Lu Over The Wall (2017): Written by Masaaki Yuasa and Reiko Yoshida, directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Starring: Kanon Tani, Shota Shimoda, Minako Kotobuki, Soma Saito, and Shinichi Shinohara. Running Time: 107 minutes.
Lu Over The Wall, the latest film by animated director Masaaki Yuasa, is like the lower-budgeted, more frenzied, poor-man’s version of Ponyo, including a story revolving around sea denizens, their mistrustful relationship with humans, and how these misunderstandings very nearly result in the end of the world. It is bright, colorful, and relentlessly cheerful, but perhaps a bit too much by the end; there are a LOT of dark thematic undertones lurking just below the film’s surface, and the experience would have been invariably strengthened had it turned more resolutely into mature territory.
Kai is stuck on a small island whose entire existence centers around fishing. His dad’s separation from his mother has left him feeling alone and frustrated, and he continuously tries to push away the efforts of people in his class to make friends. He prefers to go it alone and stick to making music on his laptop. However, he soon finds out that his particularly adventurous style of beats draws the attention of a local mermaid, part of a school that has long been deeply feared and mistrusted by the islanders, due to their assumptions that the mer-people capture humans and eat them, though proof on this front seems to be rather shallow.
He quickly learns through his mermaid friend (her name is Lu) that a lot of this is mostly just superstition and fear based on ignorance, and he and his newly-formed band (each of whom struggles in their own way with the restrictive nature of island life) decide to try and use their music, which Lu compulsively adds to with singing and incredibly frenetic dancing, to bridge the longstanding gap between the two cultures. As is to be expected, insane hijinks ensue.
The music of the film is easily one of its biggest strongpoints, as it combines well with the snazzy visuals and creates an all-around great vibe. There is also a very solid message about a part of growing involving coming to terms with “normal life” in the places you grew up in, and how time and maturity can allow you to see the beauty in things you thought were stodgy, boring, or dull as a kid. And a children’s film willing to embrace that point of view is not something to sniff at. Each of the main human children has something about their lives or places that frustrate or worry them, and the way their arcs are handled and resolved are all really solid.
Sadly, the film does start to fly off the rails a bit in the third act. The story itself, which starts out with a lot of interesting potential directions, ends up being remarkably standard. The animation also becomes more and more feverish and disjointed, creating a dreamlike effect that just doesn’t jibe with the feel of the movie at the beginning. It all becomes a bit much and by the time the climax was hitting its peak, I felt like the movie had become more of a chore to get through than a source of entertainment. There are still moments and sequences of staggering beauty, but they aren’t enough, in the end, to lift the movie above its significant issues.
However, this is still a remarkably inventive movie with a solid heart and good message beneath the flash. It is certainly a trip I do not regret taking, although I can’t recommend it to everyone not already taken with certain styles of Japanese animation. Perhaps a trip to the beach would suit most viewers better.