To the untrained eye, it would be easy to mistake the Ni No Kuni movie for a Studio Ghibli film; the character designs are very much like Ghibli (with one of the protagonists looking like a younger version of Howl), Joe Hisaishi – Ghibli’s frequent composer – provides the music for this film, and if you had a passing knowledge of the Ni No Kuni video game franchise, you’ll likely know that Ghibli collaborated with Level 5 studios to produce the first game. Sadly, this isn’t a new, hidden Ghibli film that Netflix decided to release (although they just licensed the rest of their filmography). Instead it’s a movie based upon the game series with an original story by series creator Akihiro Hino. It came out in Japan in August 2019 and made its way onto Netflix in January 2020 – but what is the movie all about?
Yuu and Haru are childhood friends, who both happen to be in love with the same girl – Kotona – but their mutual admiration and friendship is put to the test when Kotona is suddenly attacked by an unknown man, and as they rush her to the hospital, they’re involved in a car accident. But instead of dying, they’re transported into another world: one of castles, magic, and wars between Kingdoms. As they try to find Kotona in this world, they discover that her life is tied to the life of a princess and only they can save them both.
Despite the movie being tied to the video game franchise, you do not need to have played any of the games to follow this film. If you have played the games you will be able to guess some of the themes and plot devices beforehand, as well as pick on several references to the games such as ‘Mornstar’ (the strongest weapon in the game), visual cues to the different races, and your ear may pick up a few recycled tracks from the games too, but they’re more like fun Easter eggs rather than gatekeeping to non-fans of the games.
To give credit where it’s due; it’s interesting and commendable that one of the main protagonists is a disabled character. Not only is it rare to have the disabled cast outside of villains or victims, but to have one of the main heroes be one as well as have their everyday lives shown very clearly rather than shy away from it is rare and welcome to see. However, despite best intentions, there are a few missed opportunities. When the leads are whisked to the new world, Yuu discovers that his disabilities are no longer there, and we could have been given a really emotional moment and fascinating character arc of going back and forth between worlds where his world is expanded and condensed in turn. Instead we just get two very small moments where he acknowledges the changes and then suddenly moves on like he’s just been given a new hairstyle to try. It’s a huge misstep and you forget that Yuu is disabled for half the movie as a result, which makes you wonder why they even bothered if they weren’t going to explore it.
And it’s that sentiment that carries over to most of the movie’s runtime: lots of good ideas that are either not explored or rushed completely. The original game has the concept of ‘soul mates’ – souls linked from one world to another – that this movie also plays around with but if you played the games, you’ll know the resolution to conflict that the boys run into midway through the movie, and the ‘twist’ that the film goes for towards the end isn’t foreshadowed well at all. Then there’s the weird character arc that Haru goes through. His feelings for Kotona cause him to change towards the second half of the movie from hero to suddenly fighting for the dark side but it’s such a blunt turn that it comes really out of nowhere. It feels like a scene that should have bridged the two stages together got lost in the script editing stage. The relationship between the Princess and Yuu is sweet at first but feels too thin for the ending they get, Haru also isn’t given much to do despite being the affection for both leads, the main villain has to haphazardly info-dump to explain his motivations, and the list goes on. It doesn’t feel like a video game plot that’s been condensed to fit a movie but it really could have benefitted from having more time with the characters to make the emotional moments work that the movie obviously is going for. If it was, say, a TV series, it would have allowed more breathing space for each character to grow and have the audience connect with the material.
Netflix has rated this film as 15, which I find completely baffling. Apparently, it’s for ‘strong violence’ but aside from one tiny showing of blood in the climax, the rest is all fantasy combat with mostly dirtied faces and people falling over to showcase damage. It’s the same level of violence as the games have, which are a 12, and I’d argue that the recent Power Rangers movie was more violent and yet that’s a 12 as well. It’s not helped that the dialogue and simple nature of story is more in line with a PG movie, so most 15-year olds are likely to find this movie ‘too kiddie’ for their liking.
Animation is produced by OLM Inc; they’re not an overly famous studio but they’ve produced a lot since they were founded in 1990 and are best known for producing the Pokemon movies. The animation for this film is consistently decent, the Ghibli look is maintained, and a lot of the fantasy elements and visual flairs they’re known for are certainly there, but the use of 3D could have used some more time to make it look smoother – especially when it comes to the big battle in the second act where a lot of the knights look more liked ragdolls than warriors.
The English voice cast has a lot of well-known actors such as Robbie Daymond (Sailor Moon) and Ray Chase (Final Fantasy XV), and, like the games, the cast is full of different accents from Welsh, to English to American. However, whilst I was watching the English dub, a random bit of subtitle sneak into a scene (it wasn’t translating any on-screen text) which is a weird error I’ve not seen on Netflix previously.
A Ni No Kuni movie could have been an interesting venture, especially since it tells an original story set in the same universe rather than trying to adapt a long game story into a shorter time frame. But the end result is a half-baked story with childish dialogue and no charm at all. If you’re a fan of the games you might enjoy a few of the references sprinkled in here, but otherwise, avoid this and check out many other anime options on the streaming service.
Ni No Kuni Movie is now streaming on Netflix; available in Japanese, English, Spanish, French and Portuguese dub with English, Japanese, French, Arabic and Polish subtitles.