One Stormy Night

Talking animals are a little surreal. They've been a staple of fairy tales probably as old as the world itself. Even the Bible has a talking animal in the form of Balaam's ass -- one of those moments when we're not sure if the text is intentionally including a bit of ancient Jewish humor. They've been a vehicle for life lessons for untold generations of children. In a sense, they create a "safe zone" for little ones, allowing for stories that might otherwise scar them for life. But on the other hand, there's something odd about having animals become human substitutes. You can't always draw one-to-one analogies across the divide between the human and animal worlds. And even if you could, it probably wouldn't be very fair...especially because predators are always going to get the short end of the stick.

I'm rambling about this because I'm still processing the 2006 film One Stormy Night. It's an anomaly in the anime world as it features talking animals. Western cartoons feature talking animals at every opportunity, but I can count the number of anime I've seen with anthropomorphized creatures on one hand. One Stormy Night combines a moral concept along the lines of The Fox and the Hound with a certain intensity reminiscent of The Secret of NIHM. It's unique. It's good. Yet I am still not completely convinced it works, and I'm not sure if it has anything to do with animals acting like humans.

Mei knows what it means to be hunted. In an uncompromising opening sequence, a young Mei and his mother run from a hungry pack of wolves. Mei nearly gets eaten, saved only by his mother's chompdown on a wolf's ear and her willingness to sacrifice herself to save him. Some time later, Mei has grown up but gets caught in a fierce storm. Wildly afraid of the noise, he scurries into a pitch-dark barn. But there's someone else there in the shadows...someone else who's scared of the thunder. Someone else who enjoys the same meadows and slopes...a true friend. They talk into the night and determine to meet again soon at a nearby tree where they will know each other by the password phrase "one stormy night."

Mei arrives at the meeting point to greet his new friend. There's only one problem. His buddy is not just anybody but a wolf named Gabu. Mei is surprisingly unafraid; he knows the bond they forged in the dark will hold in the daylight. Gabu is also a fiercely loyal creature, but Mei is a goat, his favorite thing on earth to eat. As they head out for a picnic, Gabu fights the darker parts of his nature so that he can indeed be a friend to Mei. But that's not all he'll time passes and others find out about this bizarre friendship, it will be strained to its limits. While Gabu cares for his little companion, is he a match for his pack of ravenous hunters who'd be more than willing to kill him to get a taste of mutton?

Like many anime films of recent note, there are wonderful bits of animation made slightly less special because of too-obvious computer assistance. At times, this looks like some of the best handmade artwork you've seen. But unfortunately, there are several CGI rotoscope shots that are incredible obvious and dropped me out of the narrative. They have the strange problem of looking too good. The computer shots have such realistic detail that they look like they should be in a live-action film. They just don't match. However, from what I saw those shots were mostly found in the first third, and I didn't find it jarring elsewhere. The beauty of other sequences makes up for these questionable choices.

It's a little hard to figure out the perfect target audience for One Stormy Night. The opening sequence is not terribly intense, especially since we don't know the characters yet, but it sets a dark tone for the rest. Nearer the end, as the wolves get serious about their wayward packmate, the intensity ramps up again. For children reared on Pixar and Dreamworks, it might be a little much. However, any child more familiar with early Disney (such as Pinocchio or Dumbo) will be fine with the whole thing.

Other sections are more comedic, with Mei and Gabu scrambling around like the stable of Warner Brothers favorites. While there are tonal shifts, they were appropriate, and I was drawn in. Mei and Gabu are likable, and you believe in these two because there's trace sentimentalism in terms of their understanding of one another. Mei acknowledges and accepts that Gabu is a killer; it's in his nature. Mei doesn't want to be eaten, but he doesn't expect Gabu to become a vegan, either.

What I liked best about One Stormy Night was the idea that friendship transcends boundaries. I grew up never knowing if my friends' ancestors were Polish or German or Australian or whatever, but now I live in an area where many people generations removed from the motherland still strongly identify with a nationalistic identity. Beyond that, though, schools still self-segregate along lines of jocks, nerds, goths, and whatnot. We still have problems reaching out to those who are different than us. One Stormy Night tells us that those who should be enemies can be friends. We may have seen this story before; The Fox and the Hound is a very different film, but the generalities of the plot are much the same. Yet there's still something to be said about defending the weak and standing up for those who aren't like us but are worthy of respect and dignity.

There are two core problems, however, that One Stormy Night does not quite overcome. The first is the pacing. At times, it's downright exciting. However, the middle drags to the point where I nearly fell asleep. It would have made a great hour and a half movie, but the extra fifteen minutes of padding mean children may become bored.

The second problem is that the depth of the relationship between Mei and Gabu isn't earned. We get the idea that they are fast friends, sure, but it doesn't feel right. So they share a few what? The reality is, Gabu is giving up far more in his friendship with Mei than the reverse. We accept it because we have to; there is no movie without it. But beyond that, Mei suggests that they will always be together, friends forever and ever. It's a nice thought, but where does it come from? And for a goat whose mother was killed by wolves, his innate trust of Gabu is incomprehensible. I never could convince myself that this worked. I lived with it, but I didn't believe it.

How much you'll enjoy the film probably has much to do with whether your suspension of disbelief meter is more forgiving than mine. There's a lot to enjoy and recommend, and I'd watch it again without much argument. But with just a few minor changes, it could have been a classic, and I'm sorry it's not. Then again, it's still a worthwhile watch for older children and the parents who love them.

One Stormy Night -- violence, a little intense at moments for a children's film -- B+