Welcome to Wonderland.
If you watch enough anime, you will begin to realize that anime worlds tend toward the surreal and mysterious. Part of the appeal is trying to absorb the rules and characteristics of the imaginative environments. But somehow, the fantastical characters are grounded through humanity, tempered by philosophical concerns. Final Fantasy: Unlimited is wholly concerned with stacking the fantastical on top of the surreal on top of the absurd. The viewers are left tottering atop a pillar of weirdness, grasping at any shred of coherence to keep them upright. Had there been some underlying foundation to support such eccentricity, perhaps our fall wouldn't have been so painful. We are left adrift, shown a rampant flood of strange (yet completely uninvolving) imagery that we assume is important in some way.
FF:U borrows the "journey through a surreal world" shtick from Alice in Wonderland, but forgets to make us care. Every scene leads to a fantastic new place, stranger and more boring than the previous one. Scale and engineering have been thrown to the winds. Let me ask you: who would build a fortress with a six-mile long spiral pathway leading down? Every time you run out for groceries, it would add three hours to your trip just to walk out the front door. Don't even get me started on the gargantuan, floating, metallic lace palace, with no obvious function or ergonomic design. Hey, wouldn't it be weird if this train had eyeballs? Let's stick some on there! Wouldn't the mushroom dude be freakier if he had 19,000 arms and a weird eye stalk?
What might have been better is if the creators of FF:U had spent a little time to craft a plot with some empathetic element. I'm not asking for much, just some hint of a reason to give a whit for these bland children in this phantasmagorical world. They are looking for their lost parents, who we get to see for approximately 45 seconds in an ill-conceived opening sequence. A mysterious pillar of dark energy shows up one day and spits out a couple of plastic-looking dragons (rendered in bad CGI). Mom and Dad watch them fight, and then there is an explosion. Next thing we know, their kids have run a Google search on "phantom eyeball train that shows up at midnight and whisks people away to Wonderland" and the adventure begins. I tell you, I was on the edge of my seat, wrapped up in this intriguing tale.
The kids meet many strange and mysterious characters in wonderland. Lisa, is an über babe who manipulates energy and knows things she won't tell the kids. Kaze is the requisite shadowy stranger. He packs a strange gun and basically doesn't say much. There is an underground rebellion of guys in gas masks, led by a jolly Irishman with a stogey. The bad guys dress up like court jesters and impersonate slovenly royals. There are jawas with flower tattoos, and a really annoying chicken. There are countless tertiary characters, all of whom fail to leave any sort of impression.
Many an anime has had an abysmal story with inane characters, but compensated us with stunning visuals. In fact, one of the most high-profile examples in recent memory was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I'm sorry to say that Final Fantasy: Unlimited fails to match even that meager level of plot and the visuals aren't even close. In the scintillating voice actor commentary, the actors discuss the visual style of FF:U. Jessica Schwartz tells us that "This one has…CG stuff? And it's just in there? And it actually looks like it works." I'm afraid I disagree. The 2D animation (what little of it there is) is of the crudest sort, like a coloring book come to life. When scenes weren't drained into desaturated oatmeal, they usually contained flat areas of primary color. This simplistic landscape is frequently interrupted with pointless CG animations. Nothing fits together. The detailed backgrounds have flat characters moving around with CG effects popping up. It would be like decorating a Currier and Ives print with Colorforms, then sticking flashing LEDs in all of the lamp posts.
The sonic environment fares much better, and it is wholly due to the orchestral score. This score is the only saving grace to an otherwise uninvolving tale. It is alternately sweeping and somber, energetic and melancholy. Unfortunately, the score drums up suspense when nothing much is happening, so we feel somewhat deflated.
The Japanese voice acting was fine, but the English track felt archaic. The kids would have fit right in with a Charlie Brown special, with the deadpan delivery and obvious pause between each character's lines. In fact, the young man reminded me quite a bit of good old Charlie himself. When we can hear him, that is. The 5.1 track had continuous volume fluctuations and many dropouts, where the general hubbub simply vanished and came back a few seconds later. I fiddled with my equipment for several minutes because I thought maybe a cable was loose, or the center channel volume had been changed. But no, cold hard numbers reinforced what my ears had told me.
One thing I can applaud is that ADV does their damndest to dress up this farce. The cover is intriguing, the website is thorough, and the sketch-oriented extras are accented with a nice soundtrack. But good marketing cannot save poor anime with a story that is dead on arrival.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
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