If you’re familiar with long-running anime based on Shonen Jump properties (Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, Bleach, and obviously Naruto itself among many others) you’ll know that nine times out of ten any film based on them falls into the same category: take characters from the closest point in the story at the time of the film’s making, ignore any story arc that’s taking place by putting those characters in a peaceful world, then have a newly created enemy or enemy group appear and cause havoc until the lead characters defeat them, normally using moves or transformations recently revealed in the main story. It is because of this safe predictability that I’ll give some credit to Road to Ninja for doing something a little different.
The movie, overseen by Naruto manga author Masashi Kishimoto himself, slots in between two story arcs of the series, and the lead antagonist is the lead antagonist of the main storyline, Madara Uchiha. In fact the key plot point of the manga/anime is Madara trying to activate a technique called the Infinite Tsukuyomi, which sends everyone into a dream state where their fondest wish is granted, which in terms of evil villain goals go, is not so bad! Well, apart from the being controlled and trapped in a dream, but at least it’s a pleasant one… Anyway, the movie has Naruto once again reminded that he grew up with no parents, and his friend Sakura having a brief falling out with hers, leading to Madara appearing and activating a technique rather humorously called “Limited Tsukuyomi”, which traps the two of them in a world where, you guessed it, Naruto’s parents are alive and Sakura is the one who is all alone, oh and pretty much every character in the series is a mirror version of themselves, personality-wise (they’re not evil, that would be too much of a cliché, I guess).
As you can imagine, Sakura goes through the first day or so happy, eating what she wants, doing what she wants, but soon realises the loneliness isn’t a good trade for those times where we hate our parents as a teen. Naruto on the other hand, knowing he’s in an alternate world, is originally against any contact with his parents, but soon falls for the trap and starts getting used to the family life he always wanted. This takes up a good half of the near-two-hour film. It’s unusual to have so little action and so much focus on the lead characters and their struggles, though I have to say that because of this, combined with how it’s presented as fitting into the main story and featuring its antagonist, the film does feel like a filler story plugged into the anime to stop it from catching up to its source material (and anyone who watches the Naruto Shippuden anime is more than a little familiar with this kind of thing…)
There is a new lead villain in the film that appears under the influence of Madara, though under the mask lies a familiar face. You’ll probably figure it out yourself due to his voice, but I’ll leave it unspoiled just in case. Also, the series’ villain group, the Akatsuki, reappears towards the end as a force for good in this reality, but barely show anything before stepping out of the way. This leads to a big showdown in which Naruto uses powers he’d recently used in the manga as the film entered production, so that tradition in Shonen films is at least kept intact. Overall, the production is high quality, both the original Japanese and English voice actors continue to do fine work, and the disc includes the usual extras for a release like this, i.e. trailers and artwork.
So, should you buy Road to Ninja – Naruto the Movie? Well, as a stand-alone experience, it fails, which is quite rare because, as mentioned previously, these films tend to be self-contained mini-stories. It’s very much locked into the story arc of the time and a lot of the jokes early on are based on your knowledge of how the other characters of the series normally act. If you’re a fan of Naruto then it has some nice character moments and a fun final battle, but if you’re a general anime fan and put this film on, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped in the middle of something, rather than experiencing a taste of what the series has to offer.
This is one for the fans, and for them it’s a fine slice of Naruto story.