Oblivion Island: Haruka and The Magic Mirror, is an exciting, colorful fantasy adventure. But it’s also a movie that will resonate strongly with anyone who has ever unexpectedly or tragically lost a loved one.
There’s a special kind of guilt that comes along with that kind of loss. It’s the guilt of forgetting. No matter how much you try to hold on to a person, you’re eventually going to forget little things about them: how their voice sounded when they were happy; a special day out; a kindness done. Memories are imperfect, and they eventually slip away like sand through our fingers.
One way to hold on to a person’s memories is to try to keep mementos that remind us of them. But, eventually, as part of the process of moving on, these often get boxed away or forgotten about too. And that’s the crux of Haruka’s story.
The magic mirror in the story is a decorative mirror that Haruka’s mother gave her in childhood, shortly before dying of a lingering illness. After showing us how angelic Haruka’s mother was and how happy Haruka was as a child, we skip ahead to Haruka as a sullen, angry teen locked in a stony, passive-aggressive battle with her father. The mirror was put away and disappeared years ago.
Before she died, Haruka’s mother told her a Japanese folk tale about foxes that take neglected things, and how people can get them back by offering eggs at shrines. Haruka has offered eggs for her mother to no avail, but she still takes another one to a shrine after a chilly exchange with her father.
And that’s where she meets Teo, a collector who comes to our world to take our forgotten items back to his world, and she finds out the story about the foxes is real. Sort of. Teo wears a fox mask on his raid but looks more like a piglet-thing when he takes it off.
Teo’s people can’t make things on their own, so they steal neglected stuff like Haruka’s mirror, and have created the enormous, beautiful Oblivion Island completely from our castaways. After following Teo to his world, Haruka becomes determined to get her mother’s mirror back, but mirrors have powerful magic on Oblivion Island, and Haruka’s mirror is the most powerful of all, so there is an evil Baron who wants it just as badly.
All of this talk of dealing with grief may make the movie sound downbeat, but it perks up considerably when Haruka enters the new world, like Dorothy stepping from black and white Kansas into Technicolor Oz.
The first fifteen minutes is mostly spent learning about the cause of an angry teen’s issues and then watching her be mad at the world. After she is drawn into Oblivion Island, however, Haruka learns to move on from grief with the unusual therapy of an almost constant stream of fantastic chases, actual flights of fancy, confrontations with monsters and villains, and adventures with new and old friends.
It’s not a complex plot; in fact, sometimes it just feels like an excuse to string chases and adventure scenes together, but it’s energetic and fast-moving enough to keep even fidgety kids in their seats. And there’s enough sincere joy and sadness to keep adults engaged.
It helps that the setting of Oblivion Island is one of the more unique and fully-realized ones I have seen in animation. It’s a shining, brightly-colored jewel in an endless sea, with almost every piece and surface composed of repurposed junk, and its inhabitants wander about and go about their lives as Haruka fights her battles and has her adventures.
Oblivion Island sets itself apart from other CG movies you have seen by mimicking the style of a lush hand-drawn anime. The backgrounds look like beautiful paintings, and it’s a real thrill when what looks like a static image will suddenly come alive and you find yourself moving through it in 3D.
The characters, however, don’t come across as well. They are beautifully designed and often very strange, but the tendency of 3D animation to make things look plastic combined with the anime style’s focus on smoothness makes some of the characters, especially Haruka, look very doll-like at times. Also, this is high-quality 3D animation, but it’s still not at the level of Pixar or DreamWorks, so there is some herky-jerky movement at times.
For such a high-quality project, I half-expected a celebrity voice cast for the English dub. Instead we have a roster of anime pros. They do a good job, but it might sound familiar to anyone who watches a lot of dubbed anime. There’s also an appropriately soaring score, with a couple of nice songs to drive some of the more emotional points.
The DVD has so many special features they take up their own disc. The “Behind-the-Scenes” featurette is disappointingly short and sparse, but there are tons of great material about the legends and settings that inspired the film.
The only real off-note in the film is a scene in which Haruka is strapped to a Rube Golberg-esque machine meant to feed her a drop that will erase her memories. She’s already in bondage, and the thing has a tube with lips on it that goes into Haruka’s mouth. It looks like fetish gear and it feels very out of place in a movie that is in all other places not only family friendly, but family-positive with a great lesson to teach.
Everyone eventually loses a loved one, so Oblivion Island has something to teach us all about moving on. And just like Haruka, we can learn it while exploring a uniquely fresh and exciting fantasy world.