From The Lion King to Frozen – and countless others – the death of a parent has been a key narrative element in many animated films. A Letter to Momo, a new animated Japanese movie opening in Atlanta on Aug. 29, mines similar territory – but with a few wrinkles that make it a welcome addition to the mix.
For instance, unlike many of her animated predecessors, Momo has to carry not just a sense of loss but also a burden of guilt, since she fought with her dad and told him she hated him the last time they interacted.
Now she’s been uprooted from her home in bustling Tokyo and transplanted in Shio, a remote Japanese island where her mom grew up. An only child, Momo’s isolation is heightened when her mom starts taking classes, leaving Momo home alone. Even a few well-intentioned kid neighbors can’t break Momo out of her shell.
As a result, Momo spends a lot of time doing nothing, with occasional breaks spent staring at the piece of paper her dad left her, upon which are scrawled two cryptic words: “Dear Momo.”
It’s a banal existence, but things get a whole lot wilder when three spirit creatures show up at her house and start wreaking havoc. Are they evil goblins, annoying-but-harmless spirits, or the key to achieving closure in the wake of her father’s passing?
Writer/director Hiroyuki Okiura and his creative team tell the story with a sharp visual style that does the masterworks of legendary Japanese animation group Studio Ghibli proud. A Letter to Momo took seven years to draw, but the effort is worth it, from the warmth of the family interactions to dazzling moments like the climactic scene, in which hundreds of spirits move and morph in memorable fashion.
But A Letter to Momo is no mere visual extravaganza, thanks to Okiura‘s heartfelt script. While his supernatural creatures provide comic relief, it’s Momo’s sharply realized heroine who infuses the film with a powerful sense of love, loss and healing. Many big-budget dramas handle these issues with less subtlety and grace than Okiura displays.
There are a few quibbles. A Letter to Momo is kind of a tweener in terms of target market, and its mix of cute and coarse doesn’t always work. The film’s broad trio of spirits, for example, ranges from the cuddly, friendly Mame to the gassy, grotesque Kawa, and the tonal shifts are sometimes jarring. Occasional parallels to Hayao Miyazaki’s superior masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro don’t help, nor does the film’s lengthy 120-minute running time.
Fortunately, those pitfalls fade from memory in the wake of the film’s emotionally charged finale, which is likely to put a tear in the eye of any parent. The best animated films pulse with real feeling, and despite some shortcomings, A Letter to Momo’s deft drawings and deep emotions elevate it above the pack.
"A Letter to Momo” opens in Atlanta in dubbed and subtitled versions on Aug. 29 at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.