Sony // 2001 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // October 17th, 2001
Unleash a new reality.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is based upon a popular Japanese video game sporting the same title. Being that I am not much of a video game buff, I really can't say that I have much of a background or history in these games. The little I do know is that there are also some cartoons based on the series, the games are VERY popular, and that they are grounded in a role-playing theme. In the summer of 2001, Columbia TriStar released the computer-animated film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within to theaters with mixed reviews and generally poor box office results. For fans who missed the theatrical release, there is a new two-disc "special edition" of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within on DVD from Columbia! Let the battle begin!
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is one of those movies that doesn't so much have a complex plot as it does a complex plot description. The lowdown: the film opens on earth in the year 2065 A.D. The planet has been infested with "phantoms" (i.e., alien ghosts) that look a loot like mutated centipedes, octopuses, and dragons. The surviving humans huddle beneath energy shields that protect them from the alien spirits, because once one comes into contact with you, it drains your life force and makes you drop like a ten ton weight.
Apparently, scientist Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na of Mulan fame) and her mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) have found a way to get rid of the spirits through another spirit that lives in a green, shining pod (I think...this is where it all gets confusing). Aided by the Deep Eyes military troop, a band of armed specialists led by Gary Edwards (Alec Baldwin), the group sets out on a series of adventures to find a way to rid the planet of the alien threat. However, their mission won't be easy, due to the fact that they face a second nemesis in the form of General Hein (James Woods), a disgruntled peon who wants to destroy the aliens with his humongous laser cannon.
It's a race against time to find a way to rid mankind of the life draining spirits...or else the human race will be no more!
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within works on one level and fails on another. Visually, this is the sweetest eye-candy around. The creators of this film have gone to great lengths to make this the most up-to-date visual tour de force ever created. Unlike Toy Story or A Bug's Life, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within tries to do something never achieved in animation -- have animated characters move, talk, and look just like real people. They are on the brink of success, though not quite. These "actors" (if we dare even call them that) come close to doing what real humans do, but to a slower extent. Sometimes the movements look frighteningly real; other times they're just a tad slower than a real actor's movements. Some things like skin tone and clothing look almost perfect. Other things, such as mouth movement and hand gestures, seem slow and a bit out of sync. However, these are minor complaints when you realize how much stuff is going on in this film. If the creators don't completely succeed with visual reality, they DO succeed with a beautiful canvas of creatures, moving objects, and swirling effects. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within seems to lie somewhere in an alternate realm of animation -- while it's certainly not real life, it also doesn't really feel like "animation." In a way, the film plays tricks with your mind. In one scene, I caught myself thinking that these were real actors on real sets. Then suddenly, through some minor defect in the animation, I was thrust back into realizing that I am watching something completely simulated by micro-technology. A very strange feeling indeed. If nothing else, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is worth the time just to see how much effort was put into these visual wonders.
Unfortunately, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within fails on the most basic level: storytelling. The plot for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is garbled, sometimes unintelligible, and usually not all that thrilling. I enjoyed the apocalyptic aspect of the film, but the "phantoms" never inspire much awe or fear in the viewer. Plot holes abound, the biggest being why these spirits can pass through humans and solid mass, yet can be shot down by rapid gunfire. I guess either I wasn't paying attention, or the script wasn't. The characters are given some trite dialogue to play off of (including the voice talents of Steve Buscemi, Peri Gilpin, Ving Rhames, and Keith David), and any humor is squelched because CGI hasn't gotten to the point of giving its characters well defined sarcastic facial features. I guess if you're fan of that wacky "Japanese animation," you'll be able to solidly follow along with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within's plot -- I, on the other hand, got a bit lost (and eventually didn't care one way or the other come the second half of the film).
In the end, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a wonder to behold -- a labor of love, craftsmanship, and microchips rolled into one package. Down the line, it will be interesting to see how much further they'll be able to take animation in films. In 2001, Hollywood is at the point where the boundaries of imagination are seemingly limitless, whisking us to new worlds and showing us that anything is possible on the silver screen. Will we perhaps see animated actors replacing flesh and blood bodies? Let's hope not, for that means Chevy Chase's career is truly dead.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen and looks absolutely perfect. Because this was rendered on computers and not film, this is a crystal clear transfer void of any defects, edge enhancement or other imperfections. Easily a reference quality disc and the best transfer I've seen on DVD so far.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and is also justifiably excellent. All aspects of the dialogue, effects, and music are clear of any distortion or hiss. Directional effects are utilized to an almost maximum effect throughout the entire length of the film. It was a blast to hear rocks falling behind me or "phantoms" swirling around my head. Your home sound system should take a beating with this track, but in the end, you'll be all the more thankful for the workout. Also included is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix in French, as well as English and French subtitles.
Columbia has seen fit to give Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within a two-disc edition featuring some quality supplements on both discs. To start with is Disc One, where two commentary tracks are featured. The first is by co-director Moto Sakakbara, sequence supervisor Hiroyuki Hayashida, sets and props lead artist Tatsuro Maruyama, and "phantom" supervisor Takoo Noguchi; the second is by animation director Andy Jones, editor Chris S. Capp, and staging director Tani Kunitake. The first commentary is spoken in Japanese and includes English subtitles for those of you who don't speak sushi. The second track is in English and is much easier to follow along. Between these two tracks, viewers should gather almost all they ever wanted to know about the making of this film. All participants are very chatty and eager to give out production stories and secrets at how they successfully produced Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. As a bonus there is also a third "commentary" (with an isolated Dolby 5.1 score) by composer Elliot Goldenthal (Pet Sematary, Batman Forever). Goldenthal's score is bright and flashy, a nice listen for fans of film music (though it does come close to sounding a bit like his previous score for Alien3). During a few of the gaps, Goldenthal pops in to dissect his reasoning behind the use of different cues and instruments.
A "Boards/Blasts" feature is essentially a different way to watch the film. Instead of watching the it in its finished form, viewers can experience the movie in a rough fashion rendered in pencil drawings, rough outlines, and shaky, incomplete CGI graphics. This can also be viewed with production commentary by Jones, Capp and Kunitake, with a "Subtitled Factoids" track, or with both. Rounding off Disc One are theatrical trailers for Men In Black, Starship Troopers, the animated Japanimation film Metropolis, a teaser and theatrical trailer for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and a sneak preview of Final Fantasy X
Starting off Disc Two is a somewhat extensive 28-minute documentary on the making of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. During this feature, you can also enter other supplements by pushing "enter" when certain icons come up on the screen (or just access them under the "highlights" menu in the beginning of the disc). This documentary includes interviews with many of the participants who worked on the film, including creative consultants, artists, graphic designers and more. For insight into how Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was crated, this documentary should do the trick. Optional commentary is also included for this documentary.
"Character Files" are short vignettes about each film character, their birth, their inception, the acting voice behind them, and other tidbits of information your probably didn't need you know. "Vehicle Scale Compositions" quickly looks at the two vehicles used in the film ("Black Boa" and "Quatro"). The "Final Fantasy Shuffler" is a virtual editing studio where the viewer can select how he wants a certain scene to be presented (i.e., in what order the edits will go). This has been featured on other discs in various forms (such as Hannibal and Die Hard: Five Star Collection), yet is still a lot of fun to play around with.
"Trailer Explorations" is a short feature about how the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within theatrical trailers were made and designed (and sometimes they are the best part about seeing a movie)! "The Gray Project" is a short featurette set to music that features some behind-the-scenes footage, as it were, on the making of the characters and backgrounds in the film. "Matte Explorations" is a short six-minute featurette about how the backgrounds were created for a few key scenes in the movies (this includes an interview with a nameless computer artist explaining to us how the magic was done). "Composting Builds" is up next and is a strange, short feature that is also set to music and includes a man in a clown wig and some odd footage from the movie. Very weird.
"More Boards/Blasts" is a deleted scene mixed with artwork, storyboards and works-in-progress. There is an "Original Opening" (basically an alternate take that's not as cool), as well as "Aki's Dream," which is an expanded version of her opening dream sequence. "Joke Outtakes" is a blooper reel that is amusing (i.e., when the car crashes, the characters get out with mufflers and wrenches sticking out of their heads) though much too short. As funny as these gags are, they don't hold a candle to the ones found in the Toy Story series or A Bug's Life.
Lastly, there is a good portion of DVD-ROM content on this disc, including a "Virtual Tour of Square Pictures," a "Final Fantasy Web Gallery," an "Interactive Film Exploration," plus a screensaver for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
As a bonus, I also found a very funny "Easter egg" located at the bottom of one of the "Highlights Menus." Click on the little square icon and you can watch a hysterical parody of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" music video. An absolute riot and easily the best (and funniest) feature on this disc.
Video game freaks and animation buffs will likely get a kick out of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I am very split on the film review -- while Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is visually amazing, the plot and characters are genuinely lacking. However, for this reviewer style wins over substance this time around, and I definitely recommend this movie as a rental just to see its amazing animation. There is no question that Columbia has done a very fine job on this title. Mint video, near mint audio, tons of extra features...the disc shines like a diamond in the rough!
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is fined for being just another space movie, but pardoned for its mind-blowing animation.
Review content copyright © 2001 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Discs: #74
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Two Commentary Tracks
* "The Making Of Final Fantasy" Documentary
* Aki's Dream
* Two Face Wraps
* Character Morphs
* Matte Art Exploration
* Compositing Builds
* Character Files
* Vehicle Scale Compositions
* Sets and Props
* Trailer Explorations
* Isolated Score w/Commentary by Elliot Goldenthal
* Storyboard/Playback w/Optional Commentary by Filmmaker
* Subtitled Factoids
* Theatrical Trailers
* Productions Notes
* Alternate Opening Sequence
* Final Fantasy Shuffler: Editing Room
* DVD-ROM Content
* Easter Eggs