We’re in for a slow few weeks at the movies, folks. Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is coming next weekend, and it’s promising to dominate the box office so thoroughly that no other studio wants to be anywhere near it. As if to prove the point, this weekend’s only noteworthy wide release is Memory, in which Liam Neeson plays a grizzled old action hero like he hasn’t already done that umpteen times in the past fifteen years.

At a loss for anything to review, a correspondent directed me to Bubble, a new release on Netflix. Tried it, couldn’t get through it. Sorry, but Judd Apatow just isn’t for me and it’s still way too soon for a satire about COVID… oh, wait. That was The Bubble, a live-action film released on Netflix back in late March. This is Bubble, an anime film released on Netflix just this weekend. Yeah, that’s not gonna get confusing.

Explaining the premise to this film is basically impossible. The basic gist is that in the near future, a lot of weird shit happens and nobody has any idea how it works or why it happened or how any of it is even physically possible. Even after an expository voice-over monologue at the fifteen-minute mark, I was still left with more questions than answers because literally nobody has any idea what’s going on.

All anyone knows is that one day, weird stray bubbles started falling from the sky down onto Tokyo. Shortly afterward, a few gravity-distorting vortexes opened up and the entire city was encased in a giant bubble. Then the smaller stray bubbles burst into water and drowned the whole city.

For all practical purposes, the bottom line is that Tokyo is fucked. The city is submerged, the buildings have collapsed, everyone still alive has evacuated, and all of Japan has basically left Tokyo to rot. However, though it’s technically illegal to do so, the nation’s population of orphans have snuck themselves into the bubble to turn Tokyo’s ruins into their own personal playground. And with all the death and destruction rocking Japan’s largest city, it should come as no surprise that a whole lotta kids have been made orphans in the past few years.

The orphans have split themselves up into teams of five for “Tokyo Battlekour”. On a regular basis, the teams wager vital goods and necessities on parkour races throughout the derelict city. Our primary focus is on the Blue Blazes, five orphans who’ve had an exceptional winning streak going in Tokyo Battlekour. This is primarily due to our protagonist (Hibiki, voiced by Jun Shison), a preternatural parkour prodigy with blinding speed and the unique ability to traverse by way of stray bubbles in the air. The only downside is that Hibiki is a brooding loner who doesn’t talk much and doesn’t like to socialize… you know the deal, it’s a common shonen archetype.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the adults in the room. Makoto (Alice Hirose) is a scientist who’s taken up residence in an old Coast Guard ship inside the bubble to study the phenomena wrecking Tokyo. We’ve also got Shin (Mamoro Miyano), a retired parkour veteran acting as the de facto referee for the Tokyo Battlekour matches. Together, they’re more or less the surrogate parents for the Blue Blazes.

Anyway, Hibiki seems to have a strange affinity for the vortexes in the city. In fact, Hibiki’s hypersensitive hearing seems to pick up voices from the vortexes that nobody else can hear. Things get even stranger with the arrival of Uta (voiced by Riria), a mysterious mute girl with a bizarre connection to both the vortexes and Hibiki. I might add that Uta is first introduced as a stray bubble who spontaneously turns into a young woman just before she rescues Hibiki from drowning.

Somewhere around the half-hour mark, it all finally clicks: What we’ve got here is an anime take on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” with a parkour action hook, all buried under a mountain of unnecessary and unexplained sci-fi bullshit.

But the presentation is fucking incredible.

The music is focused primarily around a repeating four-note motif, yet it’s utterly delightful. The designs are breathtaking. The animation is spellbinding. Every single parkour sequence is shot and edited and animated together into the most jaw-dropping action sequences I’ve ever seen in an animated medium since Spider-Man: Enter the Spider-Verse. The characters are so detailed in their animation and voice acting that it’s easy and fun to invest in their development and relationships.

Then we have the themes at play. While Hans Christian Anderson’s take on “The Little Mermaid” has been rightly criticized for a number of reasons (it’s dated, the female lead gives up her agency for a male romantic lead and then gives his life up for him, etc.), this film reinterprets the female lead as a character who knows that she’s going to die in a short period of time, so she lives and loves without fear or reservation. Thus the film makes many poignant statements about life and death, the cycle of destruction and rebirth, moving on from grief, living with pain, and so on.

It’s good enough that the film explores all of this on the intimate scale of the Hibiki/Uta relationship, but the film explores it on a global scale at the same time. Bullshit though the world-building may be, the post-apocalyptic setting makes an ideal backdrop for a story about love and friendship and moving on from grief in a dangerous time after a world-shaking catastrophe. It’s all beautifully handled.

But man oh man does this movie have problems.

While Hibiki and Uta are perfectly wonderful, the other characters around them fail to make much of an impression. I couldn’t name the other members of the Blue Blazes if I tried. Makoto and Shin are charming enough, but there’s definitely a sense that they could’ve been developed further. We’ve also got the Undertakers, a rival Battlekour team made to look like cartoon villains out of “Speed Racer” or some shit — they don’t match the tone of the rest of the film at all. All the other Battlekour competitors are basically cardboard cutouts. And did I mention that the world-building sucks?

Basically put, Bubble is a post-apocalyptic spin on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”. Appropriately, the filmmakers put all their time and attention toward the mermaid and her prince, and everything else is only important to the extent that it supports them and their relationship. Still, the filmmakers successfully interpreted the dated story into something genuinely moving and uplifting, and filtering the story’s themes through a post-apocalyptic lens was a stroke of genius.

Ultimately, this movie is worth seeing for the presentation. The music, the animation, and those jaw-dropping parkour scenes are well worth the price of admission, especially if you’ve already got a Netflix account. It’s a bizarre little picture, and coming to accept the film on its own terms might take some patience. But if you’re up for that, definitely give it a look.

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