I give this simple but beautifully profound movie...a 90/100!
Ever heard of the phrase "less is more"? Yeah, Liz and the Blue Bird is basically this in a nutshell. Now, I admit, I only have a passing knowledge of the series it's based on, Sound! Euphonium, and I haven't seen both seasons of the anime, so when I heard about this movie, I originally hadn't planned on watching it. But when I read the review of it on Anime News Network and found that you apparently don't need to have seen the TV series to enjoy it, my interest was piqued. Why not? So, I decided to watch it after all. The review I read was praising the movie up the wazoo, exalting it as one of the best anime movies ever. Having now seen the movie itself, while I personally don't consider it to be an all-out masterpiece, I did find myself enjoying it way more than I thought I would, and it's definitely one of my new favorite anime movies in recent years.
The film focuses on two young girls, Mizore Yoroizuka, a shy and quiet oboist, and Nozomi Kasaki, a cheery, energetic girl who plays the flute. They're both in their school's orchestra, and have been friends for quite a while. It's their final year of high school, and having endured quite a bit of drama and crazy events a year ago, Mizore's not sure if she's ready to graduate high school and potentially part ways with her first friend. Not helping matters is that they have a solo performance for a show coming up, but they can't seem to get the piece down. But in life, just like the piece they're performing, "Liz and the Blue Bird," you need to set that caged bird free some time.
For fans of the series, many members of the main cast appear, but either have very few lines or a few short cameo appearances, so chances are you won't see them play a huge part in the story, as it focuses entirely on Mizore and Nozomi, along with a few others. On one hand, this helps the movie stand on its own, focusing on its own stories and events rather than simply using the TV series as a trampoline to propel itself into the sky. As someone who hasn't seen both seasons of the TV series, I watched the whole movie all the way through, and not once did I ever feel lost or thrown off by what was happening, as the movie gently fills the audience in on what happened, in a subtle, overt manner, in an "Oh, by the way" kind of tone, not shoving it in your face or spoon-feeding it to you, which is definitely great. A movie that trusts its audience to put the pieces together while still managing to subtly show them what's going on is always a good thing. It's a delicate balance, and I feel Liz and the Blue Bird pulled it off spectacularly. On the other hand, since it focuses on two side characters and not the main cast that featured prominently in the series, it might disappoint those hoping for a more direct follow-up, especially since the main cast of the series only make a few appearances as background characters who don't say or do much.
Considering who did the animation for this movie, it's no surprise that Kyoto Animation's work on the movie is absolutely gorgeous, especially in differentiating Mizore's school and the imaginary fairy tale segments. The Liz segments are bright and eye catching, popping to life with beautiful watercolor backgrounds and light, pastel colors that give it a warm, fairy tale-like feel, and the characters move in a life-like fashion. There's nary a still frame in the movie. The segments focusing on the girls and their life in school are more subdued in color, but the animation doesn't cut any corners here. The movie puts a huge emphasis on showing over telling with animation: Facial expressions, hand gestures, feet movement, the way people walk, little details like that are brought to life and convey much more in subtle motion than words could ever do. The first ten minutes of the movie are nothing but silence, letting the audience soak up the atmosphere and showing two girls walking to class together in quiet tranquility. Mizore is a shy girl who doesn't say much, and gestures such as clenching a fist and tugging her hair speak to her anxiety and fear of change, whereas Nozomi literally bounces across the screen, with her ponytail flailing in the air and her arms and hands moving in all different directions as she talks. Naoko Yamada, the director, has always had an affinity for letting the animators show character and feelings through facial expressions, gestures, and body movements, and it's a good approach to take here, letting the animation speak for itself. I kinda wish more movies would take this approach.
With the movie's heavy emphasis on music, there's no way the producers would let the movie have a bad soundtrack. No surprise, the whole soundtrack, from soft piano tunes to a whole bellowing orchestra that explodes with vitality, the soundtrack absolutely sells the movie here, with each piece of music fitting their assigned scenes, setting the mood and bringing out the atmosphere and pure emotion. From what I've heard, the producers worked with a live orchestra while working on the film, and this choice was an excellent one. Plus, the music also links the characters even more, with the focus being on how Nozomi and Mizore can sync their flute and oboe solos during a performance. The flute and oboe are used prominently in the soundtrack, further emphasizing that this is their story. I admit I'm not a music expert (I hated it as a subject in school), so I apologize if I'm gushing too much about it and not being more objective. A good soundtrack can make or break a movie or show, and it works very well here.
Since the main cast of the TV series don't appear much, how do the focus characters fare? Honestly, I think the characters are great. They're nothing groundbreaking, but the movie's execution manages to make them feel real and relatable. Mizore's the shy girl who does want to come out of her shell, but fears change and losing her first real friend, and relies on her a lot, something she realizes is unhealthy. Nozomi is a cheerful, friendly girl who's friends with everyone, but knows when to shut up and listen when someone needs to vent, and even she has her own insecurities that she needs to deal with. They're down to earth, good-natured kids getting ready to step on the road to adulthood, but still have a lot to deal with. The few side characters that get focus are also pretty fun and full of personality. One thing I'd definitely like to talk about in regards to the characters is this: I am so, so, SO happy that Liz and the Blue Bird DOESN'T have its teenager characters constantly yelling or screaming at each other in a melodramatic fashion or constantly scheming against each other or generally acting like complete pricks. So many movies that focus on teenagers seem to think having teenagers act bombastic and catty and constantly arguing and having them make mountains out of molehills is establishing character development, which is absolutely not true. The kids in Liz and the Blue Bird are perfectly down to earth, just talking, sharing stories, consulting each other on their problems, and they all act civil, mature, and never acting stupid or like caricatures of teenagers. I really wish more movies with a teenage cast would focus more on subtlety like Liz does here. I'd much rather watch this than...say, The Breakfast Club or every Disney channel kid sitcom.
Personally, I really liked this one and had no problem with it, but this type of movie probably won't appeal to a lot of people, for a variety of reasons. One thing I can say is that Liz and the Blue Bird is painfully predictable. The movie doesn't try to do anything new with this type of storyline, where girls get ready for the end of high school and have to resolve their issues. This type of premise has been done to death by many other movies, books, games, and shows since the beginning, and Liz doesn't make an effort to stand out in terms of its story. You know where it's going to go and what's going to happen, so expecting it to pull some awesome, unexpected twist is like asking Nintendo to change Mario's signature color from red to purple. There's no surprises to be found here. But the way the story is told through its animation, music, and other narrative choices is masterfully done in my book. But one thing I did notice and did feel detrimented the movie is it's extremely limited scope in terms of its setting. With the exception of the fantasy segments, the ENTIRE movie is set at school, and we NEVER see the girls outside of school. We never see them at home, or going shopping, or doing anything outside of school, and while I can respect Yamada's decision to keep everything set to one location for narrative purposes, I feel showing the girls outside of school and what they're like and what they do outside school would make them feel more alive and prevent the movie from coming off as dull to some people. But then again, that's what the TV series is for, probably.
Another potential flaw that the movie has is its pacing. It's very slow. Like, really slow. Nothing is ever rushed, and the movie likes to take its sweet time in showing what the characters are doing and little else. I personally liked this approach, as I feel the slow pacing adds to the calm, subdued atmosphere the movie is trying to set up. But this approach might not work as well for those a little more impatient, and some may complain it moves at a snail's pace. I had no problem with the pacing myself, as I don't mind a movie where I can just turn my brain off, relax, and look at pretty colors and images every now and again. Sometimes we need that once in a while. But again, it's a matter of taste for some. I can probably describe this movie with two words: Subdued and graceful. That's basically Liz and the Blue Bird in a nutshell, and there's nothing wrong with that.
If you have any appreciation for nice, relaxing, sweet movies with a lot of heart, Liz and the Blue Bird is a must watch, and I think I can call this Naoko Yamada's masterpiece. We're very lucky to have this movie, and more films like this need to be made.