Animation has always been able to do things that just wouldn’t be possible in a live action movie or TV show. The creators can let their mind go wild with possibilities and still see them realized on screen. A couple of months ago, Mamoru Hosada gave us the magnificent Belle, and with it, he and his team managed to reimagine the tale of the Beauty and the Beast for a whole new generation of viewers. Bubble, the new Netflix anime film of the week, is trying to do just that, but with The Little Mermaid.
However, where Belle was a film filled with ambition and managed to create powerful characters. Characters that evolved in a very clear way throughout the movie. Bubble crashes against its own ambition and while it creates a movie that cannot be qualified in any other way but as a gorgeous visual spectacle. The character work lacks in almost every aspect, and the fulfillment of the promises the narrative set-ups from the beginning fall into the classic trappings of anime by making everything that happens to be a bit nonsensical.
Bubble is directed by Tetsuro Araki, who has previously worked as director in shows like Death Note, and Attack on Titan. And it is written by Gen Urobuchi, a famous anime writer who has written shows like Psycho-Pass and Madoka Magica, and most recently penned the Godzilla anime trilogy of films for Netflix. Bubble tells the story of Hibiki, a young man living in the ruins of Tokyo. Tokyo is a city that has been abandoned after the events where bubbles began falling from the sky and ended up flooding the city, also encasing it inside a large bubble.
Now the people that still live in the flooded city divide themselves in factions and take part in parkour events to decide who seizes the few provisions they can get. One day, Hibiki falls to his death next to a gravity anomaly, but he is saved by a strange girl he names Uta. The girl might unlock the key to save the city and world.
Anime has often been seen by many as a medium that is unapproachable. That is not a bad take at all, as many shows and movies regularly have convoluted storylines and the logic behind many stories feels muddled and obscure. There are many other examples that don’t follow these trends, but the ones that do give anime a bad reputation. In this case, Urobuchi falls prey to what made his work in Godzilla a bit lackluster, and he gives us a story that promises a lot but doesn’t really deliver on those promises.
Bubble is one of those stories whose logic seems a bit all over the place. As a retelling of The Little Mermaid, the story cannot be more straightforward. Interesting, the issues arise when the movie tries to add its own ideas to the mythology and well, things happen, how or why these things happen remain a mystery even after the movie is over.
Outside the convoluted plot, Bubble is a wonder to behold. Studio Wit keeps pulling off amazing quality visuals in each one of their productions, and Bubble is no exception. The flooded ruins of Tokyo are fascinating to look at and make for a very interesting setting, a setting that could even be used for a sequel to Mirror’s Edge or a game in that vein.
In contrast to the fantastic setting and backgrounds, the character design isn’t very inspired. Hibiki, our main protagonist, looks and acts exactly the same as many other protagonists in other anime shows or movies. He looks good, everyone does, that is undeniable, however, these are characters we have seen many times before. It comes as a big disappointment when the character designer is Takeshi Obata himself, of Death Note fame. His style is nowhere to be seen.
The score by Hiroyuki Sawano is another one of the highlights in the movie. The composer has worked in films like the excellent Promare by Studio Trigger, and he is another member of the Attack on Titan anime crew. Music is an important part of the plot, and Sawano manages to create beautiful melodies that might get stuck in your head.
Bubble is a beautiful movie, but it is also a fine example of why narrative clarity is such an important factor in good storytelling. Surrealism can exist in narrative and make for some truly amazing stories, but the problems arise when you try to mix them both and try to pass surrealistic nonsense for something that is supposed to have a logic about it. At the end the questions remaining are not interesting, but confusing because the story, in this case the plot, doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what is going on.
On an emotional level, the movie might end up being more successful, but the lack of character work might lower that possibility. The cast of characters is huge and yet, by the end of the movie, you barely feel like you got to know them. Maybe a more limited set of characters would have been better. Getting to know the characters a story presents is vital in order to give the audience the emotional payoffs you are promising them. However, if they remain static mysterious figures, the fate of the story will be just the same.
At the end of the day, Bubble manages to be visually impressive, and creates a fantastic setting that should be used in more stories or even transcend into a video game format. However, when it comes to the character development and the plot, the movie falls short. When the last 40 minutes of your running time consists of characters jumping everywhere with no real progression to the story, well, it could be that your story is running in circles.