My (heretical) view of A Letter to Momo

January 8, 2013

When I watched the widely praised A Letter to Momo earlier this year (well, earlier in 2012), I had a rather different experience than what seems to be the usual one; I found the film pleasant enough in an anodyne way but kind of uninspiring. I mulled over this for a while, worrying that I was just being a grumpy sourpuss old fart in my reaction just because Momo didn't set me on fire (and perhaps wasn't from Ghibli). Then by coincidence and good fortune I saw Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror at the end of 2012. And I loved it. Haruka overcame major drawbacks (such as rather basic 3-d animation) to be an absorbing and compelling experience, one that sucked me in and left me smiling. Haruka and Momo are not the same film or story, but they share quite a lot of core similarities and the differences between the two illuminates the problem with Momo.

Put simply, A Letter to Momo is at its heart a lazy film. Like every anime involving a young girl having a heartwarming encounter with the supernatural, it exists under the long shadow of Ghibli's work, but unfortunately Momo makes no real effort to escape that shadow and do something interesting and novel. A lot of the time it's quite predictable, sometimes painfully so, and not particularly exciting; it only genuinely surprised me a few times and it only has one interesting and well done action set piece (and even that seemed obligatory). A fair amount of the writing and plotting also felt, well, flabby in various ways.

(For the curious who've seen it, my largest moment of surprise can be summarized as 'wait, there actually are wild boars?' Note that I did not find the action set piece at the film's climax to be all that impressive.)

A Letter to Momo is technically well executed apart from all of this. It's not a bad film and it's genuinely good every so often, the characters are decently engaging, the situation is believable, it comes to a good and heartwarming resolution, in short it carefully pushes all of the necessary buttons in the expected order. You could do worse. People who haven't seen Ghibli films like Spirited Away or Kiki's Delivery Service will probably love it. People who have seen a lot of Ghibli films may, like me, find it kind of old hat and unimaginative.

(Ignoring the animation style, Haruka is not a film that you can easily imagine being made by Ghibli; it rapidly departs from any number of their usual tropes. Momo is, although if Ghibli had made it they would have figured out how to make it more interesting and more different from their existing work. Really this is the problem; A Letter to Momo feels like something turned out by a Ghibli alumnus who gets the forms but doesn't really understand the magic that makes them work so well (yes, I know that the director is not and earlier directed Jin-Roh, which I've seen, liked, and thought was well done; this was an analogy).)

Sidebar: a little bit on the pacing and the action set piece

It's difficult to put it coherently, but a certain amount of the pacing of A Letter to Momo felt not so much predictable as obligatory. The one nice action set piece was good, but as things were starting up towards it I found myself thinking that yep, it was about at the point where a Ghibli film would insert an exciting action sequence to stir things up. And right on schedule, there it was. Except, afterwards, it all felt somewhat pointless because the whole sequence hadn't moved the story much. It was like the sequence was there largely because it had to be there because the template said 'an action sequence goes here', not because the story demanded it.

And yes, I was thinking all of this while watching A Letter to Momo. It was not an absorbing experience.

Written on 08 January 2013.
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Last modified: Tue Jan 8 23:08:24 2013
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