Films based on long-running franchises like Naruto have a bit of a track record for being pretty disappointing. Despite higher production values the storylines are often weak or cheesy, coming across more like a feature-length filler episode than a classy piece of cinema. The first Naruto Shippuden film was notable for actually being relatively decent, but with the Shippuden series well established will this one follow in its footsteps?
To start with things look promising. The action kicks in
almost immediately with an unknown force of flying ninjas conducting a daring
daytime bombing raid on the ninja village of Konoha. The attack coincides
with the arrival of a skilled doctor and his apprentice, who have come to
request aid for their village after it was threatened by the same enemy.
The assailants are ninja from the Land of Sky, a country that was all but wiped
out by Konoha in the last great ninja war, and their attack is a show of the
strength they have regained. In response Konoha simultaneously launches a
counterattack against its own assailants and dispatches Naruto, Sakura and
Hinata to escort and aid doctor Shinnou and his apprentice Amaru.
Meanwhile Orochimaru seeks Shinnou for his medical knowledge, and dispatches
Sasuke to track him down. However, the Sky Ninja have a more nefarious
plan in mind, and hope to use a powerful weapon to destroy Konoha entirely.
Their plan has something to do with Shinnou and Amaru’s village, and Naruto’s
team is running right to the middle of it! There could be more heartache
to come too, Sasuke’s search for Shinnou has put him on a direct collision
course with his former teammates, and with emotions still raw from his betrayal
three years earlier they could be set for an even more devastating conflict…
As I said the film starts well. The opening attack is both impressively depicted and suitably shocking, even if it does quite blatantly, err, pay ‘homage’ to the Pearl Harbour attack depicted in Tora Tora Tora, with the bombers flying low over farmland and confused locals hanging out washing. It also refreshingly focuses on more characters than just Naruto, with Shikamaru given his time to shine as he directs the counterattack on the Sky ninja and Sakura given slightly more than just the background role she usually gets in
the films. The production values are noticeably high, with superb animation and art, vibrant colours and some well integrated CGI that really sets it apart from the TV series. The setup is quite good, with a vengeful enemy force that could pose a threat to Konoha (even if this is a common conceit for the filler stories from the series), a mysterious plan and an intriguing potential conflict between Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke. Even though Shinnou and Amaru are blatant Naruto stock movie characters (‘old-man-with-secrets’ and ‘young-teen-who-clashes-with-Naruto-but-will-be-inspired-by-him-later’ respectively) things are actually quite gripping…until about halfway through.
It’s around this point when the film does what all of the
Naruto movies do, separates Naruto from his fellow ninja and leaving him to
use his guts and determination to save the day. It has some quite obvious
twists, some unnecessary goofy comedy and a really daft doomsday weapon which
seems more than a little out of place, but most damningly it sidelines the other
ninja and ends up like any other filler story. There’s also some strange
reactions between characters which seem at odds with the main storyline, in
particular Sasuke’s reaction to Naruto and Naruto’s annoyance at Hinata being
part of the team. In the main storyline he has always supported and
believed in her, treating her well even when others don’t. Here however he
treats her like a hindrance, reacting badly when she is named on the team.
It’s strange, and is the first sign that the film isn’t on the same wavelength
as Kishimoto’s original story, but it’s not the only one. One enemy has a
power that has unavoidable consequences in the original story, but not here, and
should make him the strongest and fastest ninja on the planet, but doesn’t.
There’s also the introduction of ‘dark chakra’, a negative form of energy that
stems from despair and hatred, which doesn’t marry up with how chakra is treated
and used in the series as a whole. On top of this there’s the flying
devices and shuriken guns the Sky ninja use, which you discover later can be
used by pretty much anybody and which begs the question of why no-one else does.
There’s also the fact that a heavily militarised ninja village can be so utterly
defenceless in the face of attack. Cue Pearl Harbour parallels again I
Despite these quite major complaints the film is not all bad. On the plus side it remains visually impressive throughout, and the action – which is frequent – is impressively done. It’s great to see ninja like Sai and Shino using their powers in a film, and the potential of a meeting between Naruto and Sasuke is intriguing, even if it is ultimately a bit disappointing. As with most of the films Bonds has a central concept it wants to explore – in this one the bonds of friendship, respect and love and how they are tested by betrayal. It draws some interesting
parallels between Naruto and Amaru, and handles the emotional side of their stories well. Amaru does get fleshed out a little more than you may expect for a throwaway film character, and there are some decent dramatic scenes between the main protagonists and the Sky ninja leader. It also deserves to be pointed out that the film is nowhere near as cheesy as some of the previous Naruto films.
All in all Naruto Shippuden The Movie: Bonds is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand its action-packed, superbly animated and has an intriguing – if unoriginal – premise. It brings together Naruto and Sasuke in a situation where they have different missions but similar goals, and has some interesting musings on the bonds between friends and how far they can be stretched. Best of all it does have a truly cinematic scale, and the visual and audio quality afforded by the increased budget is very much apparent. Conversely, the story loses its way about halfway through, resorting to cliché, contrived twists and plot elements that have a whiff of filler episode about them. The new characters are unoriginal and despite some character development aren’t strong enough to carry the story once the majority of the main cast are sidelined. Some of the powers and abilities seem at odds with the constraints the original story has laid out, and the ending is somewhat underwhelming. It’s a shame as despite a couple of niggles the first half of the film has promise, and for once there’s even a legitimate reason for Naruto getting cut off from his team. However, as it progresses it wastes a lot of the best ideas it had and falls into formula, ending up as simply an average film. It’s still better than many of the early Naruto films, and it is better than the filler that frequently clogs up the series, but whilst dedicated fans may lap it up to me it feels like a missed opportunity.
Only trailers, a special opening theme and a production art gallery. Normally Manga include more for a film release.