Origin: Spirits Of The Past

I'm not an environmentalist. I have a nature preserve in my backyard full of deer and groundhogs and squirrels and whatnot, and I enjoy it. I want to make sure my children and grandchildren have a nice world in which to live. But when I read suggestions about how the best way for us to save the planet is to stop having children -- a suggestion on the Huffington Post recently -- I think it's nuts. What's more, I also realize that we in the West did our fair share of polluting the planet in order to make the technological breakthroughs that got us where we are today. Demanding that developing nations be completely green isn't always wise or fair or even plausible. But do I want to take care of the earth? Sure I do, and I believe my faith actually requires it. I think there's a lot of thinking to be done about the whole subject.

You came here for an anime review, not a lecture on saving the planet. But one can't help but talk about it when discussing Origin: Spirits Of The Past. A movie by Studio Gonzo circa 2006, it's a blockbuster styled around an environmental apocalypse that starts things off with a cosmic bang. It's engaging and entertaining, with decent leads and an OK back-story as well. It's problematic in that my character logic radar went off a few too many times, and you'll read more on that in a minute. However, for preteens looking for an afternoon's excitement with a little message built in, it's quite fun.

Something terrible has happened. The moon is in shards, and whatever caused it has laid waste to the earth. Still, those who have survived have pushed through as humanity always has, creating towns and villages, even minor cities where people flourish. No Mad Max or Fist of the North Star here...it may be rough to survive, but there aren't radioactive mutants or killer bikers anywhere to be found. The closest thing to an enemy the humans have found are the Druids, who live in the forests and themselves are plant life. They control the water supply and are in close contact with the living ecosystem of the planet. (In fact, it's not certain if the Druids aren't just gatekeepers for the living forest itself.) Neutral City has made its literal name for itself keeping the peace between the forest and Ragna, the city that's been preparing itself for the inevitable day when they will have to defend themselves against the forest...or take it down so that they no longer have to negotiate for resources.

In the middle of all this is Agito. He's reckless and impetuous but also brave and kind - an average 15-year-old, in other words. One day as he's fooling around with his friend Cain, he winds up getting deep into the heart of the water supply of the forest and finds a girl in suspended animation. He wakes her, they quickly escape, and he finds out her name: Toola. It turns out she's from 300 years in the past, from the time when the destruction of Earth's ecosystem occurred. She makes friends quickly and tries to adapt to life, but others have their own plans for her. Shunack, one of the heads of the army of Ragna, is from Toola's time, and she holds the key to his plan to set the earth back to the way things were. Problem is, that means a whole lotta destruction is comin' down the pipeline...and the only way to stop it is to turn to Agito's father, who himself is becoming a part of the forest...

Now this sounds like a pretty basic plot, and it is...it's no-frills. There are few surprises and no shocking turns. But every blockbuster I've walked into in the past few years wasn't offering radically new ideas; the excitement is in the way it goes about its job. With few exceptions, the technical details are first-rate. The soundtrack in particular is stunning, one of the few where my wife was drawn into the room just to hear more of the score. (In fact, while I don't have plans to buy the DVD, I would purchase a soundtrack album without hesitating.) The high quality throughout makes up for some of the film's deficiencies.

I did appreciate that the film isn't just a piece of agit-prop for the environmentalist community. While those themes are important, they aren't nearly as strong as what you'll find in many of Miyazaki's movies. The plot drives the film, not the politics. Our world likes to make everything black and white, but in Origin, things aren't that simple. The warriors of Ragna (and the eventual villain) are not goons; they aren't even that warlike. They ready themselves for battle because they expect it to be necessary to achieve their ends, but they aren't bad guys in the classic sense. Neutral City may be great ideologically, but these peacekeepers aren't naïve, and they simple choose to fight in a different way. This backdrop shows real thoughtfulness on the part of the show's creators rather than a simplistic, lopsided view.

But character is where the movie drops the proverbial ball. Now I liked the characters, don't get me wrong. They had decent introductions, and there aren't too many to follow. But character decisions follow the needs of the plot rather than any consistent logic. For example, just about the time we think we know Toola, her mindset changes and she decides that her old life was better than her new one. This kind of thinking isn't explained; there's no lead-up to her decision to follow Shunack back to Ragna, no clue that she's homesick or upset with her new friends. In fact, the film takes the time to develop her relationship with Cain's sister Minka and with Agito. So why does she make this sudden decision that powers the concluding third of the film? Because it's in the script. This illustrates the core reason why this is not an A grade film, despite my enjoyment of it -- for its attempts to be fair-minded, the characters are at the mercy of a storyline that doesn't always fit who they are. I just didn't buy it.

But Origin is not the first big film to give action and exhilaration at the expense of logic, nor will it be the last. Does it matter? I'm willing to overlook some of the problems because this is a Big Movie Event™ and asks us to treat it that way. The lack of potentially offensive content, save for the thought that peaceful ends seem to be achieved through massive explosions, means to me that this was intended for a younger crowd, probably upper elementary and middle school kids. Adults can enjoy it too, I think, if they know the movie's limitations. I really liked the experience. I just wish that animators would learn that kids are intelligent enough to get more from their movies - especially since, with Origin, they were on the edge of moving from good to great.

Origin: Spirits Of The Past -- violence -- B+