The heydays of Japanese full-length animation features seem to lie firmly behind us. While every year a few good films make it to the surface, none of them seems to match the quality and vision of the older generations. Mamoru Hosoda (Toki O Kakeru Shojo, Summer Wars) is one of the few younger talents doing his best to uphold the good name of Japanese animation, Wolf Children [Okami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki] is his latest endeavor.
Mamoru Hosoda is one of the front runners of a new generation of Japanese animation directors, but like many of his peers he has trouble breaking free from the works of earlier generations. While I'm craving for more directors like Masaaki Yuasa (Mind Game, Genius Party) Hosoda's work is more and more intertwining itself with that of Studio Ghibli and Makoto Shinkai (Hoshi O Ou Kodomo, Byosoku 5 Senchimetoru), making it that much harder to stand out from the rest.
Another problem for Hosoda is that the rest of the industry is finally catching up on trying to mimic the Ghibli success. Films like Summer Days With Coo, A Letter To Momo and The Light Of A Firefly Forest are all dabbling in the same pool of influences, making it a little crowded there. And the fact of the matter is that even though others are trying really hard, none of them are even coming close to matching Ghibli at their own game, let alone beating them.
While Wolf Children is a good, solid film, the fact of the matter is that Hosoda goes a bit overboard with the references here. There are scenes that appear to be downright copies of Tonari no Totoro and Omohide Poro Poro, mixed with a strong dash of Wolf's Rain. Hosoda takes his film to a difference place than any of the named influences could, but I felt it was a bit much to be reminded of other works in almost every other scene.
Hosoda's biggest perk is his amazing art style. Even though the characters may appear a little simplistic at first, with only a few lines Hosoda creates a myriad of subtle details that others could only dream of. The animation is spot on, carrying a refreshing and unique sense of realism that enhances the dramatic effect, while the ever vibrant and sunny colors make for a cozy and comfortable atmosphere. Wolf Children is a visual delight that manages to impress from start to finish.
The soundtrack is something else though. Hosoda constantly walks the line between bearable and overkill. When at times the story becomes too mushy the soundtrack falters with it, turning into a big pathetic mess. When Hosoda tones down the drama the soundtrack is okay, a predictable yet decent selection of piano and string-based tracks that suit the atmosphere, yet do little to enhance it. Luckily the voice acting is top notch and there is no English dub out there to sway people into not watching the Japanese one, though I'm sure that's bound to change once the film hits American shores.
The first twenty minutes or so are definitely lacking. The extended introduction is too melodramatic and never really hits the mark. Once Hana becomes a single mother the film makes a brisk u-turn and suddenly Hosoda finds himself on the right track. The middle part of Wolf Children is by far the strongest. The pacing is excellent, the characters flourish and even though a bit too idyllic at times, the atmosphere is absolutely lovable. The ending misses a sense of urgency, but even though it doesn't uphold the level of quality it doesn't really collapse on itself either. There's just not much of a climax to speak of, even though an extra dramatic arc is introduced.
Wolf Children is far from a perfect film and from the three Hosoda films I've seen so far it's clearly the worst. It's definitely not a bad film, but based on Hosoda's track record and the hype surrounding this film I expected a lot more. When Hosoda keeps it small and strays away from dramatic arcs the film is at its best, but Hosoda often overplays the drama and ends up with scenes that are far too mushy and melodramatic. If this all sounds a little harsh it's probably because Hosoda has a big legacy to live up too, yet lately he seems to be dropping the ball. Overall Wolf Children is still a good, solid film, but it could've (and should've) been a lot more than that.