If theres a common theme across Mamoru Hosodas work at least of the films Ive seen so far its the idea of the fantastical invading the real and the real adapting to accommodate it. Unlike most Ghibli films which take place in worlds apart from reality or otherwise spirit their characters away from the real world Hosodas films involve the real world itself being invaded by something outside the norm. And the characters ordinary lives pretty much keep trucking on as normal acclimating to their new fantastical circumstances without changing the core of how they go about living. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Wolf Children both center around this idea observing how Mamiko and Hanas lives both change and stay the same as a result of the bizarre situations they find themselves in. And if theres a reason I dont like Summer Wars nearly as much its because the marriage of reality and fantasy here is far more uneven than either of those films. The grounded downtoearth human drama and the outthere bonkers high concept influencing that drama dont gel the way they need to and the result is that it often feels like Im watching two movies at once. Thankfully both of those movies are damn good in their own right so Summer Wars still ends up pretty enjoyable in spite of itself. But this is definitely the weakest Hosoda film Ive seen thus far. So the first of Summer Wars two movies is the story of Kenji your average socially awkward high school dweeb who spends most of his time playing games on line. Unexpectedly he gets roped into helping his beautiful upperclassman Natsuki and he agrees to travel with her out to the countryside for her greatgrandmas birthday party. You see old grannys the matriarch of one of those super huge families where everyone and their uncles and cousins lives in the same giant house. Theyre a rowdy rambunctious crowd full of strong personalities and even stronger ties to their storied history as one of Japans longestlived family lines. Theyre also staunch traditionalists and Natsuki promised her greatgrandma that shed introduce her to her boyfriend and future husband before she dies despite the fact that she doesnt actually like have a boyfriend. So shes hired Kenji to play the part just until the partys over so her grandma can rest assured shes leaving her family line in good hands. Kenji is understandably not prepared for any of this shenanigannery but its too late to back out now. And over the course of about a week as the party preparations go on he becomes privy to this family in all its squabbling proud messy glory as well as all the longunhealed wounds that keep them from truly coming together. Thats one of Summer Wars storylines. The second storyline is about fighting a digital terrorist in an MMORPG to stop him from blowing up a nuclear power plant. Yeah now youre starting to see how weird this movie is. See the game Kenjis always playing is actually the OZ a kind of allpurpose digital landscape where you can do business play games hang out and pretty much anything else you can think of. Picture the OASIS from Ready Player One except its still on consoles instead of VR. One night while hes at the country house Kenji answers a spam mail that accidentally causes a breach in the OZs security system letting in a rogue AI that proceeds to start devouring the entire place whole. And since pretty much all the worlds major companies and governments have OZ servers to help run things that means literally every single system of society is compromised. If the program isnt stopped its just going to keep breaking things until it causes a potentially extinctionlevel disaster. So Kenji has to enlist the help of the familys reclusive gamer son and eventually the entire rest of the family to fight off this danger from inside the digital world which is represented as a fully immersive Apple Storeesque landscape upon which digital avatars punch each other and destroy the scenery around them like theyre in a cyberspace DBZ spinoff. The films titular war is one in which the old matriarch is a general her sons and daughters soldiers and the enemy a nearfuture scifi concept that forces the fractured family to come together in the face of adversity restore their fractured bonds and save the world by fighting as one loving rambunctious unit. And honestly thats not a bad idea for a film. In fact what makes Summer Wars overall a good movie despite its flaws is how sincerely it tries to thematically tie these two halves together. The family is obsessed with tradition and lives in a huge oldtimey country house thats bursting to the seams with history and connections but its only by embracing the new rules of the digital world embracing the future as personified by the youngest among them who end up carrying them to victory that theyre able to overcome their bad blood and work together. The internet isnt presented as a force that tears families apart but as a place of family in its own right where you can forge connections and help each other in ways you couldnt before. The old matriarch summons her endless web of friends and connections from every walk of life to rally against the digital threat but the community of online players is just as essential to their eventual success. Its a story of past and future coming together future embracing the strength of the past and past embracing the possibility of the future. Only with both sides the techsavvy youngsters and the communitydriven oldtimers is the war able to be won. And in the few moments those two halves are working in tandem you can see the masterpiece that Summer Wars had the potential to be. Sadly for the most part those two halves dont mesh nearly as well as they need to. The stuff with the family and the stuff with OZ often feel like theyre fighting each other for screentime and the result is that neither is as developed as they could be. The OZ system itself is overemphasized in the opening scene and talked about as if it could be a setting for an entire other anime all on its own but in the story its only ever important insomuch as it facilitates cool scifi cyberspace fight scenes. Its revealed that the family actually has a connection to the cause of the rouge AI but the twist is too easy to see coming and the character in question only gets the barest minimum characterization so the emotional weight is lacking. Theres also the unfortunate problem that the two nominal leads Kenji and Natsuki are easily the blandest and least interesting characters in the movie and their inevitable romance is as unengaging as you probably guessed. Not even Natsuki taking center stage for the final battle is able to save her from being little more than The Love Interest. None of this kills the film but its all these little subpar details that keep it from shining like Hosodas work usually does. Still Summer Wars is far from awful and the moments that work really do work. I love the kooky rambunctious family dynamic how true to life their closeness feels how many charming little moments are packed into the margins Hosoda remains if nothing a master of expressive character animation. This is far from his best work but theres still enough good here that I dont mind the two hours I spent on it. Sometimes thats all you can ask for.
70 /100
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