“A Letter to Momo,” from veteran Japanese animator Hiroyuki Okiura, features many of the elements that have become familiar to fans of the lyrical animated epics of Hayao Miyazaki and his heirs, including a beguiling color palette; finely rendered images of water, greenery and rustic Japanese architecture; and a story shot through with loss, discovery and mystical animism.
Many of those tropes are skillfully deployed in “A Letter to Momo,” Okiura’s sophomore feature, which makes it seem churlish to note that the overall enterprise winds up being glum, repetitive and baggy at an overlong two hours. The story, of a girl coming to terms with the recent death of her father with the help of three goblins from the spirit world, owes more than a little to the far superior classic “My Neighbor Totoro.”
The Momo of the title is Momo Miyaura, who has moved from Tokyo to Shio Island with her mother in the wake of her father’s death. Haunted by her final argument with her dad, Momo carries with her an unfinished letter, which he had started to write before his untimely end. When her new house turns out to be inhabited by three hungry spirits from “Above,” Momo at first tries to banish them, then tries to enlist them in her effort to communicate with the parent she lost so suddenly.
Okiura masterfully captures the pastoral beauty of Shio Island, which is surrounded by graceful coves and bays, and is terraced with lush orchards. Combined with a sensitive orchestral score composed by Mina Kubota, the overall effect is one of soothing, understated escapism (and an effective travelogue for Japan at its most inviting).
But Momo’s arguments and nominal adventures with her annoying otherworldly cohorts quickly pall before giving way to a maudlin, mewling sentimentalism. “A Letter to Momo” is unquestionably lovely to look at, but viewers may not be able to shake the feeling that they’ve seen much of it before, and done better.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 120 minutes.