The most surprising thing about unconventional artist Takashi Murakami’s first feature-length directorial effort is that it is entirely conventional. Based on my experience with his artwork, I expected a surreal, incoherent, but visually dazzling film, but instead found the film to be a straightforward and family-friendly update on the kids with critters movies popularized in the 1980s by the likes of E.T. and Gremlins. The film is more homage than trailblazer, which seems like a missed opportunity for the visionary Murakami.
The story follows a tween boy as he moves to a new town with his recently widowed mom and settles into his new home and school. While still unpacking at home, he discovers an adorable flying creature (the titular character) and quickly makes it his pet, keeping it hidden from mom and his classmates until he discovers that all of the kids have their own unique monsters. Those little monsters provide Murakami with his only true artistic expression in this work, as they’re imaginatively designed and offer the most visually striking aspect of the production.
Meanwhile, there’s some dastardly business underway at a local lab, where a cabal of four evil scientists are performing experiments designed to unleash an environmental disaster on the community, which seems like a good thing to them thanks to their twisted logic. Their experiment is directly tied to the relationships between the kids and their monsters, leaving it up to our hero kid and his creature friend to unearth their plot and save the day.
The film is live action with the exception of the CG creatures, and while the bargain-basement creature effects are subpar compared to those created with deep U.S. budgets, they’re effective enough to allow viewers to suspend disbelief. The child actors adequately come across like kids instead of actors, although the adults are so one-dimensional that they could have also been CG. Much of the footage was filmed outside, which is where the Blu-ray presentation shines with its detailed and vivid greens of charming fields and forests that wouldn’t be out of place in a Studio Ghibli film.
Criterion’s bonus features include in-depth, behind-the-scenes footage on the film’s progression from concept through production, as well as a feature specifically on the creation of the monsters. That feature is especially enlightening as it reveals that the multitude of monsters were actually sculpted as full-size practical models before the film started shooting, a painstaking and laborious effort that makes no sense considering that they are entirely CG in the final film. The bonus features are rounded out with an exclusive interview with Murakami, as well as a trailer for the planned sequel.