The influence of acclaimed Japanese animation wizard Hayao Miyazaki is clear in “Mia and the Migoo,” an award-winning film from French director Jacques-Rémy Girerd. It has a Miyazaki-like brave young heroine on an eco-themed journey and random encounters with grotesque characters. And, like Miyazaki, Girerd remains committed to traditional, hand-drawn animation, a welcome shift from computer-created images.
But “Mia” incorporates some of Miyazaki’s weaknesses – narrative incoherence and a remote, chilly quality – while never reaching the soaring visual or emotional scope of “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke,” or even “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” And a weak script feels like “Ferngully 3: Revenge of the Developers.”
Mia (voice of Amanda Misquez) is a little girl in an unidentified South American country. Her father, Paulo (voice of Joaquin Mas) has taken a dangerous job far from home to earn money to take care of her. As he works on a luxury homes construction project in a pristine part of the rainforest, he is trapped in a landslide. Mia immediately senses that her father needs her. She visits her mother’s grave to say goodbye and sets off to find him.
The man behind the construction project is Jekhide (voice of John DiMaggio of “Futurama”), a callous bully who relies on bribes, intimidation, and worse to get the project done. Gunpowder is “the smell of brute strength and power,” he tells his kind-hearted young son, Aldrin (voice of Vincent Agnello). “I’ll take that flame-thrower as well,” Jekhide tells a weapons dealer (voice of James Woods), as he prepares to hunt down the mysterious creature that has been obstructing the builders.
The Yeti-like creature is the Migoo, guardian of an “Avatar”-style Tree of Life. Mia and Aldrin will have to help the Migoo guard the tree or all life on earth will be at risk.
The Migoo are lumpen, golem-like muddy figures who are so dim-witted and consumed with bickering it is hard to imagine that they could protect a paperclip. But briefly there is one intriguing suggestion that they – it – is/are not several entities but a single one, at the same time big and small, many and one. This echoes Mia’s mystic connection to her father, somehow waking, hundreds of miles away, the instant that he was in trouble, as well as the theme of the film about our interconnectedness to our environment. But it quickly gets lost in an unbalanced, too-many-cooks script (five credited writers). Distracting flashes of crude humor dissipate any connection to the characters and odd encounters derail the momentum. And the climax muddles its own message.
The total control permitted by computer-generated animation has achieved and even exceeded photography to reach a kind of hyper-realism, liberating the few remaining practitioners of hand-drawn animation to experiment with a more free-form, impressionistic form of story-telling. Recent masterpieces of animation like “Coraline” or the “Triplets of Belleville” are thrilling demonstrations of strong personal taste rejecting many of the tools offered by computer graphics in favor of a distinctive personal vision.
This freedom puts even more of an obligation to make each artistic choice in service of the story. “Mia and the Migoo” does have some striking images with strong blocks of color. They would be impressive illustrations in a book. But animation, as the word indicates, is about movement. The lack of fluidity in “Mia” is not an artistic choice; it is inadequacy that in close-ups recalls the lips-only action in old “Clutch Cargo” cartoons.
Girerd makes the odd choice of outlining most of his figures with a glowing alizarin crimson. It may be intended to suggest the heat of global warming but it makes them look bruised. Red underpainting seems to add a radioactive glow to the backgrounds as well, highly out of place for a movie which celebrates the rich greens and blues of fertile vegetation and life-giving waters.
Parents should know that this film’s theme is ecological devastation. It includes a father trapped in a landslide and another father is an arrogant bully who neglects his son. There are references to divorce and death of a parent, arsenal of weapons and discussion of “making a man” of a child by taking him hunting, children and adults in peril, some potty humor and brief language and crude references.
Family discussion: What are the Migoo? How did Mia know her father was in trouble? Why was Aldrin’s father so mean and selfish? What can you do to help protect the planet?
If you like this, try: “Wall-E”