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"Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie": The Tedium of the Cards

On the heels of the celebrity poker trend comes Yu-Gi-Oh! the Movie, starring the self-proclaimed “king of the cards.” You won’t find him running the tables in Vegas, though. He’s too busy hawking licensed goods at Toys ‘R’ Us. Yu-Gi-Oh! has succeeded Pokemon as the biggest anime merchandising phenomenon in the US, and similar expansion of its empire to the silver screen was probably inevitable. The film seems to have moved less box office dollars than the first Pokemon outing, but it’s a safe bet it’ll move plenty of cards.

ImageSpeaking of which, what little story the film contains is overwhelmed by constant deck shuffling. One imagines it’s not unlike watching an (animated) Dungeons and Dragons convention. Given the relative absence of plot, action, and comedy, the audience is left with only the mother of all card games for entertainment. If you didn’t bring your rulebook along, your watch will quickly begin to contend for your attention with the constant score updates. Sure the competitors carefully announce every move they make, but it’s hard for the novice to make out any rhyme or reason. Perhaps the filmmakers reasoned that anyone sitting in the audience must either be a veteran duelist, or too busy telling said duelist to stop hitting his sister to care.

By solving his Millennium Puzzle, Yugi somehow gives new life to the ancient Egyptian lord of the dead Anubis. Meanwhile, Yugi’s archrival Kaiba, who is desperately seeking a way to defeat Yugi’s alter ego, Yu-Gi-Oh, at the card table, swipes a couple of powerful magic cards from the mysterious recluse Pegasus. It turns out one of these cards was somehow planted by Anubis. Later Kaiba challenges Yugi to a duel and he unwittingly plays the evil card. This causes the souls of Yugi and friends Tea, Joey, and Tristan to be sucked into Anubis’s labyrinth of the dead, where he’s plotting world domination. While they battle with Anubis’s mummy minions, Yu-Gi-Oh senses that he must win his duel with Kaiba to stop a calamity of epic proportions.

None of the performances are particularly notable, but I have heard worse. Yugi is of course the star of the picture, a well-meaning youth with a knack for pulling off royal flushes. What is not explained for newcomers like myself is the exact nature of his secondary identity Yu-Gi-Oh. Does Yugi simply “flame on” like the Human Torch or Dragonball‘s Goku, or is his body taken over by a completely separate entity? Whatever the case, the difference between the two identities is accented by using a meek kid’s voice for Yugi and a ridiculously testosterone-laden Conan the Barbarian style delivery for Yu-Gi-Oh, not unlike the dichotomy employed for the 1960s Spiderman cartoon.

Yugi’s friends Tea, Tristan, and Joey are thinly drawn, with only Joey standing out as a slacker jokester. His one-note Goodfella routine is actually the film’s acting highlight, nearly eliciting a laugh or two. At one point he refers to a mummy as “Johnny Rotten.” Hey, I’m grasping at straws here, all right? Kaiba is your typical spoiled rich kid rival, insanely jealous of the more talented humble Yugi even though he already possesses everything any sane kid could want. Anubis somehow manages to out-Conan Yu-Gi-Oh, not so much delivering his lines as shouting them, possibly to wake the parents in the back of the theater so they know it’s time to fumble around for the car keys. Who knew the Egyptian lord of the dead was a wiz at card games? No doubt he’s got his poker face down pat.

And that brings us to the two most interesting characters, which indicate that beneath all the film’s shallow theatrics lies an impressive commitment to social progressivism. Pegasus seems to be a take on Michael Jackson, fabulously coiffured and living in a secluded mansion. He gets tipsy on wine spritzers, lovingly calls Kaiba (who miraculously escapes the mansion with dignity intact) “boy” repeatedly, and generally minces about. Although no rarity in anime, it is surprising to see what seems to be an openly gay character in a U.S. children’s theatrical release. Next is Yugi’s kindly uncle, who appears possibly to be the first Jewish anime character on record. He wears a yarmulke bearing a stylized Star of David, and has a big bushy beard. I’ve never heard of a Jewish Japanese person before, but I guess the world gets smaller every day. Good luck finding a kosher deli in Tokyo though.

The animation is considerably better than the threadbare TV show, but still rather modest. It gets the job done and that’s about it. One wonders how many cans of hairspray the cast must go through, with virtually every character’s hair featuring spikes that look hard enough to cut glass. The dark, grandiose orchestral score seems a bit comical as a backdrop for a children’s card game, but I have to admit some of the songs are pretty catchy, if rather cheesy in the lyrics department. A few of them, “One Card Short” and “How Much Longer” in particular, sound like they could be Bryan Adams B-sides with a little more talent.

The DVD special features are very underwhelming for such a major franchise. The Yu-Gi-Oh! Monster Challenge is essentially a game of Memory in which you have to remember the placement of cards and find the pairs. The “music videos” are simply 30-second clips of the movie cut together to some of the songs on the soundtrack. There’s nothing at all on the film itself. At the very least they might have included a guide to the game rules so the general public has a fighting chance to keep their eyes open during the film’s interminable competition. A couple of cards are included, but odds are they’re probably worthless ones veterans already have a dozen of. Where are those God cards Yugi keeps bragging about?

Yu-Gi-Oh! the Movie is aimed squarely at the legions of the faithful. If Yu-Gi-Oh! cards consume a major portion of your disposable income, the film probably delivers the goods. For the rest of us, the film is not so much awful as simply dull. Unless one has a thing for observing card games without the washed up celebrities. It’s a film that leaves many questions unanswered, but most viewers will be preoccupied with just one: “How much longer?”

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