Studio 4°C’s anime transcends the borders of Japan. From Linkin Park's "Breaking the Habit", to the Animatrix, and even to the Gotham Knight, their portfolio is varied and extensive. First Squad, their latest effort, is a collaboration between two Russian directors and 4°C, crossing the sea once again to create international anime. I had high hopes for First Squad, as the Studio's last movie, Tekkon Kinkreet, was excellent. However, the bullets of the collaboration were quick to puncture my hopes; after an hour and thirteen minutes they looked like swiss cheese.
The story of First Squad is told in a unique fashion: meshing live action documentary with more traditional animation. There is an interesting interplay, as Russian scholars and veterans ground the fantastical story into reality. First Squad could be commended on this approach if the story itself were not so weak. The plot is predictable; the Nazi's are beckoning vengeful spirits from the other realm, and the Russian's need to stop them. The characters don't do much to salvage the poor tale. The pacing is erratic and disjointed, jumping from scene to scene with little sense of cohesion. The movie's namesake, the First Squad, is a poorly developed cast, with only slivers of background ever filled in. Nadya, the main antagonist, is drawn from clichés –an amnesiac psychic who would give life and limb for country.
The voice acting didn't help prop up the narrative. The Russian voice actors sound deflated, their flat voices conveying plastic emotion. Scenes riddled with melodrama come off as comical because the voice actors just don't seem to care. The music was passable, a boisterous overture in the opening that harkens to any military film. The rest of the score is appropriate, weaving melodies from low growling organs with the rhythmic hum of violins.
Studio 4°C does deliver the goods on the art. A muted palette washes over the snowy seas of the Eastern Front. Moscow’s majesty is quiet from the war-torn world, a stark contrast to the Gloom World, a twisted realm where fallen warriors continue to tear at one another. Russia is a feast to look at to say the least. Excellent cell-shaded CGI is threaded together with top-notch animation create a stunning effect. Artists made a successful effort in modeling the characters, drawn to have a distinctive Caucasian look. It's jarring to see characters visages evoke a strong emotion, when their voices are low and uninspired.
First Squad, to say the least, disappointed me. Despite the pretty little black dress it wears, what is inside does not satisfy. The story is forgettable, the characters are paper-thin, and the voice acting isn’t exactly inspiring. I praise Studio 4°C for attempting to blend two styles –documentary and anime. Hopefully this method of storytelling won’t be thrown to the wayside, and will be used to create a much more engaging and entertaining experience.