In a sleepy Japanese village, five children elect to take a week of summer school away from their families at the local school house. On the first day they find and nurse an injured dog, who reveals himself to be a canine-like alien named Pochi. As thanks for saving him, Pochi takes the kids to visit a secret alien metropolis on the dark side of the moon. But when his report on the poachers he was investigating causes all space travel to Earth halted, the children have to find another way home. As this is happening the poachers shadow their group in pursuit of a rare plant that may have survived on Earth and is rumoured to carry a secret power.
I’m always a little uncertain when I sit down to watch something that’s gotten near universally positive reviews. I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it, but there are always the exceptions that leave me saying, “THAT’S what they were raving about?” I had this in mind after hearing a lot about how the film apparently attempts to ape the works of Hayao Miyazaki, a director whose putatively spellbinding magic has little potency with me. Thankfully, Welcome to the Space Show left me completely free of the bemusement Miyazaki’s works usually leave me with, mainly because the lavish visuals support a consistent and understandable plot.
The film is actually organized along familiar lines: regular kids with issues resolve them through a fantastic experience. Particular focus is given to the daydreamer Natsuki and her younger but more mature cousin Amane, a conflict of sibling-like rivalry driven by the fact that Natsuki lost the school’s pet rabbit and hasn’t taken proper responsibility for the fact. Natsuki is easily likeable, with her short-minded but sincere desire to one day be a hero along the lines of the Power Rangers or Kamen Rider. At the same time Amane is the perfect counter balance and manages to avoid the sickeningly sweet trait little girls in films seem to have. The other three children have active but more subdued roles. Kiyoshi, as the eldest of the group, finds himself as de facto leader, and the adventure allows him to discover what he wishes to do with his life. Noriko is a girl in search of the courage to go after her dreams. The odd one out is Koji, a young boy who doesn’t really change across the film and seems present primarily so his own subplot can provide the cast certain resources they need for the finale. This isn’t too bad, however, as the film as much champions the pure spirits of the kids as they are challenged by the external wonders of space. This is a family friendly story where no one comes back with PTSD or anything similar.
Pochi is a fun character who blends recognisable elements from similar fantastical guides. His introduction calls to mind Spielberg’s famous E.T., but as the film goes on and we come to see him as more fallible, he resembles the Psammead from Five Children and It or the Doctor from Doctor Who, as even amazingly advanced space technology is still hampered by the same foibles as seen on Earth.
One criticism I have is that the title element, The Space Show, is kind of a non-entity. We’re told that it’s the most popular piece of entertainment in the universe, but we’re given very little to go on as to why (what little we see suggests it to be a serial adventure story about a hero trying to save a princess) and the big revelations dropped about it in the final act seem underdeveloped.
Visually, the film is a sheer delight. Obviously the bulk of the flair goes into the wondrous sights in outer space, but even the Japanese village is rendered in rich beauty. Space itself is presented in a perfect blend of hand drawn and CGI animation, a Technicolor, Seuss-inspired wonderland with unique and enchanting visuals. It’s obvious that a lot of thought was put into the visuals, with even things like presentation of language arranged in a way suitably different from how you’d find on Earth. Large chunks of the film vindicated what my eyeballs have been waiting the past 26 years for. It helps that the pacing of the film really makes you feel like you’re sharing the journey with the kids and so you get to share in their amazement.
The music of the film helps further push the spectacle, complementing the visuals and evolving subtly with the story. A perfect example is a subdued piece that plays when the children find the crop circle Pochi is in, only for the same piece to magnificently swell upon the reveal of the city on the moon. A surprising inclusion is a song by Susan Boyle which plays during the end credits. Boyle is popular, but a Japanese movie is really the last place I expected to hear her work.
Both sets of voice actors offer strong performances. Manga Entertainment UK were able to secure an American-produced dub of the film that really holds up well. It uses child actors for the younger kids and experienced anime dubbers for the older ones, and it’s a good choice. Child actors can often make or break a production, especially when it comes to voice acting, but Michaela Dean and Michael Jacob Wayne offer strong and believable performances in their roles of Amane and Koji. Veterans Stephanie Sheh, Michael Sinterniklaas and Cassandra Lee play Natsuki, Kiyoshi and Noriko, respectively and likewise offer strong performances. Anime dubs often suffer from awkward performances, partially dictated by matching the pre-existing mouth movements, but this is a strong production that manages to confidently match the original. Other actors appearing will be familiar to those who grew up with 4Kids’ shows, including Mike Pollock flaunting his Doctor Eggman voice as the theatrical Neppo, host of The Space Show. A minor knock against the dub for me is Marc Diraison as Pochi. Diraison does a fine job in the role but I felt he couldn’t quite compete with Keiji Fujiwara’s portrayal in the original recording. There just seems to be something more varied about Fujiwara’s take on the character that makes it all the more amusing when Pochi’s reward for the kids starts to go pear shaped.
Extras run fairly low. The most notable is a ‘Framed Storyboard’ which consists of very early rough animation containing likewise early concepts for the film. A Japanese trailer is included, complete with hokey English narration. Lastly there’s a list of the full English dub cast, which is worth highlighting but dubious as an extra.
Welcome to the Space Show gets a strong recommendation from me. This is an entertaining and visually astounding family friendly adventure that seems to draw from the likeminded adventure films that originated in the 1980s, avoiding some of the more crass and toilet-humour driven elements Hollywood has settled into in recent years. At the same time some thinking is required to join certain dots, so younger children might enjoy it without fully comprehending the story. Everyone, however, is sure to enjoy the visuals, which come out perfectly in this Blu-ray transfer, and the exclusive English dub smashes down a key wall that would keep some away.
Welcome to the Space Show (UK Edition) is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk.