Judge Adam Arseneau knows the only thing better than The Clash is a Ninja Clash.
Finally released in North America, Naruto the Movie: Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow is the first feature-length movie adaptation of the popular anime and manga. With Naruto popularity at an all-time high in America, Naruto the Movie stands poised to capitalize on the success of the franchise with English audiences. But does this film capture the fun and energy of the anime kids have grown to love, or does the Land of Snow leave viewers in the cold?
Facts of the Case
Life in the Hidden Village of the Leaf is one adventure after another, especially for young ninja trained in the secrets of ninjutsu. The ninja act as both protectors of their land and as bodies-for-hire, financing the village's existence through jobs throughout the countryside—protection, manual labor, rescue, and espionage, whatever is required. Most young ninja are eager to learn their craft, working slowly up through the ranks and honing their skills, which border on the magical. Then, of course, there's Naruto.
An orphaned child with a mysterious past, Naruto is stubborn, impulsive, wild, and fantastically headstrong, with an ego the size of a small mountain. Despite being a clumsy and rather untalented ninja, he is convinced he will become the next great Hokage, or village leader, and proudly proclaims this to anyone who will listen. For his teammates, the friendly Sakura and the oddly distant Sasuke, Naruto is a pain, almost more trouble than he is worth, except that his fierce loyalty and seemingly unending reserve of chakra (energy) have saved the team on numerous occasions.
For their newest assignment, Team 7 (Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, and their team leader, the enigmatic Kakashi) are tasked with escorting a young movie starlet to the set of her newest film in the Land of Snow, a remote frozen wasteland far out to sea. The actress is melancholic about her duties, and the ninjas are hired to serve double-duty: serving as bodyguards to the cast and crew, and keeping the actress from escaping! Naruto throws himself into the task with full enthusiasm, being a fan of the young lady's films.
Kakashi, however, is surprisingly wary of entering the Land of Snow, having been there in the past on a previous assignment. He knows the dangers of the land, as well as the talented ninja who reside there. Isolated by geography and harsh conditions, the ninja there have developed strange and dangerous technology, and he advises his team to be on their guard at all times.
Sure enough, the movie set is attacked by three mysterious warriors donning peculiar mechanical suits designed to increase their chakra powers. They announce their intention to kidnap the young actress, but for what reason? Does she have a hidden past in the Land of Snow unknown to Naruto and his team?
A standalone adventure, Naruto the Movie exists outside of the continuity of the Naruto manga and anime, written as a one-shot story with no ties to the series. Where the film fits in from a chronological standpoint is open to debate, but this story would occur sometime prior to episode 101 (as Naruto has learned the Rasengan jutsu), putting the story within the ballpark of currently aired episodes in North America. This makes the timing of Naruto the Movie on DVD perfect for fans. This is the first Naruto movie to make it to North American shores (three more exist, with the last recently released in Japanese theaters), so kids will have plenty more to look forward to.
For fans of the Naruto anime, Naruto the Movie will feel like a return to basics, back to the good old adventures of Team 7: Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura and Kakashi off on a ninja assignment for the Hidden Leaf Village. Unfortunately, this also means a "back to basics" storyline, or to be more accurate, "back to early episodes," which is not Naruto's strongest point. The plot here is weak, almost embarrassingly so. We have a female "princess" taken to a far-off land where the bad guys want to kidnap her, except that Naruto and friends stop them. Bad guys appear, fight. Run away, bad guys appear, fight. Combine with a ratio of 90 percent fight sequences to 10 percent character development and you've got Naruto the Movie.
There is nothing outright wrong with Naruto the Movie, but nothing spectacular to credit either. It feels uninspired, for lack of a better word. It is painfully clear the creators of this film set out to create a throwaway title with little connection to the anime series, and that is exactly what they got. Beyond similar character design and ninja techniques, there is little to associate any of these characters to the anime series or manga. There is no tension between Naruto and Sasuke, no awkward fawning between Naruto and Sakura, and for all his contributions, Kakashi may as well not even be there at all. This is predictable filler, pure and simple, adding nothing to the overall appreciation of the franchise. Fortunately, the movie has a few things going for it in the eye candy department, which prevents the film from being a complete waste of time.
The animation style in Naruto the Movie is a serious upgrade from the animated series, having received the full feature film treatment in terms of character design, detail, and fluidity. The fight sequences are exquisitely rendered and put the television series to shame. Naruto has never looked as good as it does here. In a perfect world, this is how the anime should look all of the time. The subtle use of CGI enhances the backgrounds and the snow animations without being excessive or ostentatious. When the characters fight and tumble through the snow, it looks realistic; well, as realistic as ninjas shooting fireballs from their mouths and flying through the air can look. All told, this is an extremely visual story, with the colorful costumes standing out against the stark arctic backdrop.
Ultimately, the disposable plot is the undoing of Naruto the Movie, since its outcome has absolutely no consequence whatsoever to the storyline of the anime. This is a standalone adventure, and not a very good one at that—predictable, boring, and fairly mundane by all standards. Out of all of the Naruto storylines, the one in Naruto the Movie: Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow barely ranks—even with the filler episodes. The only thing that prevents the film from being a waste of time is the visual style and excellent animation, which is impressive enough to justify the consumption of Naruto the Movie. Well, at least once. Repeated viewings would be kind of irritating. Like a fast-food meal of empty calories, Naruto the Movie looks appealing on the menu, but just flies right through you without really satisfying.
From a technical presentation, Viz Media did a bang-up job bringing Naruto the Movie to DVD. The transfer is clean, crisp, and vibrantly colored, with nary a speck of print damage or edge enhancement to be found. Lines are sharp and show heavy jagged artifacts at times, but black levels are nicely solid and deep. Overall, it's a top-notch transfer.
Audio gives us plenty of options, including a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and a 2.0 stereo presentation in English. The Surround track rocks, with a dynamic bass track that booms on cue, perfect realization of environmental effects in the appropriate channels, and clear dialogue. The track is loud and effective and makes for a kick-ass experience. The stereo English track retains the active bass response, but lacks something in volume and clarity. In a distant third is the Japanese language track, a meager 2.0 stereo presentation with none of the pizzas of the English track, flat and tinny in comparison. Most of the music in the film is recycled from the anime.
The English-language dub of Naruto is…well, in English, to be sure. That's one thing you can say about it. Some of the voices suit the characters, like Sakura and Kakashi, but others (Naruto) are teeth-grindingly annoying. Purists will appreciate the inclusion of a Japanese 2.0 stereo presentation, though it is a crying shame that the original language track failed to receive the dust-up the English stereo treatment received, or even better, the full 5.1 treatment.
We only really get one significant extra, a ten-minute scatological "Hidden Leaf Village Grand Sports Festival," which is a peculiar little ten-minute OVA that essentially crams every single character in Naruto history into a ten-minute poop joke. It looks terrible next to the feature, all non-anamorphic and blurry, but in a perverse way, it's more enjoyable than the actual feature. A ten-minute poop joke is a ten-minute poop joke, after all, and poop jokes are funny, darn it. We also get previews of other Shonen Jump anime and Naruto video games and a trailer for Naruto the Movie. The final feature is also the strangest: a free Naruto mouse pad tucked into the packaging. This is a totally random extra, to be sure, but hey, free mouse pad.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Many of the people who dislike Naruto judged it on its earlier seasons, where admittedly, the show was weak. Only in later seasons (the Chuunin exams and onward) did the show find its footing and emerge with a complex storyline, expanded cast, and deep character development that overshadowed the more juvenile annoyances of Naruto. The problem with Naruto the Movie is how much it resembles these early episodes, hearkening back to the older, more annoying Naruto, the one you want to punch in the solar plexus until he stops making noise. As previously mentioned, Naruto the Movie feels like a return to form that nobody wants to return to.
This isn't to say that the feature lacks merit; it looks great, has some great visual gags and some fun moments, and has a mindless adventurous spirit about it, but it personifies some of the more annoying and aggravating aspects of the title character many fans were happy got left behind—the simplistic plots, the small cast, the amount Naruto yells and complains, etc. And he yells and complains a lot here.
For North American fans that have not yet had the pleasure, Naruto the Movie is worth checking out (at least once) for its glorious animation style and fantastic battle sequences. Sadly, there isn't much substance here to reward hardcore fans beyond an initial viewing. For those of us who got into Naruto years ago during the heyday of fan subs, this film is old news, but a proper R1 DVD release is always welcome.
Naruto the Movie is worth a rental for the casual fan, and possibly a purchase for the hard-core Naruto-ite. But can't we do something to Naruto's English voice? I want to punch myself in the groin when he talks. Seriously.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Viz Media
• Hidden Leaf Village Grand Sports Festival OVA
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