Starring the voices of Johnny Yong Bosch, Joey D’Auria, Brent Pendergrass, Alicyn Packard, Melissa Hutchison, Paul Greenberg, Meyer DeeLeuw, and Jenn Wong
Directed by Shigeharu Takahashi and Shinji Ushiro (Based on characters created by Akihiro Hino)
Available on Disney XD on Demand and Netflix
My Rating: */5
“Yo-Kai Watch: The Movie” is an adaptation of the Japanese video game from Level-5 and the anime series of the same name. While the concept of the series admittedly has potential; the film never takes advantage of what it can do and ultimately ends up as a total mess that embodies the worst of children’s filmmaking and English dubs of anime.
The film follows Nathan Adams as he travels back in time 60 years to help preserve the creation of the Yo-Kai Watch with the help of his late grandfather Nathaniel. With the aid of yokai (mythological Japanese creatures) companions Whisper and Jibanyan, they aim to stop the villainess Dame Dedtime from bringing chaos to the world. Even if the setup of the movie is familiar; it lacks the story and characterization of better anime films such as Hayao Miyazaki’s classic “My Neighbor Totoro.”
Many characters in children’s anime have had unique personalities and characteristics that distinguish them amongst one another. In this film, virtually no character goes outside a single dimension. When Nathan’s most defining trait is being “average” by his own admission, it does not work in favor for the audience to connect with him. The voice acting of the principal cast doesn’t help either, as it’s more wooden than the lumberyard at Home Depot. The normally lively Johnny Yong Bosch lacks direction as Nathan, which is a shame, because he’s usually an exceptional anime voice actor. Here, his performance conveys less emotion than his role as Adam Park in earlier seasons of “Power Rangers.”
In fact, the characters come off less like characters and more like glorified merchandise. In its native Japan, “Yo-Kai Watch” has amassed a multimedia empire of toys, video games and other tie-in goods; and the film broke Japanese box office records during its original release in 2014. Here, however, the movie was only given a single night of theatrical showings before being put on Netflix and Disney XD; and the series has had more mixed success. Despite the industry hyping the franchise as “the next Pokémon,” the Western world and a large number of Pokémon fans do not share that sentiment.
The film’s English dub was tied into the release of “Yo-Kai Watch 2: Bony Spirits and Fleshy Souls” in the US, and the film loosely adapts the game’s story in a meandering and doddering 96-minute runtime that steals character and story elements from better films such as “Back to the Future” and “Star Wars.”
One of the few positive things the movie has is the animation. The artwork is full of bright colors and smooth movements, and the environments in the past timeline of the film are full of great details that almost make it look like an old photograph. Yet, the artwork of the film is nowhere near enough to save it. Despite Nathaniel being hailed as a genius in the film’s world, he constantly insults Nate and is unwilling to accept others’ help in his quest. The setting, which in the Japanese version of the film is the fictional town of Kemamoto (based on the real-life area of Kumamoto, Japan); is also changed to the fictional town of Harrisville, Idaho despite the obviously Japanese elements in play. Least of all, the film’s final act devolves into a hot mess of incoherent CGI action straight out of the video games the film is advertising.
Furthering the disappointment with this film is the fact that when promoting “Bony Spirits and Fleshy Souls” at E3 in 2016, series creator Akihiro Hino expressed hope that the “Yo-Kai Watch” series would “bloom like a flower” by this year. So far, it hasn’t. The games have only sold a combined 150,000 copies as of this writing; and they were met with a mixed reception among critics (though many who have played them said they were an improvement over the original “Yo-Kai Watch”). While the series has had some mild success in Europe, it hasn’t become “the next Pokémon” that it was hyped as.
Despite Level-5 and Hino’s best efforts, the series has largely failed to resonate with general audiences and has been mostly ignored if not outright dismissed by longtime “Pokémon” fans. Even with heavy marketing, Nathan Adams, Jibanyan and Whisper haven’t made the same impact Ash Ketchum, Pikachu and Professor Oak have. While the “Pokémon” films have often taken a darker tone than the anime they’re based on, “Yo-Kai Watch: The Movie” is little more than the same kind of flickering lights and toys offered by the TV series at feature length. It may entertain a small child, but with a host of better options available on Netflix and Disney XD; it’s not recommended for much of anything or anyone else.
Review by Steven Pryor