'Lu Over the Wall' film review: Normal boy meets magical girl, chao ensues in this 'Ponyo' knockoff
With a poppy soundtrack, bright colors and eccentric characters the anime adventure-comedy "Lu Over the Wall" (opening in select cities May 11) tries to use every distraction in the anime toolkit to hide the fact that its characters are broad, plot is unfocused and story is generally uninspired.
In short: Sullen middle school student and internet musician Kai meets Lu, a mermaid - who are are harbingers of disaster in his small seaside town. Directed by Masaaki Yuasa ("Devilman: Crybaby."
Anime is an oft-dismissed genre because of movies like "Lu Over the Wall" -- offerings tailor-made for anime fans without making any attempt to appeal to non-anime fans. Through the first 45 minutes, "Lu" just meanders, reliant on the lenient patience and goodwill of anime lovers to just sit back and absorb the fluff story. The first half of the movie has no clear direction, leaving the movie feeling like the rudderless story of a withdrawn kid who sulks around while a bubbly mermaid flits about. The story expects the audience to be awed simply because "Lu" is an anime with some fantastical elements and a fun soundtrack.
Downcast Kai is every male anime hero ever: a tragically normal teenager surrounded by many more entertaining characters - and for some reason a mermaid is drawn toward him. At least Kai has some degree of characterization, even if he only really has two gears: despondent or bold. The same cannot be said of Lu, who is reduced to just a narrow, happy-go-lucky and childish girl who is barely a character. Lu is yet another in a long, sad line of uninspired "happy magical slave" anime girl characters - beings who are defined more by their adorable naïveté and vague superpowers than by any real character choices. It's not clear why Lu or anyone would be drawn to the relentless downer Kai - except that he's a musician? He's bland, she's one-dimensional - it's a thin foundation of the entire story.
Nothing resembling a story starts to form until the second half, when at least some dramatic conflict between the merfolk and the villagers finally congeals. And of course that tension is rooted in a misunderstanding - and of course it must threaten the entire town (ugh). While some villagers welcome the merfolk with open arms, another subset resists and hates them - and film resolves these characters with the same disappointing, broad and predictable reveal. Resorting to such extremes - where the fate of the town is at stake - is an act of desperation - a flailing attempt to justify its loosely focused little story between a boy and mermaid.
Final verdict: Resigned to being cutesy rather than attempting to be genuinely engaging, "Lu Over the Wall" is inoffensive fare. This transparent 'Ponyo' wannabe lacks soul and sweetness of Hayao Miyazaki's classic.
"Lu Over the Wall" opens in select cities May 11. This comedic adventure anime has a running time of 112 minutes and is rated PG for some peril and thematic elements.