[REVIEW] ‘Belle’ or Mamoru Hosoda’s Stunning Defense of Modern Friendship

Hi friends! This review is about a month late but I really wanted to get my views on Mamoro Hosoda’s new film Belle out there as critics are doing their Oscar watches. Please make this stunning anime film a part of your awards consideration! It’s not only one of my favorite movies of 2021 but one of the best theater experiences I’ve had since maybe Avengers: Endgame.

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I was fortunate enough to see Belle at a screening at Animation is Film Festival which I attended in Los Angeles this October (read more in my travelogue here). The screening of Belle had a ton of buzz and when I arrived the theater was packed- every seat taken. The director Hosoda was there in attendance and he introduced the film. He talked about how the Disney Beauty and the Beast (which is 30 years old this year! Perfect timing for this fresh take) was something that helped inspire him to become an animator. ‘Now this is my take on the story” he said as he took his seat and the movie began!

And wow! What an experience! I can’t put into words how electrifying it was to be in a theater again where everyone was invested in every aspect of the film. It was so incredible. And fortunately it wasn’t just the moment but Belle is a stunning treatise on friendship, the internet and how we can still rescue each other in 2021.

Belle can be described as Beauty and the Beast meets The Matrix but that doesn’t capture the emotion of the piece. Hosoda is so great at capturing raw human emotion in his stories and this is certainly one of his best. The film tells the story of Suzu, a teenager who is traumatized by a life event and stops singing and interacting much with the world. Then one day she goes onto a virtual reality platform called U and she begins to sing again as an avatar named Belle.

One day Belle meets a dragon who is full of bruises that have powers which she becomes fascinated with. There is also a friend in real life that Suzu friend-zones named Shinobu and 2 brothers she tries to help that are being abused by their hateful father.

All these elements come into play with the gorgeous animation and music to make a very memorable experience. It’s so refreshing to have the story we all know and love but taken to a new and interesting place. This is not the story of finding the good in a monster as the Disney film does. It’s about finding good in the monster of the cyberworld. That it can be a tool to help us all reach out to each other and rescue each other. How needed and beautiful is that?

I know people exist who won’t give anime a chance. I will never understand those people. However, if you are open to the medium watch Belle. It’s a career achievement for Hosoda and one of the best films of 2021. If it gets snubbed for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars I will be outraged (the Academy has a long history of snubbing anime not done by Miyazaki although Hosoda did have his last film Mirai get a nomination). We can only hope.

Belle will be available for general audiences in January when GKIDS is releasing it but critics and selected audiences can see it now. Look out for it!

9.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Blind Spot 69: Perfect Blue

Originally my plan for this month’s blind spot pick was to cover the anime Her Blue Sky. It was done by writer and animator Mari Okada who created Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms and A Whisker Away. Both films I enjoyed a lot. Unfortunately Her Blue Sky is not available anywhere I could find both streaming or on US playable physical media. This forced me to find a different anime selection and after some discussions with friends I decided to finally watch the classic Perfect Blue by Satoshi Kon.

Satoshi Kon has been fresh on my mind lately because I just watched a documentary on his life as part of Fantasia Fest 2021. Back in 2016 I reviewed his masterpiece Millennium Actress for rotoscopers.  I also covered his film Tokyo Godfathers in 2019 as part of this blind spot project. And finally my friend Conrado and I recently covered Paprika as part of our Criterion Project podcast.  So, it is appropriate I would finish this Satoshi Kon immersion process with quite possibly his most famous film in Perfect Blue. Perfect Blue tells the story of a woman named Mima who gives up her career as a popstar in order to become a serious actress. Unfortunately she ends up getting a role in a show called Double Blind where she has to perform in a rape scene (this is the reason I had avoided this movie until now). At the same time she is asked to do this she is being stalked and threatened (even letter bombs).

Mima starts to have conversations with her old popstar self and the line between reality and dreams becomes more and more confusing (a theme of Satoshi Kon).

The animation for Perfect Blue is absolutely stunning. Satoshi Kon weaves layers of backgrounds so multiple things are happening in each frame. You also feel for Mima’s character and want her to be treated fairly.The movie also uses music very well, which allows the viewer to become fully immersed in the story.

Perfect Blue also takes on deep themes of celebrity, fandom, identity, dreams, mental health, suicide, sexual discrimination and more.

The downside to the film is with so much happening both in the animation and story it can be confusing and difficult to follow. This is especially true when you have Mima talking to her former self and another person who is delusional thinking herself to be the “real Mima”. Even with the dub it’s still felt overwhelming to watch and keep track of.

There are also disturbing elements but I wouldn’t say it is gratuitous. It’s all part of the story and important to Mima’s progression.

What do you think about Perfect Blue? Is it a favorite of yours or is it not for you? Let me know in the comments section. Also let me know what anime you’d like me to review that I haven’t? I would love to know.

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Current Mini Reviews

Hey everyone! Got a quick 3 mini reviews for you today.  I am making more of an effort to see live theater these days so I will probably be a bit pickier when it comes to new movies. You can find my live theater reviews on my personal blog here.

I will have a review of Cruella tomorrow and Spirit Untamed for you on Friday but for now here are 3 new movies I’ve seen but haven’t been able to review yet.

Demon Slayer- The Movie: Mugen Train

Some movies based on anime shows can stand alone others need more backstory. Demon Slayer is the latter. I wish I had seen the show before watching the movie but I still enjoyed the film and it has inspired me to watch the show. This film takes the demon slayers from the show and puts them on a train that is possessed by demons. As they travel on the train and fight the demons we get to learn more about each of the slayer’s backstories and lives. It’s emotional, intense, violent and beautiful. The animation is gorgeous and as I saw the dub it was well done.

There are times I was confused but for the most part I got what was going on. So if you don’t have time to watch the series I still think it is worth seeing for the animation alone. The series is available on Netflix for all interested.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Top End Wedding

The first third of this Australian wedding romcom is very chaotic and random and I wasn’t sure it was going to be my thing but once it gets to the actual wedding it really works and I was invested. Lauren (Miranda Tapsell) and Ned (Gwilym Lee) have such great chemistry and you are really rooting for this couple to succeed.

There are all kinds of shenanigans from difficult parents who have to be hunted down, bachelorette parties that get out of hand and a boss with Cruella hair. Like I said, some of it is a too much but the core is so heartwarming and sweet I couldn’t help but love it.

It ends in one of the most satisfying weddings in recent memory. 2 good people have found and committed to each other and isn’t that what it is all about? A rom-com win that will leave you cheering.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Here Today

Some movies just have bad timing. Here Today is one of those films. Directed and starring Billy Crystal it has the best of intentions and is trying to be a sweet film about a man getting dementia. The problem is we just had an Oscar winning film about a man with dementia that was far superior in The Father. It’s impossible to not compare the two and find this one lacking.

Tiffany Haddish costars with Crystal as his friend who helps him with his family and come to terms with his dementia.We also get flashbacks to him and his kids and ideal wife (Louisa Krause).

Some people might compare Here Today with a Hallmark movie but honestly I think it lays on the sentimentality even too thick for Hallmark. I appreciate what they were going for but it gets lost in the cliches and trite characters I had trouble relating too. It’s too well-meaning to be awful but it didn’t really work for me.

4 out of 10

Frown Worthy

So there you go. Did you get to see any of these films? Let me know what you thought!

[REVIEW] ‘A Whisker Away’ or Cats are Cute Especially in Anime

With the closure of theaters from the COVID19 virus many of us have turned to Netflix and other streaming services for new films in 2020. This has brought movies like Extraction, Bad Education, and Palm Springs to the world’s attention. However, one aspect of Netflix’s lineup not given enough credit is their incredible anime selection. Whether series or films they have a large selection of original and curated anime films ready for the viewer to enjoy.

One new offering is from directors Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama called Nakitai Watashi wa Neko wo Kaburu or in English A Whisker Away. This is a shame because Whisker is an adorable film the entire family will enjoy.

A Whisker Away tells the story of Miyo an unhappy young girl who struggles to fit in with her peers and doesn’t get along with her family well especially her stepmother. She does, however, love to daydream about her crush fellow schoolmate Hinode. One day she finds a mask that turns her into a cat and as a cat she’s able to spend more time with her crush but of course blissful cat-dom can’t last forever and things get complicated.

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First of all, Miyo as the cat Taro is so cute. Her bright blue eyes and white fur will charm even the most hardened of cat haters! Miyo is also a character we can all relate to with her insecurities and a fear of rejection we all face especially as teenagers. The longer she stays a cat the harder it is for her to become human again and the decision is harder for her than you might think.

I also enjoyed the world building and magic of A Whisker Away. The script is difficult to predict what is going to happen and the magic is both delightful and scary at the same time. It is definitely reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s The Cat Returns so if you like that film you will definitely like this.

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The writer Mari Okada also wrote Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, which I found to be very underrated from 2018. She is great at capturing emotion in her writing and helping you connect with the characters. She directed Maquia and has another film Her Blue Sky that she wrote which I hope gets a US release because I love her writing.

As far as criticisms of A Whisker Away sometimes the villain Kinako was a little much and distracted from the more interesting coming of age elements with Miyo deciding what she wants out of her life.

Still if you are looking for a hidden gem on Netflix A Whisker Away is a good one!

7 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Blind Spot 54: ‘Wolf Children’ Review

In the world of anime fans it’s actually kind of a scandal that I haven’t seen Mamoru Hosoda’s masterpiece Wolf Children. I love Hosoda so I’m not sure why I put off seeing it but now that I have I’m delighted to tell you all that it lives up to the hype. It’s not a loud movie but it is one of the most beautiful depictions of motherhood I’ve seen.

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Wolf Children tells the story of a woman named Hana who falls in love with a mysterious man while in attending college. Eventually she finds out the man is a wolfman, but not the man-eating variety we see in horror movies. Hanna and the man end up having 2 children, Yuki and Ame who share the wolfman traits of their father.

When the man dies Hana must figure out how to not only be a young single Mother of 2 but also raise 2 children that are of a different species from her own- one that she and everyone around her is entirely unfamiliar with. She ends up moving to the country to keep them safe and learning how to farm and teach her children how to manage both sides of themselves.

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What’s also interesting is the different trajectories of the children. Yuki wants to live as a human being. She goes to school, makes friends, and is able to hold her wolf side in with the help of a little song her Mom made up. On the other hand, Ame is drawn to the wolf side especially after he becomes friends with a wolf named Sohei.

If you are watching Wolf Children looking for a big narrative or strong action you will be disappointed. It’s a simple film about the every day life of our 3 lead characters. We get to know them and become invested in their journeys. The animation is absolutely stunning- right up there with the best of Studio Ghibli. The sound design is also very impressive with the lushness of nature coming to life before our eyes. It really helps us become immersed in the story.

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But mostly Wolf Children is a beautiful story about the power of a Mother’s love to save her children. Even if they are of different species that love is powerful and that says a lot. I don’t think you have to be a big anime fan to enjoy this film. If you have a mother, are a mother or long to be a mother you will be moved by this touching story. I highly recommend it.

9 out of 10

Smile Worthy

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Blind Spot 46: ‘Cowboy Bebop: The Movie’

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One of the difficult things about reviewing anime as a movie critic is so many of the films require investment into their accompanying series. Some like My Hero Academia Movie try to get you up to date on what is happening and others just throw you into the fire and hope you can figure it all out. Now, in my recent Downton Abbey review I said I didn’t think it was the job of the movie to please non-fans of the show. I’m fine with a film having a narrow audience; however, it does put me in a bit of a tough situation when I an admitted bystander doesn’t like the end product. Do I toss it up to not being in the intended audience or do I  review it for the problems it has? It’s a tough dilemma but in the end I can’t imagine what the intended audience will think. I can only know what I think and share my experience in my review.

This rather long-winded lead-in, is my way of saying: I did not like Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. It clearly has lots of fans, and I respect that, but it didn’t work for me in some fundamental ways. Let me explain:

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Cowboy Bebop: The Movie tells the story of a group of bounty hunters that live on the planet Mars in 2071. They are hunting down a mysterious man in black named Vincent who is intent on destroying all of humanity (supervillains are so ambitious these days). The main characters are leader Spike Spiegel, femme fatale Faye Valentine, punk kid Ed, brooding Jet Black and super intelligent dog Ein. These are an eclectic group of characters (much like Guardians of the Galaxy), but I never felt like I got to know any of them very well. Plus, we spent a lot of time on stuff I didn’t care about like what type of microwave noodles they each liked.

I never got the sense they were developing a case to follow Vincent but instead they kept accidentally running into him which made the momentum drag. There is some cool animation and some violent action scenes but rarely was the futuristic setting used to its advantage. Most of the events could have been done in any modern situation on any planet. This made the world-building and scifi elements feel generic to nonexistent.

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Vincent is a cool character and his scenes are engaging, as his motivations are complex and troubling. I also really enjoyed how he was animated with the feel of an outlaw in an old-fashioned western. There are scenes some Johnny Cash tunes would have fit right in, which was a fun aesthetic.

Unfortunately a good villain can’t save a film. I found myself getting sleepy while watching Cowboy Bebop: The Movie and losing interest. The story is probably compelling for fans of the series but here in the film it felt pedestrian and bland. It was a lot of time of people sitting around, talking, mixed in with some enjoyable action, which isn’t enough to make a compelling movie for 2 hours (it’s at least 20 minutes too long).

The only reason I could recommend Cowboy Bebop: The Movie it’s one of the few anime films that has a lot of Halloween in it, which makes it an eclectic holiday choice. But even then it is more ornamentation than an actual interesting part of the plot. This movie just didn’t do it for me. It’s crazy how something with so many pieces can still feel so slow and bland? I’m sure some anime fans will be horrified by that statement but there it is.

Are you a fan of Cowboy Bebop? What do you think of this movie and should I watch the show before making a final judgement? Let me know what you think.

3.5 out of 10

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Current Mini Reviews

Hi friends! It’s time once again for one of my current mini reviews where I give my brief thoughts on some of the latest movies I’ve been able to see. Make sure you are subscribed to my youtube channel so you get all the latest videos from me including weekly family movie night reviews! I’m also excited to announce I have created separate podcast feeds for 2 of my monthly podcast series:

Talking Disney Classics- with my friend Stanford Clark where we discuss a Disney Canon film each month in random order.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/talking-disney-classics-with-rachel-wagner-stanford-clark/id1479958412

The Criterion Project- with my friend Conrado where each month we talk about a movie on the Criterion Channel.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-criterion-project/id1479953904

I know you will enjoy them if you give them a chance!

Anyway back to the reviews!

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Falling in Love-

It shouldn’t be any surprise to any follower of my work at the Hallmarkies Podcast that I will always be a defender of escapist silly romcoms and Falling Inn Love is certainly an example of the genre. It stars Christina Milian as a woman who goes to New Zealand only to find the big prize Inn she’s won is actually a money pit. Luckily she has hunky Adam Demos there to help her with the renovations. They spar at first and of course fall in love by the end. Is it predictable and silly? Of course it is. That’s all part of the appeal. I thought it was adorable and thoroughly enjoyed it.

6 out of 10

Smile Worthy

overcomer

Overcomer-

I’ve been known to like my fair share of faith-based films. I recognize they have a very tricky task of entertaining a skeptical audience base while trying to tell an inspiring story. However, far too often they forget that the best preaching comes from a story well told, not by actual preaching in your film. The latest hit from the Kendrick Brothers is called Overcomer and is directed, written and starring Alex Kendrick and perhaps he bit off more than he can chew? This film should be a simple inspirational story about a girl with asthma who finds faith and the confidence to race cross country. Instead it’s a clunky, belabored story of the man who is begrudgingly forced to coach her. The dialogue is really bad along with most of the acting. There’s one moment where Priscilla Shirer literally compliments her own prayer and I laughed out loud. Watching this made me realize how good Breakthrough from earlier this year really was. Check that out instead.

2 out of 10

Frown Worthy

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Can You Keep a Secret?-

I love the writer Sophie Kinsella but for some reason her books make terrible movies. The latest adaptation is Can You Keep a Secret starring Alexandra Daddario and Tyler Hoechlin. The elements that are charming in the book come across as forced and off-putting in this film. Hoechlin is super dishy but he and Daddario have no chemistry together. Most of the time it is awkward and uncomfortable which is not what you want in this kind of escapist romcom. The big reveal at the end is super underwhelming and the supporting cast is wasted. Honestly I wanted to turn it off it was so bad.

2 out of 10

Frown Worthy

promare

Promare-

Trigger Studios has long made some of the most arresting and eye popping anime on the market. Their latest film Promare is my first experience with one of their films and I must admit I was really impressed! It tells the story of a futuristic society where a band of firefighters protect the world from a mysterious race of mutants called the Burnish. As the two races fight they start to learn there might be more to the story than their leaders have told them. The animation in this film is intense, frenetic, crazy, whatever word you want to use but it is also exhilarating. I loved the unique geometric style and the electronic music. It’s an experience I highly recommend to those willing to take a risk.

8.5 out of 10

Smile Worthy

Abominable-

Please check out my youtube review for my thoughts on the latest film from DreamWorks, Abominable. This film marks the end of our multi-film trend of yeti movies in animation and to my surprise it is definitely my favorite. While the story of the little girl Yi finding a mysterious creature to protect may not be the most original, Abominable has huge heart with well-developed sweet characters. It’s also funnier than I expected with beautiful animation and music. This first collaboration between DreamWorks and Pearl Studio is a terrific film, and I hope people will go see it.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

judy

Judy-

Last up is the musical biopic based on Judy Garland’s last year of life, Judy. I love Judy Garland and think her life is so hauntingly tragic that it breaks my heart to think about it. Unfortunately this film pulls out every cliche in the musical biopic playbook. It’s generic, boring with a very surface-level script. Some might feel the same way about the recent Rocketman but at least that movie took some creative risks with its flights of fancy. To add insult to injury they make the choice to have the actress portraying Judy, Renee Zellweger, sing for Judy. What on earth were they thinking? She sounds NOTHING like Judy Garland! I’ve listened to the London concert recordings and that’s not how she sounds! Basically the poor singing choices, generic script and screaming-for-an-Oscar performances make Judy a big miss.

2 out of 10

Frown Worthy

A Look at the Animated Oscars 2019

This year the lead up to the Oscars has been more than a little bit of a mess. Whether it is an announcement for ‘best popular film’ category or the choice to not air categories like editing and cinematography. However, what has been relatively drama free is who will win the Best Animated Feature Film award. This is perhaps surprising as the 5 nominees are all very strong films yet a clear winner has emerged in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

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Let’s start with the least likely to win, Mirai, from famed director Mamoru Hosoda. It’s actually a huge accomplishment for Mirai to be nominated, as it is the first non-Studio Ghibli film to receive such an honor (a designation very frustrating to those of us who loved snubbed films like Your Name and A Silent Voice). And fortunately it is not just a token nomination as the film is a sweet journey into childhood. Recently my friend David said it was ‘the most creative animated film he had seen this year’ and he hates anime!

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Our next most likely contender to win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars comes from Disney in a rare Disney Canon sequel called Ralph Breaks the Internet. This sequel to 2012’s Wreck-it Ralph avoids the potholes of most sequels by giving us something entirely new and it worked for me even better than the original! I loved the evolution of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship and how they had to accept each other in new ways. I loved the humor especially the princesses (which I didn’t think I’d like) and we even got a surprise Alan Menken song! Still because it is a sequel and the response to it was dampened a bit by the release of Spider-Verse, it is unlikely to win (although never count Disney out entirely!).

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Coming up in 3rd place of most likely to win the Oscar is our stop motion animated offering from Wes Anderson, Isle of Dogs. Earlier in the year I speculated whether this was the most likely winners as the Oscars doesn’t tend to like sequels or animated superhero movies (and it has a long standing tradition of loving both Wes Anderson and stop motion). It’s such a sweet enchanting movie with incredible attention to detail. I love all of the dogs and the backgrounds are dazzling (the one pictured made out of pieces of glass is a particular favorite). However, the human sections aren’t as strong and some of the writing is a little clunky. Still, a delightful film from 2018 animation.

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My prediction for the runner up for the Oscar this year is Brad Bird’s follow up to his 2004 superhero film, The Incredibles 2. I love this movie and in any other year this would be a clear favorite. It’s not only funny with terrific action but it is a treatise on how hard it is to be a parent. Even Edna Mode says it best: ‘parenting when done well is a heroic act’. The reason I don’t think Incredibles 2 will win is because it hasn’t won any awards prior to the Oscars. Spider-Verse has won every major prize from the Golden Globes to the BAFTA’s. It would take a very bold ballot to pick this film to win but it wouldn’t be the first time Pixar has surprised everyone (Brave…) if it did. Still it would be a big shocker if it won.

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Finally, the clear favorite and most likely to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This isn’t just my opinion, but the opinion of critics, fans, and experts alike. In fact, there are a number of other publications out there that see Into the Spider-Verse as an incredible favorite. Like I said, it would be a huge shock if it didn’t win. It is not only a game changer for animated films and superhero movies, it also speaks to the Academy’s goals to honor diversity both on and off the screen. It honestly should have been nominated for Best Picture in my and many others opinions.

So what do you think of the animated Oscar race this year? Am I too bullish on Spider-Verse? Do you agree with me it has been a strong year for the category? What other predictions are you making for this year’s Oscars? I’d love to hear in the comments section.

Alita Battle Angel Review

Hey everyone! Before I start my review I want to wish you all a Happy Valentines Day and share with you the annual valentine I designed. This year’s design is based on my recent selection as a critic at rottentomatoes.com. I even used the same color of green as the rotten splat is on their website. Happy Valentines!

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I also have my review of Isn’t it Romantic on my youtube channel

ALITA BATTLE ANGEL REVIEW

Honestly Alita: Battle Angel is a movie I probably wouldn’t have seen if I wasn’t trying to be a more well-rounded critic. Fantasy movies don’t tend to be my thing and most of the live action anime adaptations haven’t been great (although I did enjoy the recent Ghost in the Shell adaptation more than most). With all that said, I actually enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel quite  a bit.

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Alita: Battle Angel tells the story of a cyborg (Rosa Salazar) with a fully intact human brain that is found by a cyborg scientist (Christoph Waltz) in the scrapheap. At first she can’t remember anything of her previous life but as she fights she gets back bits of that memory.

In the dystopian world they have a sport called Motorball which is kind of like a grittier form of roller derby and it turns out Alita is a natural. If she can win the grand championship of the sport she can get to a special city in the sky called Zalem, which is where she originally came from.

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Alita also meets a boy named Hugo (Keen Johnson) and discovers there are assassins out to get her and her father. She can train as a ‘hunter-warrior’ to defeat these assassins but they are very strong and make things difficult for her and her friends.

That’s all I will say about the plot. The strengths of Alita: Battle Angel is in Alita as a character. The giant eyes may be off-putting for some, but I adjusted to them quite quickly. Rosa Salazar and the motion capture animators do a really good job making Alita likable and endearing. She’s such an honest character in a dark world that you can’t help but root for her. I also liked her and Hugo’s little relationship quite a bit (you know I’m a sucker for romance!).

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It is also a beautiful movie with stunning world building. I saw it in 3D and I recommend it as it feels even more immersive than the flat images would on their own. Beautiful world building isn’t enough alone to win me mover but it is still a plus in the movies favor.

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The downsides to Alita: Battle Angel is I didn’t like the goons who were hunting Alita down. There are 2 main cyborgs, and I found both of them to be pretty grating. Also the middle section of the movie where most of the fighting takes place gets repetitive and dull. However, it picked back up with a strong finale so I can forgive the film.

If you like action or scifi movies you should find more than enough to like with Alita: Battle Angel. It’s beautifully made with a charming and sweet lead character. Even if you don’t typically like sci-fi/fantasy you might like it with the teen romance, and sweet relationship between father and daughter. It’s true that some actors are wasted in bland roles like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly, but I still had a pretty fun time with the film. It has its flaws, but I was entertained more than enough to give a recommendation.

7 out of 10

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