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    theO Review: Wolf Children

Wolf Children isn’t the best title for Mamoru Hosada’s (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars) new feature film. While the supernatural kids are an awesome attraction, it’s their saintly human mother, Hana, who defines the movie as an ode to parenthood. “Wolf Mom” would fit better, but Hana would never allow it: “I’m just doing my job, poorly.”

In the beginning of Wolf Children, Hana loses her husband and is forced to raise two toddlers as a jobless mom in the big city. The twist is that her husband was a werewolf—the last of his kind—and both kids carry the gene. Western movies portray werewolves as sad people who uncontrollably transform into ferocious monsters by moonlight. Hana’s kids, Ame and Yuki, are a different and domesticated variety. They can morph at will, day or night, and their animal states are either adorable when young (puppies!) or majestic when older. Wolves are technically extinct in Japan and this is a movie that wishes they weren’t.

Wolf Children spans a decade or so with too many montage sequences along the way. The first half of the movie alternates between tragedy and hijinx as Hana struggles to make a life for her family. There are big laughs in the process—babies and puppies are adorable troublemakers on their own and combining them doubles the madness. For every laugh there’s a bigger sacrifice. To keep her kids’ canine identities a secret, Hana moves the family to a dilapidated house in the deep country. There she adds backbreaking farm work to her already hectic lifestyle. She never complains though, and whenever she hits a wall, she scolds herself for not working harder. (If you need proof of Hana’s sainthood, look at how she responds to “Grandpa,” her sourpuss neighbor.)

The second half of the movie tackles adolescence with a serious tone. The kids are drastically different as teens and Hana steps back to let them choose their path, whether it’s in the classroom or the wilderness, alone or with friends. These scenes are the most powerful in the film. Watching Ame and Yuki struggle to fit in, you’ll find yourself in Hana’s shoes: concerned about the kids you watched grow up but also helplessly sidelined. How do you raise a teenager who’s technically an adult in wolf years?

Wolf Children is a visually happy film with soft lines, a bright palette and fluid animation. A few stills would make brilliant wallpapers, especially the flowers in the opening scene. The human-wolf transformations are wondrous: character lines smoothly melt into their new form, a far cry from the stilted werewolf metamorphoses of the 80’s.

A couple of problems keep Wolf Children from perfection. I grew tired of the constant use of montages and on a couple of occasions I didn’t even realize that the movie had entered “montage mode” until midway through the sequence. This took me out of the movie. I also saw Hana’s excessive do-goodness as an obvious missed opportunity. While Ame and Yuki had their fair share of complications, which made them relatable and interesting, Hana was above reproach in every way. I’m not sure if the director was trying to make Hana a foil or was glorifying mothers in general but the film’s exploration of parenthood would have felt more complete if she was more than a one-dimensional idealization. One or two outbursts would have made a big difference—she’s almost more unrealistic than her fanged offspring!

Wolf Children is a successful, supernatural, slice-of-life look at the trials and joys of parenthood with loud puppies and babies at the beginning and angsty adolescents and noble wolves at the end. It’s filled with thoughtful and magical scenes that you’ll recall long after viewing. That the two kids are fantastical creatures raises the stakes and adds tremendous charm but don’t be fooled, this is a familiar story and a worthy directorial entry for Mamoru Hosada.

I saw Wolf Children at an NYC screening sponsored by the New York International Children's Film Festival (NYICFF). FUNimation will be releasing the movie on DVD/Blu-Ray this year.

theO Score: 9/10

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