I give this one-off fantasy movie based on Level-5's popular game series...a 50/100.
What we have here is Level-5's attempt at making a movie, and on the surface, it looks promising. Ni no Kuni is a game series that got started in the early 2010s, and it was famous for one thing: It was the first video game that Studio Ghibli worked on. No, really. Level-5 actually brought Ghibli on to animate various cutscenes and had Joe Hisaishi make the music for it. Needless to say, everyone who played it really liked it. I've been wanting to play the game myself for years, but it was on the PS3, which I could never afford. It did get re-released on the Switch, so I wasted no time buying it, but I never got to sit down and play it yet. Getting back on track, Ni no Kuni eventually went on to get a sequel game and, as of last year, a movie with an original story. When I heard about the movie, I was really excited! But then I actually got to watch it.
Good lord, I've been disappointed before, but this was just...painful. I really want to like this movie. I really do! It does have a lot going for it at first...and it crashed and burned. Hard. So what's the story? Well, it focuses on three kids: Yu, Haru, and Kotona, who are great friends and spend a lot of time together. One day, Kotona is stabbed by a mysterious pursuer. Haru and Yu try to save her, but when they're nearly killed in a car accident...they wake up in another world called Evermore. But Kotona is missing, and the princess of this world they're in happens to look almost exactly like her. In their quest to save the princess and find Kotona, they learn more about Evermore and what it has in common with Earth, but the friends' loyalty to each other get tested and strained when their actions in Evermore have consequences in the real world. Yu may have to make hard choices, especially when Haru begins acting strangely when Kotona's situation gets more complicated.
Sorry if my summary of the story isn't that great. There's a lot that I can't mention without spoiling the entire movie in the process, so I'll try to hold back as much as I can. But man, do I really want to rant about this movie! However, I don't want to be too negative, so I'll go over the positive aspects of this movie first: The animation is quite good. The world's overall look is really breathtaking, the character designs are varied and interesting, the fight choreography is top notch, and some of the fight scenes were actually pretty clever in some ways. I also really liked Yu as a character. Not only is he NOT an overpowered bland isekai protag (And he has no harem. Thank God!), he actually has a backstory, has good chemistry with his friends, and is smart and competent. He could have benefitted from more depth and had more flaws, but I'm happy with what we got. Plus, having a main character in a wheelchair who is portrayed decently well, doesn't bemoan his disability, and isn't solely defined by his disability, is pretty cool. His friend/adopted sister Saki was pretty awesome too. She got some great moments in the movie, both in the real world and in the other world. I kinda wish we had seen more of her.
Unfortunately, those are the only good things I can say about the movie, because the rest of it really doesn't fare well. While I admit I haven't played the games much, they delve into the world the kids go into in a lot more detail than the movie could even scrape, so what little we see of it is just kind of there. The setting isn't developed well enough to make its audience feel invested in it, even with the animation making it look as beautiful as possible. And that's only the tip of the iceberg in terms of this movie's many, many problems. With how well loved the games are, and how the movie is telling its own story, you'd think the creators would be able to do them justice and create an intriguing story out of it. Unfortunately, the movie is little more than a generic fantasy isekai movie, with the main kids trying to save their girl friend and the princess who is a damsel in distress. The villains are so cartoonishly evil that you'd think they'd have come straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon, and the real big bad is so obvious that you can tell who it is straight away. The whole movie follows the same story beats and cliches that have plagued other stories for centuries, and doesn't really do anything new or exciting with them.
And that's not even getting into the characters. Other than Yu and Saki, every single one of them is extremely bland and one-note. Kotona's the energetic girl whose life is in danger, Astrid is the damsel in distress princess who tries to be more active, the main villain is the chessmaster manipulating everything who hams it up when exposed, but all of them pale in comparison to Haru. Seriously, watching him made me feel like the writers really didn't know what to do with him most of the time. He starts out as the cheerful friend archetype, then gets needlessly angry at Yu for little to no reason (Case in point: Early in the movie, when he sees Yu with an injured Kotona, he doesn't ask if he's alright or offer to take them both to the hospital, you know, like a good friend would. He yells at him for holding her in an intimate way, takes Kotona away so he can run her to the hospital, and JUST LEAVES HIM THERE! Knowing that Yu's in a wheelchair and can't move! Dude, what a dick!), his motivations are laughable and poorly developed, and he's constantly being a reckless idiot who can't stop to think (Which Yu actually calls him out on in the movie!). Any development he gets is really unnatural and rushed, like the writers couldn't agree on what to do with him. Honestly, as a character, Haru is the biggest dark spot on the movie, and the other characters, while slightly more tolerable, are still too bland to really connect with on an emotional level, since the movie's only under two hours long. There's a lot of characters to keep track of, and I think the movie would have fared better if it had cut a few of them out to give the writers more wiggle room to strut their stuff.
Speaking of writing, I'm not even done with that portion yet. Late in the movie, a lot of stuff happens, but most of it is characters spouting about random plot points that were never mentioned before, are barely explored when they're introduced, and they just appear without rhyme or reason. Like, at one point, Astrid mentions that the only way to defeat a villain is some magic sword, but her father tells her it's been gone for years, and later, we see the sword again because some old guy gave it to Yu, who can activate it even though he has no reason to be able to do so at that point, and all is suddenly happy happy joy joy. Can you see how badly planned and written this sounds? Basically, the only reason the sword is even used again is because the plot demands it. Furthermore, there are a ton of other plot threads that get little to no deep exploration, such as an old man who Yu met when he was a kid. We never know his name, we never know who he is or why he's there, but when the story writes itself in a corner, he appears and gives the heroes the tools they need to save the day, and then leaves again. He's basically a Deus Ex Machina in human form, and that's not good writing. Seriously.
I don't have much to say about the soundtrack, as its Joe Hisaishi, and from what I've heard, he re-uses tracks from some of the games. Again, I haven't played them, so I can't judge them on how well they fit into the movie, but I kinda feel like Hisaishi overused his orchestra to the point where the BGMs were so loud during certain scenes that they just got obnoxious. And at other points, the music swells and gets dramatic, then suddenly just stop. Oh, and the CGI made no effort to actually integrate with the animation. My God, close-ups of various monsters walking through rugged terrain don't even try to blend in with the 2D animation, making them stick out like a sore thumb, even worse than how Granblue Fantasy did it. It's jarring and takes you out of the movie. Think looking through a closet of all black clothes and a random pink dress suddenly flies in front of your face and blinds you. That's how bad it is. It's especially obvious when important characters, who are traditionally animated, are the focus of a scene, while obviously CGI soldiers flail around in the background, their limb movements all herky jerky and the texture so computerized that you can tell they're not even trying to make them mix with the scenery.
So yeah, the movie's not great. It's poorly written, the characters are bland, the story is cliche in all the worst ways, the CG is terrible and makes no effort to try to be less jarring than it is, and any drama it tries to pull off comes off forced and artificial. But in all honesty, if Ni no Kuni had been just a generic isekai movie, I wouldn't have minded. It would have been just a generic but still serviceable movie...but then the ending happened. I won't spoil it for you, but the ending is absolutely one of the most awful, badly written endings I've ever seen in any form of media, not only by just how out of nowhere the final twist is, but how little sense it makes, and how it completely spits on everything the movie previously established all for the sake of forced drama that didn't need to happen. Seriously, I haven't been this infuriated at anything since the Card Captor Sakura: Clear Card anime's just as God-awful ending, and this one stoops to a whole new level of bad writing. I mean, you really have to TRY to be that bad.
I really don't want to hate this movie. I really don't. If the writers had made more of an effort with it and smoothed out all of its issues, it could have been a fine movie capable of standing on its own merits. Alas, what we wound up getting was a complete mess with a God awful ending that ruined an already flimsy premise to Hell and back. So don't waste your time with this one.