Blu-ray Review: Modest Heroes | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020  

Modest Heroes

Studio: GKIDS / Shout! Factory

Jun 11, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

With the time and expense that goes into producing a hand-drawn piece of animation, it’s easy to understand the attraction of the short film format. The catch is that it can be difficult to wholly establish the sort of fantastic settings that thrive within animation, as world-building can be the first thing hampered by time restraints. Luckily here, talent wins out: Modest Heroes is an anthology feature collecting three shorts from Studio Ponoc, a team of Japanese industry vets formed in the wake of Studio Ghibli’s production stoppage, and whose prior work was the hit animated feature Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

The three films included here hail from widely varied genres: we get family-friendly fantasy, a heartfelt contemporary drama, and a heady slice of science fiction, in that order. This anthology is the first in Ponoc’s proposed “Short Films Theatre” series, in which the shorts are only linked by their shared themes; here, the animators were left open to interpret their version of a “Modest Hero.”

Kanini & Kanino comes from Hiromasa Yonebayashi—director of Witch’s Flower, as well as Ghibli’s Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There—and revolves around young siblings who are some sort of anthropomorphized crabs, but appear as tiny, normal-looking humans; when their father is carried away in a strong current, the brother and sister embark on a brave rescue mission. Choosing not to subtitle the created language spoken by its characters, Kanini & Kanino’s story is easy to comprehend. It’s also the most visually striking film in this collection: the undersea world is arrestingly rendered, and the plights of the miniature protagonists certainly calls to mind the director’s prior Arrietty.

Standing in stark contrast to its companion films, Life Ain't Gonna Lose is a modern-day story about a grade-schooler named Shun, whose allergy to eggs has nearly killed him several times, and makes life for his mother (voiced by Maggie Q in the English dub) more difficult than she ever anticipated. Grounded in reality, it was heart-wrenching to watch as a parent, and a challenge for my four-year-old daughter who was frightened for the young boy. The most arresting sequence of animation here takes place during an allergic attack, which conveys just how terrified Shun must feel while going through it. The short is directed by Yoshiyuki Momose, who held prominent animation roles on many of Isao Takahata’s features, going all the way back to Grave of the Fireflies.

Finally, Invisible is the anthology’s most high-concept selection. Director Akihiko Yamashita—a character designer on Howl’s Moving Castle and Tales from Earthsea—crafts a story about an invisible man who must remain anchored by heavy objects or risk floating away into the sky. It’s hard to say much more without giving away the simple plot, but the short presents some striking imagery and an idea that might not have been able to fill a feature-length film, but is fascinatingly explored over a condensed runtime. Out the three films, this is the one most likely to linger long after in viewers’ minds.

For such a brief collection of films (54 minutes in total), the extra features are surprisingly plentiful. Included are a subtitled press conference about the completion of the anthology, interviews with the Japanese voice cast, an overview of the talent roster at Studio Ponoc, art galleries and trailers. Modest Heroes was a nice surprise, and worth a look for any fan of animation – especially those who will be able to appreciate the Studio Ghibli DNA that’s quite obvious in these imaginative tales.



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