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Review: “Mia and the Migoo” Is Miyazaki Minus the Magic

by on October 18, 2012

With its child heroine, its fantastical plot, and its strong environmental message, Mia and the Migoo will immediately remind viewers of the work of Hayao Miyazaki (whose name even appears to be referenced in the title character). Alas, this animated French film resembles Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest and other ecologically-minded Hollywood animated fare more than it does Princess Mononoke.

The story takes place in an unnamed, impoverished Latin American nation, where a resort development is being built in a pristine mountain spot. The site is being bedeviled by strange accidents, which the spooked laborers put down to supernatural forces, and one of the workers is buried during a cave-in. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) the man’s daughter, Mia (Amanda Misquez), who he has had to leave behind in their native village, decides to undertake the perilous journey to the work site in order to find her father. Her trip occupies the spine of the picture.

Meanwhile, Jekhide (John DiMaggio), the capitalist who has been developing the site, is having problems of his own: aside from the catastrophes, which are damaging its business prospects, he has to look after his young son. He drags the kid with him when a group of potential investors insist on visiting the site, and after the moneymen bail on the project, he decides to solve both his familial and financial problems by bonding with the kid on a big game hunt during which he’ll kill the creature or creatures that are sabotaging the work.

The story, which has been fluffy but earnest from the start, acquires its final form as an environmental parable when Mia meets the Migoo (Wallace Shawn). These are teddy bear−like creatures who grow and shrink to order, and whose job it is to protect the magical tree that grows in the middle of the mountain lake. When Mia eventually meets the developer, she rather foolishly tells him about the Migoo, and about the fact that they draw their strength and power from that tree. He tries to destroy the tree, and a worldwide ecological apocalypse ensues. Order and balance are restored only when the Migoo find a seedling from the tree and grow a new one. Lessons are learned and families reconcile.

There’s a lot to like in Mia and the Migoo, but there’s not a lot to love. The film cadges more from Miyazaki than just a veneration for nature. It has a bottom-up view of society, in which the poor and the marginalized embody humanity at its best, while the rich are soulless, rapacious, and alienated from nature and themselves. This means that the film is quite tender toward Mia, her father, his co-workers, and all the people that they meet along the way, and the movie prefers to illustrate their nobility in small scenes rather than heroic ones. But it completely lacks Miyazaki’s ability to shade characters, and so everyone gets drawn starkly in black-and-white terms. This is especially true of Jekhide, whose few moments of humanity are played as revelations of fear and insecurity rather than decency, and who descends into something like madness when he finally gets around to killing that tree. Although the movie tries for something like a humane treatment of its themes–rather than a lot of crummy Hollywood-style moralizing–it is finally too wrapped up in its rigid ideology to be about more than its simplistic message.

The pacing is also feels off. Too much time is spent setting up the characters and their situations, during which nothing very interesting or exciting happens. There are weird parentheses in the action–as when Mia meets a mountain witch, and when Jekhide’s son talks by telephone with his mother, who is visiting Antarctica–that connect to nothing else in the movie. It takes far too long for characters to rendezvous with each other: the movie is half over before Mia finally meets her first Migoo. Too many scenes wander around without making any kind of point or impression.

Equivalent complaints can be lodged against its visuals. The filmmakers–as an accompanying “Making of” featurette makes clear–are extremely proud of the fact that their movie is hand-drawn, and it is certainly warmer for that fact. They also manage to avoid many of the clichés–the stock facial expressions; the hammy body language–that afflicted Disney in its last years. But the characters are remarkably ugly, though that may reflect a conscious choice to mimic the visual style of certain kinds of Latin American art. The animation is quite rough, which is a welcome change from the too-smooth movements we’ve often seen in top-dollar productions, but which also too often looks only a cut above TV levels. Even the vocals are lacking. John DiMaggio (as Jekhide) is always fun to listen to, but the script only gives him one note to strike; Wallace Shawn manages to make each Migoo sound slightly different, but they don’t have any personality. The kid actors are earnest, and no one else makes any kind of impression.

Only in its foley work does the movie achieve unqualified success; its sounds are rich and lively and eccentric. But even this is very much a backhanded compliment, because sound design is the kind of thing you’re only likely to notice when the story and the visuals can’t hold your attention.

Mia and the Migoo isn’t a failure in any sense of the word. It isn’t even mediocre. But it hasn’t any spark or liveliness. About the best you can say is that it is good-hearted and pious without being disgustingly so.

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