Friday, February 19, 2010

Halo Legends (2010) review: Diversity over quality

Overall verdict: 7/10

The Good: Expands the rich Halo game universe, offers fresh new takes on existing stories, manages to capture the look and feel of the Halo games, excellent English voice acting

The Bad: Lack of coherance, wildly varying story styles that may not appeal to all, wildly varying art styles, the japanese voice acting

Current Availability Status: Pending DVD release locally. USA region 1 DVDs and blu ray Widely available

DVD features:
- The Making of Halo Legends - An introduction to Halo Legends followed by a making-of segment for each episode.
-Halo: Gaming Evolved - Explaining the Halo phenomenon from its inception as an Xbox video game to a present day entertainment franchise.
-Audio Commentary with directors Frank O'Connor and Joseph Chou
Halo Legends is an anime anthology series in a similar vein to "Animatrix" and "Batman: Gotham Knight". It consists of 8(but actually 7 since two of them are just parts 1 and 2 of the same story) short animated stories that explores areas of the rich Halo game universe which were previously only the stuff of rumors. Different anime studios and directors worked on each segment as as such, the quality of both the stories and the animation varies a lot from one clip to the next. Some for the better, others less so. For convenience sake, each segment will be reviewed individually.

The first segment is the two parter "Origins" story. In part one, a very hot looking anime Cortana (a holographic Artificial intelligence construct) narrates the tragic tale of the ancient race that built the titular "Halo" worlds, The Forerunners, and their cataclysmic clash with the "flood"(a race of parasitic creatures that feed on intelligent lifeforms). Part 2 details the war torn history of mankind, their initial encounter with the Covenant right up to the events of the 3 main Halo games. Directed by Hideki Futamura(director of "Genius Party" Key animator of Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust) with animation produced by Studio 4C(Transformers Animated, Spriggan) we finally get to see a coherent fleshing out of the game's historical back-story. The artwork is top notch; characters are rich in detail yet nicely blended with some of the best looking CGI backgrounds and vehicles. From a cartoony 1980s minimalist style used to visualize the ancient history of the Forerunners, the design slowly evolves to its full 2010 animation glory by the end of the segment. But beauty does come at a cost. Many scenes of the 2D characters have all the fluidity of a power-point presentation in which the camera just pans over stiff or still pictures of 2D characters while Cortana narrates. Special commendation goes to the running theme about mankind's war-like nature where Cortana tries to wax in some philosophy; great bit of writing there. Also to the choice of using the original music from the Halo games.
The third segment titled "The Duel", might be the most misunderstood segment of all. It is a tale of a Covenant Arbiter named Fal who fears that the Covenant's ways are dishonorable and would lead his people to their doom. The prophet uses this to accuse him of heresy and has Fal's wife killed in order to lure him to his death. Boasting a graphic style reminiscent of classic Japanese watercolor paintings courtesy of Production I.G (Ghost in The Shell: Innocence, IGPX), it is easy to put off the stylized looking CGI as bad animation. But Judging from the style of the story, the themes of honor and betrayal, the production design such as the costumes worn by the characters and even the traditional woodwind music, it is safe to assume that the directors, Hiroshi Yamazaki and Mamoru Oshii(Ghost in the Shell, Sky Crawlers) intended this to be a homage to traditional Japanese folk tales and art. It really is refleshing to see an anime studio experimenting with a new unique visual style. On a side note, this is the only segment where it is recommended to be watched with the japanese audio track. It gives a more genuine experience of what the director is trying to convey.
Production IG returns to a more mainstream anime design in "Homecoming", the 4th segment directed by Koichi Mashimo(Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles and .Hack//Roots). The main character is a SPARTAN II soldier named Daisy 23. While the story takes place during a mission in present day, flashbacks reveal the sad origin of the SPARTAN program where children are kidnapped to be surgically augmented and trained to be super soldiers. The flashbacks tell the tale of a failed escape attempt by Daisy and some other trainees and how she finally comes to terms with her role in the coming war. Even more unoriginal than the previous segment, Homecoming tries to tug on the heartstrings but ends up a mildly boring, cliche ridden mess. The flat 2D art and uninspired character designs clash badly with the beautiful backgrounds. Whats more, the tough SPARTAN soldiers are portrayed as angsty emo teenagers. Coupled with an utterly predictable ending, this is One of the weakest entries in the whole movie. Yikes. At least the english voice of Daisy sounds like a tough woman soldier with a soft spot, the japanese voice track actually makes her sound a kawaii schoolgirl.

Number 5 on the list is "Odd One Out" and that title not only describes the main character SPARTAN 1337 but the entire segment itself. While other clips focus on dark gritty war stories, Odd one Out focuses more on lighthearted slapstick comedy. It is no surprise that director Daisuke Nishio, who also directed the Dragonball anime, would imbue this with all the staples of those long running Shonen action series. Exaggerated hand to hand combat, quirky characters, super powered kids, cheesy dialog. Even the flaws like repeated scenes and inconsistent animation is present here with characters constantly being drawn off-model during the combat scenes. Everything is rendered in a bright cheery color palette that further enhances the shonen jump feel. Odd one Out is a fun ride but it seems more for anime fans. At best, Halo fans might be mildly amused at this odd little entry, at worst this would be regarded as downright insulting to the very name of Halo. In the end, this one serves no other purpose than to be a parody Halo with bad tastes.
"Prototype" by Studio Bones(Rahxephon, Wolf's Rain) blends Halo with another typically Japanese anime genre: Mecha. Directed by Tomoki Kyoda of "Eureka 7" fame and new comer Yasushi Muraki, Prototype is basically like a short Gundam episode. "Ghost" is a platoon sergeant with a kind heart who suppresses his feelings and his humanity in order to stem the pain he feels about the loss of his comrades 3 years ago. Now On the Planet Algolis, the "Cole Protocol"(something only a die hard Halo fan would know about) has been enacted but Ghost steals the experimental "Mobile suit" that he was supposed to destroy and uses it against the covenant in an attempt to buy time for the evacuation. Imagine Gundam Wing's Trowa or Heero or any other emotion suppressing(see: pretending to be badass) anime protagonist as a Halo marine. That is Ghost. Despite the outright plagiarism of Gundam, "Prototype" is a heart-wrenching little anecdote about the effects of war from the perspective of the frontline soldier and boasts some excellent animation that hardly relies on CGI.
Studio 4C returns in the 7th segment to animate "The babysitter". Not only is this little story one of the weakest in terms of narrative but in the animation too. The story does not have the emotional impact of the previous ones and only serves as a reminder for the Halo fans that the production team has not forgotten about the Helljumpers from "Halo: ODST". Toshiyuki Kanno's animation is flatly colored and clashes with the detailed CGI backgrounds. Character movements are painfully stiff except for one or two shots.
Had enough anime for one sitting? No sweat. Halo Legends ends off with the fully CGI "The Package" by Casio Entertainment and directed by Appleseed's Shinji Aramaki. This one is for the fans of the game as it looks just like one of the in-game cinematic cut-scenes. For the only time in the whole anthology do we finally get to see Master Chief 117 in action. First, an amazing scene of space combat that rivals even Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Then all out Guns-a-blazing action as Master Chief and a team of Spartans attempt to retrieve the titular package "John Woo" style. So many little easter eggs including a short FPS sequence and an important cameo appearance, easily make this segment a fan favorite for sure. Probably as an apology to Halo game fans for the anime styled story liberties the other segments took.

Overall, the whole production plays the "diversity over quality" card. Unlike other anime anthology films like "Animatrix" and "Batman Gotham Knight", Halo Legends suffers from a lack of creative direction. Each segment goes its own way leading to a very non-cohesive viewing experience. There is something for everyone to enjoy but at the same time, there is something for everyone to criticise and hate. Half the clips appeal to the game fans but might not impress anime viewers, while the other half would enthrall even the most casual viewer of anime but put off the hardcore Halo fans. It also requires viewers to be well versed in at least the most basic of Halo jargon but that is covered in one of the DVD's extra features. A Curious little piece but not quite essential viewing for either anime or halo fans.

*****************************Review End******************
Go For it: if you want to see various interpretations of stories, both old and new, set in the Halo universe.
Avoid it: if you are very particular of the kind of style of anime you like to watch or if you are a hardcore Halo fan who believes that anything different from the games' cinematics is sacrilegious

Entertainment: A-
Story: B- (on average)
Characters: B+
Animation: B(varies from segment to segment, but this is on average)
Art: B-(varies from segment to segment, but this is on average)
Voice work: A-(english), C(japanese)
Replay Value: A
"Brains": C


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