It's a really big year for animation. We've already had an outing from Pixar, with Monsters University. Today, Kaze Tachinui, a film by the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki, releases in Japan; and later this year, we'll be gifted with another film by Studio Ghibli: an adaption of Tale of the Bamboo Cutter by Isao Takahata. Added to these titles, is the conclusion to the Berserk - The Golden Age Arc trilogy and Makoto Shinkai's Garden of Words, both of which I've already reviewed. There are so many big-name titles being released this year, that it's easy for smaller releases to slip into the cracks. But a film slipping through the cracks doesn't mean the film lacks quality, and Little Witch Academia is a strong example of how a little heart can go a long way.
The short film was directed by You Yoshinari, who is best known for his role as a key animator in such acclaimed series as FLCL, Gurren Lagann, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. It was produced by Trigger for Anime Mirai 2013. The film focuses on a young girl, Akko Kagari, who after attending a magic show, is inspired to become a witch. Akko enrolls in an academy for that very purpose.
Story and Setting
The idea of an academy that trains young witches in the use of magic, from mixing potions to flying on broomsticks, begs for a comparison to the Harry Potter franchise to be made. However, the atmosphere and mood of Little Witch Academia is different enough as to suggest that it draws from a rather different well of ideas. Lighthearted, but with as many nods towards Japanese roleplaying games as references to the western ideas of magic, Little Witch Academia seems far closer to Mana Khemia than anything else. The setting ultimately comes off as somewhat derivative, but I don't feel that this is a setting that has been overused just yet; there's still plenty of design space left to be explored as far as magical academies go, and Little Witch Academia manages to carve out its own little niche in the genre. Plus, the fact that this short clocks in at just twenty-four minutes really keeps it from being stale -- it just doesn't have the time to do so. On the contrary, things actually move along rather quickly, and it's always exciting.
It's hard to discuss the plot of the film, considering how short it is. Almost any detail mentioned would be a spoiler to some extent, but the backbone of the story is that Akko wishes to become a successful witch in the model of her idol, Shiny Chariot (who is looked down upon as a fraud by most of the wizard community.) At the forefront of the story, is a treasure hunt being conducted at the school. In this treasure hunt, each of the witches is instructed to descend into a labyrinth full of creatures and creepy-crawlies, to find the rarest piece of treasure that she can find. In typical fashion, as the film progresses, the plot and theme of the story intertwine, with Akko reaching a feel-good level of self-understanding... Or something like that. Again, the film is only twenty-four minutes long, and it doesn't quite accomplish everything it sets out to accomplish. There's quite a bit left unanswered at the end of the movie. However, as a lighter and fluffier piece of narrative, it's very enjoyable for what it is.
Characters in Little Witch Academiamostly lean towards "mildly likable." As a side-effect of the film's duration, not a great deal of characterization is allowed to occur. Instead, we are given brief insights into Akko's character, with others largely portrayed as stock characters. The snooty blonde with a foreign name? She's here. A quirky goth chick? There's one of those too. Amaganekko? Why wouldn't there be one? She's the main character's best friend, of course. But even though it's kind of fun to rag on the film for employing blatant trope-characters like this, it's not actually something that can be construed as a flaw. There is good synergy amongst the characters, and they are used effectively to tell a pleasant story in a very short amount of time. The characters are not particularly fleshed out, but in this film's case, character archetypes are used as a tool to tell a more focused story.
Art and Sound
"Stylized" is perhaps the best word that can be used to describe the art of Little Witch Academia. Architecture, nature, and objects are all richly detailed, inked, and colored, and suggest a level of quality far above amateur. Even so, it is the living organisms portrayed in the film that cause it to stand out as something special. The fantastical beasts and creatures shown in the film have exaggerated anatomies, which twist and contort in a manner that is greatly overdone, yet seems oddly appropriate. In this manner, it can be compared to FLCL -- an FLCL that has been reeled in to a more acceptable level. The animation is certainly unique, and takes a number of risks, but the end result is a great-looking anime that's a lot of fun to watch.
The one choice in direction that I didn't like, was the decision to go with the almost-superdeformed character design style. Thankfully, characters look a lot better than they do in Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, which Yoshinari also worked on, but facial expressions can still be described as "squishy." Characters can never fairly be described as "ugly," but they definitely stand out among the beautiful monsters and scenery surrounding them.
Music and sound are both generally good. The budget for the project may not have been particularly large, but the film comes across as a labor of love. I don't believe any of the voice actors or actresses are famous, but they are all competent, and give very adequate performances. Music is fitting and pleasing to the ears, if mostly forgettable. Sound effects, typically of the magical, or explosive variety, are also very nice. These effects typically aren't things that one consciously thinks about when watching a movie, but when one one considers how small of a production Little Witch Academia was, it's hard not to be impressed by how tight of a package the film is.
Frankly, Little Witch Academia is a film that every anime fan should watch. No, it's not the next Spirited Away, but it is an extremely solid film from a debut director that I'll need to pay attention to in the future. Moreover, it's actually been made available on Trigger's official YouTube page. You can view it in full, beautiful 1080p, for free. There's no reason not to check it out.
Final Score: 7.0 out of 10.0
Little Witch Academia centers around a young girl who is in training to be a witch. It's from studio Trigger, an assortment of ex-Gainax members who would go on to create Kill La Kill.
The anime is a 25-minute web OVA, which was a project for young animators to stretch their wings. It centers around a young witch in training with something to prove as she goes through a school life full of fantastical magic.
The story, in my humble opinion, isn't the greatest story ever cooked up. However, due to the fact that it is a mere 25 minutes, some elements tend to suffer. The premise is strong, but the execution is weak. This is not the animation studio's fault by any means, but their miniscule time constraint.
SPOILER WARNING BEGIN
There is one plot hole that really gapes to me, maybe it doesn't bother other people quite as much, but I noticed it. The witches are sent into a dungeon to collect treasure and defeat monsters, and in the process a dragon is freed from his seal. But when the dragon reaches the surface to wreak havoc, the teacher reacts as if it was highly unexpected that the dragon be released. If you send children to plunder treasure, wouldn't it be obvious that one of them find and accidentally release a dragon? Sheesh.
Another problem is the moral. The protagonist is shown not to be very good at magic, not even being able to fly a broom, and her personality is a little on the irritating side, but in the end she is rewarded for... Believing? She obtains the staff and power of a powerful witch, but she didn't do much to earn it, when her actions are considered.
SPOILER WARNING END
The animation in this show made me think quite a bit of Kill La Kill. The style is very similar in the ways characters move, expressions, and colors. For a beginning studio, the animation is near flawless, with very fluid characters and wonderful magic animations. Not much to say other than wonderful, particularly from a new studio.
THE MUSIC, DEAR GOD. The music was perfect. What can I even say? How the music was so fucking astounding was beyond me, fully orchestrated tracks made me feel like I was in a Ghibli film, or in Harry Potter. Hot diggity fuck, the music was good. Moving on.
The characters weren't really anything new or special. All of them were essentially archetypes that were predictibally filled. Again, this is due to the fact that it's only 25 minutes, and you can't really flesh out characters in that time, can you?
The main character is "hothead with something to prove"
Her friends are "quiet eccentric" and "geek"
The antagonist girl is "queen bee of the school" and her two "queen bee echoes"
Not much to say, really.
All in all, the experience was wonderful. Despite my gripes about story and character, this is because it was ONLY 25 MINUTES. Everything that counts is there, and it still definitely is a worthwwhile experience.
Find it on YouTube or Crunchyroll
The basic idea is about a young witch-in-training, Akko, who wants to be like her hero: the flashy magical girl esque Shiny Chariot. Though Chariot is looked down upon for giving the public weird ideas about magic, she's still a hero to Akko. This particular short deals with a student competition that takes the form of a scavenger hunt that rapidly gets out of hand.
Unfortunately, the short runtime doesn't give the plot enough elbow room. The premise is fairly stock and the whole thing plays more like a pilot episode of a TV series than it does a short animation. When you only have thirty minutes to work with, I think it's better to not keep your fingers crossed for a sequel (though there's going to be one).
Pacing is fine, but it squeezes too much into the short time. The scavenger hunt could have been its own thirty minutes, Akko learning to fly could have been its own thirty minutes, the ideas with Chariot could have been their own thirty minutes, and having a lot of different characters try and share the screen ends up making it so that everything in the plot sort of crams together to fit the running time.
The setting is a pretty basic school of magic one, though I'd give it some points for originality in that magic is known to the general populace. Normally magic is under a masquerade, so it's sort of refreshing to have it be known throughout the world.
The themes are basic but there's nothing wrong with them. Sort of tried and true themes. There's not really any complexity in the plot, no crazy twists or subtle plots going on. Again, thirty minutes (I'm going to be saying that a lot in this review)
Let's admit it: everyone who watched this watched it for the art. It's really good, and easily the best part of the short. It really shows the reason Trigger is popular, highlighting the stylistic choices that people loved in Gurren Lagann. While I think the character designs are just a bit lackluster, the rest of the art is spot on.
Backgrounds are beautifully detailed, it's really colorful and the animation is energetic and smooth from start to finish. The art style matches the tone really well, and the fact that it was mostly done by hand is really impressive. My personal favorite parts are the magic effects, which are absolutely enchanting. There's not really any reason to go too deep into the art other than by just saying "It's good."
General Presence: 2/2
Visual Design: 1/2
Attention to Detail: 1/1
Visual Effects: 1/1
The sound is a bit tough to judge, since it's sort of middle of the road. Everything fits just fine, I guess. The voice actresses to okay jobs, but not really anything that blew me away. Though, as a side note, I do think it was cute that Hidaka Noriko came to play Chariot, since she's mostly known for her role in Gainax's best work (Gunbuster) and everyone knows Trigger is trying to be "Gainax II."
Music was okay, I guess. It never stuck out but that's sort of a good thing. It at least sounded nice, just that there weren't any tracks you'd want to go out and listen to on your MP3 player or anything.
Sound effects were pretty awesome. Lots of booms and the Foley guys probably had their hands full trying to come up with noises to match all the crazy stuff that goes on in the animation. Works great.
Voice Acting: 2/4
Sound Effects: 2/2
As I mentioned before, this short plays out more like a pilot episode than it does a self-contained story. The characters, unfortunately, had to take a hit. It's not that you can't characterize well in thirty minutes, it's just that there are too many characters for the writing to do so, and that the short itself isn't trying to be a character study, it's just trying to be pretty.
So pretty much every character with a name can be summed up in one or two sentences. There's the incompetent but determined witch-in-training, her shy best friend with glasses, their third friend who is comedially creepy, the smug jerk who is the idol of the school, etc. Basically every character has been done to death, but there's not really anything wrong with it. Just don't expect to be winning any awards.
I'd think that if they had more room to work with, these characters could easily become more fleshed out and three-dimensional, just that thirty minutes rears its ugly head in once more. For what it's worth, the characters keep your interest during the running time.
FINAL JUDGMENT : 7/10
Let's not kid ourselves: the only real reason to watch Little Witch Academia is for the visuals. It's a good reason, but it's hardly a short that makes a real lasting artistic impact or anything. If you ever have a half hour to kill, it's definitely worth your time, but if you expect anything more than eye candy then you might be walking out of the thirty minutes a bit underwhelmed.
What I Liked: Amazingly good soundtrack full of vigour and drama. Lively animation reminiscent of Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. Plot is upbeat and charming, driven by cute (if not cliched) characters. The opening scene is not only gorgeously animated, but does a great job of setting up the main character's motive and personality.
What I Didn't: I can (sort of) forgive this short for being as ridded with cliché as it was.
Final Verdict: This captivating magical-themed short is just bursting with charm despite telling a tale that's been told a hundred times before. The soundtrack is brilliant, the animation is energetic and overall the production team have created a fabulous and engaging world in just 26 minutes.
OK, it's family friendly fun. The premise has been beaten to death in all forms of art. And yet, Little Witch Academia is so earnest and fun that it is absolutely fantastic. From the clever and distinct character designs (like a cartoon of Hogwarts), the brilliant backgrounds, the uplifiting cinematic music, multiple character arcs, and a bunch of jokes ranging from slapstick to situational via nerd and literary references, this is some top notch stuff.
Have no doubt, Little Witch Academia is cheesy, and invades Pixar territory with the plot style. It sets itself up to compete with the entire world of animation, and not only that, in the particularly fierce and high budget section of child friendly movies. You know what? Call me impressed.
The story is perhaps the weakest point of Little Witch Academia. It isn't anything special. The plot is very basic, naively sticking to the most general formula out there. It borrows plenty from Harry Potter; a muggle born witch not knowing the culture and sucking at flying on brooms, a trio led by super-snob as the school rivals, two best friends so they can match up, history of magic being a snoozefest, the "evil" good guy using potions... I could keep going on for ages. It also borrows from various other works. I'd actually really hate it if it wasn't so damn enjoyable.
The animation is top notch with a unique style that is on the border of anime and the cartoon network from a style point. The movement is glorious in its flow, not sticking to realism but rather revelling in the format to emote with body language so much more than adding more details to the character design. The care for the facial expressions is magnificent, giving us a range of personality in every interaction. As I mentioned, the backgrounds are downright glorious. And through it all, there is a vision of how it should be done, and they stick with it from start to end.
The sound is perhaps the weakest point, since I am comparing it to the best of Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks and not only anime. While the voice acting is superb, the soundtrack is a bit on the obvious side. It is overall a great fit for such a short piece, giving us tension when needed, and is uplifting and grand as well. Overall, it is a strong showing.
From a character perspective, the fact that they managed two complete character arcs while this being a world-creation/plot driven piece is one amazing accomplishment. Little Witch Academia manages to have a few memorable characters, and even manage to make them have some depth. There are the stereotypical characters, but luckily, the focus is more on their interactions when they're flat and depth is added when they're important to the plot.
I cannot recommend Little Witch Academia to just anyone. I will recommend it to everyone. This is half an hour your life will be better for spending.