Whenever Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second, Hoshi no Koe) releases a new film it always feels like somewhat of an event. With just a few films to his name Shinkai launched himself as one of the most fresh and unique anime directors of this age, Hoshi O Ou Kodomo (Children Who Chase Lost Voices Deep Below) only reaffirms this status as he once again manages to deliver a film that underlines all of his trademark perks.
With Hoshi O Ou Kodomo Shinkai once again returns to a more fantastical setting, though instead of creating something similar to "Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho", Shinkai seems to have found a lot of inspiration in the collective work of Studio Ghibli. People like to compare Hoshi to Laputa (for very obvious reasons), I would like to add Mononoke Hime to that equation. When you combine the adventures of a young kid guided by a mysterious crystal with the guardians of the world you get awfully close to the synopsis of Shinkai's latest.
The film follows the adventures of Asuna, a young girl who likes to hike up the mountain to catch passing radio frequencies with a rather peculiar audio receiver. One day a strange yet haunting melody reaches her, not soon after a mysterious boy appears saving her from a wild and menacing creature. Asuna is understandably confused, but at the same time she is attracted to the boy and returns up the mountain for a second meeting. While see is able to trace the boys whereabouts, their relationship is short as the boy disappears soon after.
From there on the film reveals itself as a tale about lost love, with Asuna teaming up with her school teacher to travel to a mythical world where wishes can be granted. There's quite a lot of made-up folklore that links back to existing legends, but most of that is limited to the (ab)use of commonly known names. From that point on the structure of the film becomes quite fixed too, as Asuna and her team of companions explore the strange and fantastical world they happen upon.
Shinkai not only made fame because he started out as a one-man show animator/director, but also because of he single-handedly managed to come up with a film's length of industry-competitive visuals. By now the team around him has expanded, but Shinkai is still raising the bar on a visual level. The amount of detail hidden in Hoshi is too much to take in all at once. Freeze a couple of frames and marvel at all the tiny elements left and right that make up the scenery. Sadly the character animation and character design remain a bit plain compared to the rest of the film's visual detail, though Shinkai tries to counter this (quite effectively) with very controlled and deceptively simple character animation an camera movements. Seen over the entire running time you do get used to the film's visual brilliance and maybe Shinkai could've paid a bit more attention to the lacking visual crescendo, but that's just insane nitpicking on an otherwise visually stunning film.
The soundtrack is also typical Shinkai material. Like most of his films it will divide audiences alike. Many think Shinkai's soundtracks are way too melodramatic and pushy, others appreciate the awareness of the soundtrack. I guess I fall somewhere in between those two opinions. It's definitely not what I call a perfect score as it doesn't really help to expand the atmosphere, but it's far from annoying or overly melodramatic, especially compared to other popular examples. There is some quality music in there too (like the haunting melody), but those pieces are few and far between. As for the voice acting, it's on a very acceptable level, as you would expect from a project of this magnitude. Luckily there's no English dub yet (as far as I know), so that's one trap less to avoid.
In the end though, Hoshi O Ou Kodomo isn't as convincing as Shinkai's previous films. There is something not quite right with the whole fantasy setup. Maybe it's because of the fact that it refers too much to known Ghibli universes, or maybe it's because the mythical folklore just isn't interesting enough. Whatever it may be, the film does not cash in sufficiently on its exploring potential. Finding out about a fantastical world should be fun an exciting, but the film lacks this feeling from time to time, failing in its setup. It's not a persistent lack of interest though as there are definitely moments where the fantasy world is allowed to shine, Shinkai just can't keep that feeling present throughout the entire film.
That said, there is still plenty to be excited about. Shinkai serves you 116 minutes of visual wonder. There's a range of likable characters, an extensive fantasy world and plenty of memorable moments. The film just fails to become truly immersive, it lacks a soundtrack that could match the quality of the visuals and fails to explore the true potential of its fantasy world. Shinkai fans shouldn't worry though, the man clearly hasn't lost his touch and Hoshi O Ou Kodomo should be recommended material for all those that liked his previous films.