Escaflowne: The Movie

Transitioning a much-loved television show to the big screen is a huge task. Sometimes the hop works really well and revives a franchise (i.e. Star Trek). Sometimes the effort just stalls out from lack of interest (i.e. Serenity/Firefly). And sometimes you wonder what crack the producers were smoking to create a film so unlike the original (i.e. Bewitched). In the anime world, this isn't all that different...except that most anime tells a complete story with about 10 hours of screen time (assuming a 26-episode series) rather than being individually episodic. This leaves film producers in a lurch. They can either tell a story that's related to and expands upon the original, possibly losing new viewers, or they can retell the TV story and potentially alienate the fan base. Which do you choose?

The producers of Escaflowne: The Movie chose the latter route, and they've suffered the outrage of the show's fans ever since. Having only watched the first four episodes of the television show a while back, I avoided the movie on the advice that it was a really bad representation of the show. But then it showed up on Adult Swim recently, and I figured, why not? And I'm glad I took the time to see it. It's obviously a massive condensation of a bigger story, and so a few holes in the plot emerge, but if you aren't deeply committed to the TV show, this is a thoroughly enjoyable anime.

After a spectacular opening sequence with a one-man attack on a battle fortress, we are introduced to Hitomi. She's a shy girl still haunted by a vision she had years ago where time stopped and she saw a strange man who appeared to be otherworldly. Now a teenager, Hitomi is on the verge of ending it all...not because her life is horrible enough to justify suicide, but she has an overwhelming sense that she doesn't belong here. She wants to fade away. And indeed, she is invited into a new world through another strange vision.

And she winds up in the middle of a vast war for the planet of Gaia. She meets Van, a warrior who by all rights should be king. However, his brother Falcon is a usurper who has a gigantic fleet of warships at his command. The hope both have is in dragon armor known as Escaflowne. However, one would use Escaflowne to save the world, the other to destroy it utterly. Hitomi, the legendary Wind Princess, may have finally found her home, but it may disappear from under her wings.

Even the movie's detractors admit that this is a wonderful looking production. It isn't quite as shiny as modern wonders like Ghost in the Shell 2 or Appleseed, but it doesn't need the extra gloss. The score by Yoko Kanno is highly symphonic, which is appropriate for the movie's tone and shows the diversity of her work (for those just familiar with her work on Cowboy Bebop). It's not a faultless production, but it is quite lovely overall. The character designs are, admittedly, different, but they make Escaflowne stand out against some of the other shows on the market.

So what's all the fuss about? Well, if you enjoyed and remember The Vision of Escaflowne as a light and flowery fantasy/action entertainment, this may not be your thing. The tone of the film is not quite as dark as molasses, but it's quite close. Even from the episodes I saw many years ago now, there's a significant difference. Will you mind? If these characters are sacrosanct, then yeah, I understand the problem. Unlike the similar filmic "reversioning" of, say, Macross, not only do the timelines change but the players do as well. Lynn Minmei may have been a singing star at the beginning of the Macross movie rather than halfway through the TV series, but her personality didn't change from optimistically immature to suicidal loner -- that's the kind of transformation Hitomi fans face. If you're a big fan of the show, this review is not for you. I can't tell you how you'll feel because I've just not seen enough of the program. (I should also warn you that it's far more violent than the TV series could ever get away with; though it's not excessive, the blood flows freely.)

On the other hand, if you've seen little to none of the television series, then you're in good shape. For all I've said so far, I've barely scratched the surface of how exciting this film is. It's carefully plotted so that the action sequences come often, but not at an overwhelming pace. It's also nice that there's little repetition; each set piece has its own feel and timing. It moves quickly enough that I was truly surprised when it was over.

The characters themselves don't stand out quite as much as the action does. Hitomi, Van, and Falcon are the center of the show, and they are fully fleshed out. However, the movie introduces many of the characters from the series briefly and without too much effort to explain their presence. Thankfully, these cameos are few and far between. The plot works within what's explained, but there are times when a little more exposition would have been helpful. Though I really liked the film, the grade for the show reflects that the story has a few gaps that a newcomer might find...well, not confusing so much as annoying.

I also found Escaflowne interesting in that its plot has a greater sense of importance than most anime in the "girl whisked off to fantasy land" genre. Though fans who don't like change will yell at me, the dark nature of Hitomi's call away from Earth and to Gaia -- her suicidal nature -- brings her a strong character arc. By the time we're finished, there's an understanding of Hitomi's purpose and a realization that not just anyone could have filled her place. It's not nearly as significant a transformation as in, say, Wings of Honneamise, but Hitomi's importance is not understated.

Long story short...if you've waited to get into Escaflowne because you've heard misgivings about the movie, wait no longer and pick this up. I found it a solid 90+ minutes of entertainment that is in many ways better than some of the disappointing anime feature films that Western audiences have seen recently. Although 2005 seems a little tardy to be talking about a film from 2000, when you've got a strong title to talk about, better late than never!

Escaflowne: The Movie -- violence (on the edge of graphic), profanity -- A-