The latest animated feature from Spriggan director Hirotsugu Kawasaki is series of half-measures that ultimately undermine the final film. If only this time traveling mystical fantasy had gone the extra mile of fleshing out its characters and the conflict at the heart of the story, it could have been a winner instead of just another glossy animated title clamoring for your attention.
Legend of the Millennium Dragon (aka Onigamiden) starts off promisingly enough with a battle between samurai and Oni--elaborately-visualized demons that seem to made of smoke--and it's not going so well for the samurai. But just as the Oni prepare to make their final push to destroy a local temple, badass monk Gen'un wipes them out with a little spirit magic. Flash forward 1200 years, and the story takes focus on middle school student Jun and feel free to stop me if this character sounds familiar: he's awkward, frightened, kind of nice, and has a tragedy in his past involving an absent father figure. Abruptly, this young little punching bag for the world is dragged back in time to Gen'un's era by the monk and is given the grand destiny speech: because of Jun's special bloodline, the locals need him to awaken the magical dragon Orochi (think a neon-blue Falcor), and help defeat the evil Oni once and for all. Except maybe the Oni aren't so evil. And maybe Gen'un has other plans besides simply protecting the village.
I can forgive that many of the elements of the are very familiar. It's the hero's journey for the slightly younger set (we're talking tweens and younger, maybe). The real problem is that the movie draws out the obvious elements to a painful degree, that by the time the plot kicks in, it's hard to care. Worse, so much of Jun's role is kept a mystery for maybe the first 30-45 minutes, and I'm not even really sure that this was intended by the script. But the feudal era characters all have a way of talking indirectly, telling him what he is, and rarely what they actually expect him to do.
This speaks to the broader problem of the conflict between the "Oni" and the humans, which is actually a pretty straightforward story of displacement. But it seems like we're to take it that there are no bad guys here, that humans need to naturally expand, and all the thought-provoking ground covered in works like Princess Mononoke. The problem is that for the most part, the villagers remain mostly unsympathetic, having chased the Oni up into the hills and then, when the Oni fight back, deciding that the best way to deal with them is to simply wipe them out with the help of Orochi.
Jun is another problem altogether, spending maybe the first two thirds of the movie (or more) whining and repeating things that were just said to him in the form of a question. He's one of the least engaged (or engaging) lead characters I've encountered in a while, and without Jun as a compelling center for the story, the plot just seems to lurch forward of its own volition and you start to feel like you're trapped watching someone else watch a story unfold.
Towards the end of the film, there's a bit of a twist involving god-powered suits of armor (at least, that's what I think they were). I know what purpose they're serving in the story, but I don't think it was ever discussed why Orochi was necessary if a motivated monk could pull that out of his back pocket.
The animation is a mixed bag: the creature designs of Orochi and the Oni are treats, and I perked up whenever either or both was on the screen. Similarly, the backgrounds are detailed and attractive. Some of the character designs have a bit of broad exaggeration that really draws the eye, but when it comes to the leads, particularly Jun, the blandest template imaginable was used. I was also a little put off by the way the characters animate against the background. For the most part it's not a big deal, but during intense action, the characters--either due to shading or coloring--seem more like layers dropped on top of the background instead of characters living in the environment.
The reasons to pause before checking out Legend of the Millennium Dragon add up pretty quickly. And it's unfortunate: with polish on the script and actual development of the lead, this could have been one worth recommending.
Video and Audio
This is a very recent movie and the transfer is unsurprisingly, superb. As for audio options, take your pick: there are seven language tracks and accompanying subtitles, although only English and Thai are noted to have a 5.1 mix.
Legend of the Millennium Dragon is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD, and VOD.