Kenji Koiso is a wimpy high school junior boy whose only source of fulfillment comes from being a part-time job as a system maintainer on the online world of OZ alongside his school friend Takashi Sakuma, as well as being really good at math problems. OZ is a huge online community played by literally of billions of people worldwide, servicing everything from daily routines to jobs and fashion. One summer day though, Kenji's summer is interrupted by the appearance of pretty, 18 year old high school senior Mitsuki Jinnouchi, the most popular girl in school. Kenji is forced along to her house to celebrate her great-grandmother's 90th birthday, due to Natsuki telling her she wanted her to meet her "boyfriend" before her death. Natsuki also makes Kenji act as her boyfriend for four days in front of her rather large family, who hail from a clan of samurai. But pretending to be Natsuki's boyfriend will soon be the least of Kenji's problems, as he will learn at the Jinnouchi residence..
Before I go further in my review, I need to make it clear that I never saw The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, or anything else directed by Mamoru Hosoda. But after the thunderous applause that movie, as well as this one, got, I decided to rent Summer Wars.
With that settled..
Being the middle child of five siblings, as well as having a family with quite a few uncles, aunts, and cousins on both sides of my parents' family, I guess you could say that Summer Wars hits closer to home than I first gave it credit for. It's also far and beyond the best aspect of the movie.
For the most part, I really enjoyed it. Few animated movies, much less Japanese ones, focus on families, so that aspect alone of the film is awesome. Natsuki's large, colorful family nearly carry the movie themselves, especially her great-grandmother. Also, the world of OZ is flat-out gorgeous, filled with colorful, appealing avatars and backdrops. I planned to to take screenshots of the film for my review to show off OZ, but went against it at the last moment. They wouldn't nearly do the film enough justice - such a gorgeously animated movie has to be seen with your own eyes. I like the use of Looney Tunes sound effects in OZ as well. (No doubt an influence from Warner Bros. being the distributor of the film in Japan.) The orchestral music is also quite good. I didn't listen to the dub of this film, but the Japanese acting was performed wonderfully.
Summer Wars is also one of the rare pieces of animation involving computers that doesn't make it out to be something only computer "nerds" would enjoy. It neither glorifies online communities or makes it out to be something only creepy weirdos enjoy. In fact, nearly every character in the film has an OZ account, which is revealed fairly early into the film. One of the few who doesn't - Natsuki's great-grandmother - instead prides on old-fashioned, manual work when the OZ community gets out of control later on in the film. She explains this to her family in a scene that would make Hayao Miyazaki proud. (Check Google yourself for more on Miyazaki's not so subtle hatred of modern technology.)
Unfortunately, Summer Wars is not without its faults. My biggest beef in the entire film is how bland Kenji and Natsuki are. Kenji is a spineless wimp, and Natsuki is just the pretty, unobtainable senior. It takes until nearly the end of the film for either character to really shine in their respective fields. I'm also really not a fan of either's voice work, especially Natsuki's. Director Mamoru Hosoda claimed he spent three years working on Summer Wars, though character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto spent what looks like minutes designing its leads. Kenji looks like Shinji Ikari; Natsuki looks quite attractive on the film posters, but in the actual film she looks, to quote my friend Stig, "a very pretty girl next door". Or Misato Kitsuragi in her teenage years. Whatever sounds best to you.
I also think the middle of the film drags a bit, including the introduction of an evil baddie in OZ that goes on for a little longer than I would've wanted. It also loses track of who the main character in the film is at this time as well. Is it the wimpy Kenji? Natsuki? Oz whizkid Kazuma? Wabisuke, Natsuki's "bad egg" uncle?
Fortunately, Summer Wars bounces back in the last half-hour or so, allowing nearly the entire cast moments to shine. Natsuki's major character development moment near the end of the film is especially good, an interesting climax that ties in the theme of family in (in my opinion) a humorous, sweet way. It was the highlight of the last third of the film for me, no doubt. It even ties up an earlier sub-sub-plot about the baseball games the Jinnouchi family watch throughout the entire film, bringing some much-needed tension from the more dramatic parts of the story.
So yes, despite bland leads and a little over-stretching of scenes that didn't need to be as long, I quite enjoyed Summer Wars, and am not surprised by all the awards and praise it has received. I certainly don't think it's perfect by any means, but it's still immensely enjoyable despite its problems. It's a rare family film that feels like it's made for, well, families. Go see it with your own as soon as possible, if you can.
Misses the five-star mark, but not by much. Add a star if you like the leads better than I do. — Tim Jones
Recommended Audience: There are quite a few things that take place in the online world of Oz, especially after the halfway point. There's also non-sexual nudity with Natsuki's family a la My Neighbor Totoro, with a very brief scene with Natsuki herself. There's also recreational drinking from the adults and a fairly violent punch to the face delivered by Kazuma to an adult. I'm going to go with the PG rating the MPAA gave it.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Summer Wars © 2009 SUMMERWARS FILM PARTNERS
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