Made in Abyss stumbles a little during its jump to the big screen, but its mythology remains as fascinating and bizarre as ever in Journey's Dawn.
In addition to being one of the most acclaimed and popular anime series released in 2017, Made in Abyss is an often surreal sci-fi fantasy with shades of Hayao Miyazaki, H.P. Lovecraft, and recent films like Annihilation (itself, a Lovecraft descendant). It's also the story of a charmingly rambunctious young girl named Riko, who sets out on a quest to find her mother - a legendary explorer - with the assistance of a mysterious robot boy known as Reg. As for Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn, it's the first of two compilation films that (for the most part, successfully) adapts and condenses the first half of the anime into a feature-length adventure. Made in Abyss stumbles a little during its jump to the big screen, but its mythology remains as fascinating and bizarre as ever in Journey's Dawn.
Journey's Dawn begins with a prologue that quickly brings viewers up to speed on everything they need to know about the Abyss (the giant hole on an island in the sea of Beoluska) and how the town of Orth sprung up around it as more and more Cave Raiders plundered the location for whatever relics they could find. For the most part, however, the film avoids going overboard on voiceover exposition and allows the often gorgeous animation to tell the story on its own. Made in Abyss art director Osamu Masuyama is himself a Studio Ghibli alum and served as an animator on several of their films (in addition to acclaimed anime features like Your Name). His touch is particularly evident in the designs of the creatures that lurk within the Abyss, which are done in an impressionist style that's reminiscent of the way the mythical beings from Spirited Away (like No-Face) are brought to life.
While the human characters here are more traditional in their appearance, Riko especially makes for a lively and energetic protagonist to follow, even before she sets off on her expedition into the Abyss. Reg is the more archetypical of the pair - i.e. the android with incredible abilities but little to no memory of their past - but his soft-spoken manner makes him an effective foil to Riko and her tendency to (almost literally) bounce off the walls. Most of the supporting players from Made in Abyss end up drawing the short end of the stick in Journey's Dawn, as a result of the film's streamlining of the overarching narrative. As such, side characters like Nat and Shiggy (Riko's friends at the orphanage where she's beeen living since her mom vanished ten years ago) serve the story here, but are left more under-developed than they were on the original anime series.
Of course, it's the Abyss itself that's as much the star here as any of the humans and Journey's Dawn makes sure to devote more than its fair share of time to world-building. Again, things are simplified from the anime series a bit in order to fit the demands of a two-hour runtime, but the mythology - from the way the Abyss can change people who spend all their time there (like Ozen the Immovable) to the enigmatic ailment known as "The Curse of the Abyss" - is still quite interesting in cinematic form. It's an altogether compelling setting that writer Hideyuki Kurata and director Masayuki Kojima have conjured up here, even if Journey's Dawn doesn't fully tap into the potential of this universe and leaves it to the second film to fully deliver on the promise of its imaginative premise.
Obviously, since Journey's Dawn is the first part of a two-movie story, it's only natural that it leaves several plot threads up in the air and backstories to be further unraveled in the followup. Still, it's somewhat hit and miss when it comes to working as a satisfying chapter, on its own. While the film attempts to give Riko and Reg an arc based around Ozen and her connection to Riko's mother Lyza, the story threads are woven together too loosely to work as a three-act narrative. Similarly, Journey's Dawn improves on the show's pacing by cutting out anything that could be considered filler, but it typically does so by resorting to uninspired montages that cover vast amount of time from the original series. It's also difficult for any of the emotional scenes to have an impact here, before Journey's Dawn moves on to cover yet another episodic development.
Still, if Journey's Dawn only somewhat works as half of a two-part movie, it makes for a sturdy primer to Made in Abyss and may even leave newcomers wanting to watch the series proper, in order to get the full extent of the story and world-building. Both the english-dubbed and subtitled versions of the film will be showing in theaters, so everyone can decide which iteration of the movie they want to check out. For longtime fans, Journey's Dawn represents a chance to see the series' rich animation brought to life on the big screen. For everyone else, it's a flawed but fun introduction to this world and answers the question of what the heck the Abyss even is.
Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn premieres in Los Angeles on March 15, before the english-subtitled version releases in theaters on March 20 (following by the english dub on March 25). It is 118 minutes long and is not rated.
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