Hottarake no Shima - Haruka to Maho no Kagami (Oblivion Island) was promoted as Production I.G's first real full-CG feature. This should have made it quite a bit easier to market to film to international audiences, but apart from a few festival screenings Oblivion Island failed to make a big international splash. It's not difficult to see why, though in my opinion these very elements only turn the film into a better and more interesting experience.
Production I.G used to be Japan's prime studio for mature, feature-length and quality animation films. There was no studio out there that could equal the level of excellence that went into their films. Once they started to go down the TV series road though, the drop in standards was instantly visible. It's not that they haven't made interesting films since, but somehow they failed to provide the constant stream of masterpieces they used to deliver. No doubt a very conscious decision from the higher-ups, but it was a real bummer for fans of the old I.G.
Oblivion Island may not be a true return to form (it's difficult to qualify it at the same level as films like Ghost in the Shell or Jin-Roh), but it's still a real delight for people who crave creative fantasy films. The story of Oblivion Island may follow the traditional road of a young girl tumbling into a fantasy world by accident (think Alice in Wonderland or Spirited Away), but there's a bit more to it. This particular world is filled with fox-like creatures who live of objects forgotten and abandoned by humans, building their society on what we left behind.
Once Haruko enters the other world and remembers a lost memento of her dead mother, she sets out to find it, trying to reclaim her property. Of course things don't go as smoothly as planned, as an evil baron has snatched it for his personal collection and he proves rather unwilling to return the memento to Haruko. A simple and typical structure that admittedly adds very little to existing fantasy stories, nor does it go through much trouble to provide decent background plots or decent motivations for its characters. If you think that's a bad thing, you might end up more than a little disappointed by the film.
As for the visuals, they are sure to divide audiences into two opposing camps. If you crave technical excellence than you will find quite a few flaws within the film. Even though Oblivion Island primarily features CG-based animation, there are some odd mixes of styles that don't always integrate too well together. Apart from that, character animation can be a little edgy, but if you're looking for creativity and composition, this film easily beats the crap out of the competition. Oblivion Island's visual style brought back happy memories of Kakurenbo and Noiseman Sound Insect, two gloriously beautiful Studio 4C productions that feature similar detailed and colorful worlds.
The soundtrack is on the safe side, but still fits like a charm. It somehow reminded me of older Squaresoft RPGs (say Chrono Trigger), invoking that same feeling of light-hearted adventure and discovery. It's not the kind of music I'd listen to outside the context of a film, but that's not really what a good soundtrack is about. I can't say that it ever becomes an essential part of the experience, but it does lay a good basis for the adventurous atmosphere the film thrives on.
As for the voice acting, Production I.G never seems to fail there. Well-cast voice actors give an extra dimension to their characters. Never too obnoxious or in your face, the voices blend in very well with their surroundings and sculpt the characters as they move along.
Oblivion Island is not a film that will win many hearts with its elaborate plot or character development. It's a film that is mostly concerned with giving fantasy fans what they're craving for. The fantasy world that Haruka enters is lush, rich and colorful. It's creative, it's beautiful and diverse. Oblivion Island is a true roller coaster ride, trying to show you as much of it's fantasy world as humanly possible, within the tight constraints of its running time. Which, at least to me, is much more interesting that spending time on character development or motivations for the bad guy's actions.
Combine the work of Hayao Miyazaki with the work of Koji Morimoto and you'll have something that closely resembles this film. It's a true fantasy film that betrays I.G's struggle with full-CG animation, but makes up for that with excellent art direction and bucket loads of creativity. It's a fair trade-off and many will not be contented with what this film puts on offer, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
It's still a little sour seeing a production company like I.G focusing on lighter films like these, especially as there's no-one around to fill the emptiness they left behind. But in the end that's not this film's fault, and when judging Oblivion Island on its own merits it turns out to be a surprisingly lovable film. Definitely recommended if you're like me and consider its weaker points as necessary flaws that are aptly compensated in other, more important areas.