I said in the past how I’ve always seen movies from big shōnen franchises as filler arcs with a budget. The Naruto movies are no exception, but I always found them entertaining and effective in what they do, when you just want to sit back, relax, and unplug your brain. There are times, however, when even with that mindset the formula gets so stale that even the writers themselves seem to have stopped giving a crap, resulting in something that could have been subtitled The Contractually Obligatory Movie. And this second Shippūden movie and fifth Naruto movie overall, the one I had the highest hopes for, is one of them.
Man, I don’t know where to even begin here. Well, let’s begin with the tile, Bonds: the theme of “bonds” is barely touched upon, it’s given nothing more than a passing reference here and there and in Naruto’s usual cheesy “the power of love” speech; there’s no exploration of Naruto’s bond with Jiraiya (who’s not even present!), there’s no exploration of Naruto’s bond with Sasuke or anyone else, there’s no real test for Amaru’s bond with Shinnō (it’s just shattered), and there’s no James Bond either; even Sasuke’s presence, one of the movie’s big advertising points, is basically limited to a deus ex machina in the final battle, he is not played on to work on the “bonds” or to craft any emotional moment, he’s just there as a poster boy. God, Sasuke, what did they do to you?, you were such a believable and interesting character before the time skip…
The plot itself is also kind of weak even in comparison to the other movies: the attack on Konoha has been done too many times by now and the scene is not even well done enough to get much of an emotional response (you’re too busy going “What the fu… flying ninjas with machine guns and bomber planes? O_o”), the Land of Sky is just a plot device to get Amaru and Shinnō moving as it all but disappears from the plot after the first sequence and after an incredibly anti-climatic counterattack, the main storyline is the power-hungry villain du jour trying to obtain the ancient super-weapon du jour to, you guessed it, take over the world, and they even managed to ass-pull a freakin’ Zero-tails that feeds on dark chakra I’m not kidding. I felt my IQ drop 10 points there. The writing feels really rushed, you can’t tell if they tried something new but failed hard or just didn’t care, most twists are either underdeveloped (how the hell did a Miyazaki-esque super-weapon thingy fit in there?) or plain cheesy (especially the finale). “But”, you might say, “at least I get to see some awesome ninja action!”. Well, no. True, the final battle with Naruto and Sasuke is awesome here and there, but the action scenes, too, are a huge letdown; first of all, there’s so few of them: the opening sequence, Konoha’s counterattack, and the final battle. Secondly, they’re poorly executed: Naruto just keeps pulling new one-use Rasengan techniques out of God knows where, the counterattack is interrupted so many times that the tension it builds up is constantly nullified, the final battle has some moments but its first part is really repetitive and unintentionally funny. I’ll admit that Naruto’s actions and his separation from Sasuke in the finale aren’t bad at all, and so is some of the comedy, but it’s not enough to make this movie entertaining as a Naruto movie should be.
There’s not much to say about the regular cast: Shikamaru is a genius, Kakashi is badass, Hinata is adorable and useless, Sakura is on board for some slapstick and some healing and NOTHING ELSE, and with the little screentime they have and how quickly they’re discarded from the plot let’s just pretend they’re not there at all. Today’s case for Dr. Naruto’s Psychotherapy Division-ttebayo is Amaru; now, if Shion from the previous movie showed how even the typical filler character could still be effective if well executed, Amaru shows how the typical filler character can be useless if executed lazily. It’s the usual stuff, a past of loneliness, annoying and arrogant but fragile inside, looks up to a mentor, is let down at some point, and goes through the usual development with Naruto going “I’ll carry your burden” and “You’re like me!” (I think he has a collection of pre-written “I know what it feels like to be alone” speeches he rehearses in front of the mirror, by now), kicking some ass and saving the world. Been there, done that. Note that, due to a certain plot twist, Amaru has a lot of potential for exploring the theme of master-apprentice bonding in an interesting scenario, but it simply goes to waste. And about the villain… well, I won’t spoil the twist, but let me just say that… it’s really far-fetched, to say the least. Not to mention the total absence of any motivation or backstory, the kind of cardboard cut-out villain that even most filler arcs managed to avoid. And I swear at one point he just turns Super Saiyan…
As with any Naruto movie, the art and animation is consistently good, and with some impressive expressions and details on Amaru. I’ll also give it points for the pretty inspiring design of the Sky Ninjas’ battleships and of the big MacGuffin the villain is after (if it just wasn’t in that cheap CGI it’d be even better…). I have some complaints about the direction, especially the fact that they kept interrupting a fight sequence with scenes of people talking, but it handled well Naruto and Sasuke’s big fight and final moment, as well as Amaru’s crisis.
The soundtrack is handled by the same Takahashi Yasunaru who produces the soundtrack for “Naruto: Shippūden”; it’s pretty varied, with some tracks in the same “Japanese-music-meets-rock” which characterised Masuda’s work in the first series, and works well throughout these 90 minutes. If you pay attention to it, it easily stands out. Although I have to say that I found the ending song (performed by the same HOME MADE Kazoku who performed one Shippūden ED) really out of place and generic, but it may just be my aversion to rap here. I should give them credit for at least not using the Obligatory Sappy Ballad™…
Takeuchi Junko as Naruto keeps doing her thing, I think we should just stop taking her into consideration when it comes to reviews and consider the default setting to be Takeuchi=Awesome. The rest of the regular cast do their usual job, but they have so little space that they could be discarded. So, it all comes down to the two original characters: both Kumai Motoko as Amaru and Ishizuka Unshō (who already went down in Naruto history as Zabuza) as Shinnō are trying their best, but neither of them manages to make their characters believable and interesting. Ishizuka carries his character well most times, but at others he’s just plain cheesy; and despite Kumai’s good job in the most emotional moments the character’s dialogue is simply too plain, seen-before and cheesy for even her to make it work.
So, in the end, I know I always say it’s pointless to watch a shōnen franchise movie expecting to see a masterpiece, and that one should just do so when in the mood for some mindlessly action-packed entertainment, but even with that mindset this movie came out as a big disappointment to me. The plot is ridiculous, the action is really lazy, and, most importantly, it’s boring. I hate to use this argument, because it's highly subjective, but, really... to put it bluntly, it wasn’t the right moment of Shippūden canon to make a movie, because there were no elements to bring something new to a formula well past its expiration date that even from the fridge is starting to smell funny. If you’re a huge Naruto fan who wants to see everything in the franchise, feel free to go ahead, but otherwise there’s no reason to watch it: the previous movies are much better, and even some filler arcs from the series are more entertaining than this.