A visit to Oz, but no Dorothy
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, January 14, 2010
Considering it's anime, "Summer Wars" starts out more like a bad romantic comedy: Girl asks boy to pretend he's her fiance to appease her grandmother.
Luckily, the tired premise turns out to be a lot more interesting when viewed through the prism of a gumball machine.
The boy in question, math wiz Kenji, is a high school student who works part time for a Web site, Oz. The girl is Natsuki, who brings Kenji to a sprawling estate in the Japanese country for a four-day celebration of her grandmother's 90th birthday. There, the meek math nerd is confronted by an overwhelming group of relatives, including the mostly toothless, tough-as-nails grandmother; a tai-chi-devoted computer genius; a hotheaded uncle with a penchant for revenge fantasies; and the prodigal if unapologetic son, who returns after 10 years in the United States to swill Sapporo and prove he's still a rebel.
Anyone who has seen similar movies (two words: "The Proposal") knows this premise is enough to fill two hours. But this is anime. If director Mamoru Hosoda continued on this path, there would be no potential for cartoon fight scenes. And so, things take a turn for the worse in the land of Oz, which turns out to be no ordinary Web site. While a colorful place to figuratively hang out, chock-full of rainbow colors and cutesy avatars, it's also a treasure trove of information. Imagine if Facebook were also a destination for gift-buying, GPS usage, e-mailing, online banking, tax filing, top secret government information and, well, epic mass destruction.
After Kenji receives an extensive math problem in the middle of the night, he does what anyone would do: He solves it, sends it back and drifts back off to dreamland. He awakens to find that the problem was actually a previously unsolvable security code and Oz has been hijacked. Worse, Kenji is the scapegoat.
From there, the story vacillates between a family drama, a romance and an action movie set in Second Life. The first plot line can be sweet at times but ventures into territory both melodramatic and corny. The relationship between Kenji and Natsuki unfolds as blandly as a Debra Messing rom-com. But Oz makes the film worth watching. It's like a visual carnival, a brilliant world that spins in midair, overseen by floating pink and blue whales. The enemy avatar, who goes by Love Machine, also proves to be an entertainingly worthy adversary, with a face like Donnie Darko's rabbit friend and a body like an extra from "300." Unfortunately, life at Grandma's house, the humdrum real world, often takes precedence over the nail-biting possibility of imminent apocalypse.
It's enough to make you wish you had some ruby slippers, because home is okay, but there's no place like Oz.
Contains cartoon violence and naked though anatomy-less characters