Netflix’s anime movie Bubble (not to be mistaken for The Bubble, Netflix’s live-action comedy released 28 days prior) is a classical sort of story that deals, thematically, with something we’ve been asking in stories since humans first began to tell each other stories. We’ve levied this existential query upon animals, objects, and even abstract concepts: what if it was an anime girl?
Here, the girl in question is Uta, who rescues sulky parkour ace Hibiki from drowning in the waters of a ruined Tokyo. She wears loud, mismatched colors that look like she fell into Dr. Seuss’s laundry basket, and she has that vaguely animalistic, monosyllabic characterization common to these sorts of stories. She is also, in fact, a bubble, of the kind that fell upon the Earth in droves one fateful day and saturated cities across the globe. What seemed like a harmless curiosity gave way to something else entirely: the bubbles in Tokyo all exploded, causing untold death and destruction.
Though the rest of the world operates as normal, Tokyo remains devastated. The city is no longer Japan’s capital, now a restricted ruin mysteriously enclosed in a giant bubble that recalls the domed explosion from the beginning of Akira. But it’s hardly an impenetrable barrier, as evidenced by the kids who flock inside to explore its twisted landscape of floating platforms and smaller bubbles, which alter the gravity of whatever they touch. Naturally, someone took a look around and realized the city would be a pretty sick venue for playing capture the flag; teams of radical parkouring hooligans with no place else to go and not much else to do could bet scavenged rice, gasoline, and other resources on matches. Thus, Tokyo Battlekour was born.
Frankly, the details of Bubble’s oddly specific setting are a lot more interesting than the romance that blossoms in their midst. Once Uta saves Hibiki and joins his squad, the Blue Blazes, he learns to open up and be more of a team player. She, in turn, learns the basic conventions of human society and speech as well as the love that she feels (for reasons that are never particularly clear) for Hibiki.
The supporting cast borders on extraneous: there’s the young scientist who hangs out with the Blue Blazes to study the area’s gravity, the hotheaded team member who lusts after her, and the grizzled veteran who wears Hawaiian shirts and lost his leg in a wicked parkour accident that he hopes to ensure will never happen again. One of the rival leaders is a big guy with long, bright red hair who keeps huffing what appears to be a sponge.
To say the least, Bubble is overstuffed, a TV show’s worth of ideas crammed into a film that clocks in at under two hours. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the new wrinkles to the setting keep the pace brisk rather than leaving the film to stew in its clichés. The biggest, weirdest highlight is one rival parkour team, the Undertakers, who all wear masks painted with a huge eyeball and talk through a little speaker on the palms of their gloves. Their goal is to boost their views on the internet, and they wear boots that shoot streams of water to rocket around the environment for a blatantly unfair advantage. (Surprisingly, the kids otherwise behave; no one is, say, bringing a machete to a footrace, and we see spectators from other teams pulling disqualified runners out of the water).
The film sporadically suggests the far less conventional story that the credits might suggest, with animation from Wit Studio and character designs by Death Note‘s Takeshi Obata. Of three credited screenwriters, one is the infamous Gen Urobuchi, who imparts little of the misery and brutality typical of his work. His fingerprints are most amusingly visible on the film’s references — he tends to go on at excessive length about philosophy and literature, and there’s something hilarious about watching that approach applied to The Little Mermaid.
The best parts of the film do feel distinctly tailored to the strengths of one of its collaborators, director Tetsuro Araki. His sense of showy action, seen especially in the high-flying maneuvers of Attack on Titan, maps perfectly onto Bubble’s parkour stylings, requiring few frills and explanatory tangents as characters pull off intricate bits of navigation on their way to the flag.
Unfortunately, it’s also the sort of thing you grow accustomed to before the end. The film’s climax, when the stakes are highest and the characters must evade genuine peril, ends up as the most drearily conventional stretch of the whole runtime, now counting on the emotional weight of a relationship between a mopey kid and a girl who spends a good chunk of the film unable to communicate with anyone at all.
Uta, we learn, should not be in human form. Only her drive to save Hibiki allowed her to take that shape, and it’s quite fragile — she starts dissolving into foam upon human touch. But this conflict never comes into focus. Adaptations of The Little Mermaid (even the extremely relaxed attitude of Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo) tend to drum up interest by including characters who balk at the prospect of their girl cavorting with humanity. Beyond a handful of angry calls from the bubbly beyond, the film fails to visualize this apparent strife.
I’m not sure the film would have benefited from explaining itself, but the alternative is nearly comedic in its flatness, reliant on visual shorthand like some bubbles that are red because they are mad. Here, I imagine, is where the expanded scope of a TV version could make the difference, having drummed up our emotional investment to the point where we cheer at the sight of a scrappy team finally coming together. Instead, Bubble is curiously conflict-averse, like a story so straightforward that it could run on autopilot.