliantly just as the audience least expects it, and then allows the dust to settle before it throws another at you. Some of that pacing had to be sacrificed for the movies, naturally, but both films really do the best they can to have the same impact in a shorter amount of time. It’s not going to be as effective as the original run but the swiftness of the twists and the emotional reactions are still there, it just takes less time getting to the point. For example in the original show it’s took three episodes (one and a half hours) to get to the first twist; in the movie it takes 40 minutes.
The first film covers Episodes 1 – 8 of the show and clocks in at over two hours long whilst the second movie handles the last four episodes at 109 minutes. Despite the first film having the most to cram in, it’s surprisingly the better of the two by a small margin. The reason for this is due to the very weird decision in adding an anime opener, twice, and two end credits. Movies 1 and 2 have animation openings with the song ‘Luminous’ by ClariS, nearly the exact same animation is used to open both, which is strange as it’s slightly spoilerish, almost as if it expects you to have already seen the series before the film. Its inclusion in the second film is even more puzzling as it didn’t need it at all to open the movie, the scene could have flowed just as well without it. Then, for no logical explanation, just after we reach the part that concludes Episode 11 of the original show, it suddenly plays the opening animation to the TV series, complete with the ClariS’ song ‘Connect’. It completely messes with the pacing of the film so there was absolutely no need for it. Imagine if the ‘Cruel Angel Thesis’ and accompanying animated opening suddenly started playing in the middle of the End of Evangelion, it would be really weird and unnecessary right? It’s like that. Then right at the end of the film, we get not one but two credits; one with the animation style similar to the Witches’ labyrinths, with an orchestral version of ClariS’ ‘Connect’ playing, before cutting to a scene hinting towards the next film, then the true credits with the Kalafina track ‘Hikaru Furu’ plays, only to come BACK to a trailer for Rebellion; all adding to a clunky mess. It all adds up to nearly five minutes that could have been used to give more depth to Homaru’s plight and experiences, or add extra detail to the new world the girls are in now, before advertising the third film.
Visually the films don’t look too dissimilar to the TV series, at least if you’re not actively looking for it. The style is kept largely the same, but the production team take advantage of the additional budget to re-draw some backgrounds, fix a few animation goofs, add more flare to the girls’ transformations, and give the battles more fluid animation overall. The quality has improved but unless you have a very sharp eye, or fork out for the Blu-ray editions, you’ll only notice it in the second film, most likely.
The same goes for the audio; Yuki Kajiura’s music is still as stunning, captivating and layered as before, with a few notable new tracks mostly coming from her group Kalafina, who provide a heart-warming vocal version of Mami’s theme ‘Mirai’ and ‘Hikaru Furu’, a beautiful gospel-like version of ‘Sagitta luminis’ from the original soundtrack. It’s such a shame however that none of the songs within the film are given translation subtitles on either version.
Each movie comes with its own extras, including clean opening and closing, commercials for the respective films; the second film disc contains an additional promo for Rebellion.
Both Puella Magi Madoka Magica films manage to accomplish what most TV-to-film adaptations fail to: transform the material into a shorter time frame whilst keeping what made the original the fans loved about it. Despite a few hiccups in the second film, it’s overall a great watch that changes very little because it didn’t need to. The animation and music touch-ups are nice, and just about warrant a purchase for existing fans and collectors. However, if you’re new to the series, I highly recommend not taking this shortcut; Madoka Magica is best experienced as a show to get the full impact of what makes it such a great story.