Turning the dark children’s fantasy “The Little Mermaid” into science fiction seems kind of pointless, but as they say in Japan, “Anime’s gonna anime.”
The Japanese WIT studio works primarily in TV. But when Warner Brothers Animation gets a commission from Netflix, “Bubble” becomes their chance to make a (streaming) feature film.
It’s set in a literal bubble in a dystopian Tokyo. A “gravity anomaly” heralded by bubbles that rained down on the planet left buildings half-collapsed, suspended pieces of them floating around with trains, rusting out buses and bubbles — always more bubbles
The only people living in this flooded, ruined Tokyo are hardcore parkour teams who take advantage of the glitches in gravity to compete in streamed and gambled on “Battlekour” games.
The Blue Blazers are the best, thanks to their loner parkour ace Hibiki (voiced by Zach Aguilar in the English dub of the film). He trains, blocks out the world via his headphones and leaves his four teammates, their “supervisor” Shin (Keith Silverstein) and the scientist that lives with them on this rusting out Japanese Coast Guard ship in the half-submerged city to their own devices. Makoto (Erica Lindbeck) is studying “the anomaly” and the its impact on the “lost boys” (they’re orphans) who risk their necks leaping from building to rubble to bubble in the battlekour contests.
Hibiki doesn’t hear music through his Beats. He picks up something musically strange and ethereal emanating from the mostly-disintegrated Tokyo version of the Eiffel Tower. And one day, nosing around there, he falls into one of the “ant lion trap” vortexes that bedevil this Water World. That’s when the feral pixie he comes to call Uta (Emi Lo) comes to his rescue.
She doesn’t speak, doesn’t appear to have any origin story, and seems to possess magical powers. Hibiki mentors her to repay his debt to her. But it’s Matoko’s reading of “The Little Mermaid” to Uta that triggers her desire to speak, and her eagerness to state the obvious.
Hibiki, my wide-anime-eyed lad, you’re the “prince” and I am the Little Mermaid!
Because those songs he’s was hearing from that tower? That was her singing.
The animation is closer to classic anime in its underanimated jerkiness, the Big Eyed characters and the post-apocalyptic punk milieu. Boy band wannabes and pixies populate this universe, with rival parkour teams including the cyborgish “Undertakers.”
This world will be turned upside down by Uta’s presence in it, and gravity’s increasing unreliability.
This isn’t the least interesting story I’ve ever seen told in anime, but it’s right up there. The dialogue’s of the “I wish I had parents! To talk me OUTTA things like this!” school.
There’s a lot of shouting in anime, and the worse the anime, the more shouting there is.
As a film subgenre, anime’s hits-and-misses batting average is no better or worse than any other film genre. There are rare great films, a few good ones, and a lot of brainless filler like “Bubble” that’s perfectly representative of the art form, but nothing that would hook most first-time viewers on it.
Rating: TV-PG, action violence
Cast: The voices of Zach Aguilar, Emi Lo, Erica Lindbeck, Keith Silverstein, Robbie Draymond and Laura Stahl
Credits: Directed by Tetsurō Araki, scripted by Gen Urobuchi, Noako Sato and Renji Ōki. A WIT Studios/Warner Brothers Animation film for Netflix.
Running time: 1:41