Reviews

Fantasia Review: After School Midnighters

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One of my favorite lines about kids movies comes from Terry Gilliam. When describing Time Bandits, Gilliam said he wanted to make a movie that was intelligent enough for children and exciting enough for adults. I’ve probably mentioned this line before because I think it’s right on when describing the children’s movies I like.

Mediocre-to-bad kids movies are exciting for children on a superficial level but never engage their imaginations. They wind up being mere visual distractions that inspire no thought or wonder. If you’re an adult who has to watch these things with a kid, the movies will throw in a bunch of adult jokes (usually dumb pop-culture references) to keep you mildly interested. These are also just distractions, mostly so you don’t get bored and resort to drink.

What Gilliam said is really about making a movie you’d appreciate as a kid and as an adult. That brings me to After School Midnighters. The 7-year-old me and the adult me both agree: This movie is awesome!

[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival. Started in 1996 and based primarily in Montreal, Fantasia is widely regarded as one of the best genre film festivals in North America. To read all of our coverage, click here.]

After School Midnighters (Houkago Midnighters | 放課後ミッドナイターズ)
Director: Hitoshi Takekiyo
Rating: TBD
Country: Japan
Release Date: August 25, 2012 (Japan)

In After School Midnighters you have a haunted school full of bumbling spirits. The primary two are a manic anatomy model named Louis Thomas Jerome Kunstlijkand (usually just called Kun or Mr. Naked) and his skeleton sidekick Goth. There are also half-skinned/half-dissected mafia rabbits who shoot first and ask questions later, digital demons, adorable bugs who reminded me of the soot spirits in My Neighbor Totoro, and an ancient evil who’s been trapped for decades in a bathroom stall.

That’s just scratching the very surface.

Where did the rabbits get those guns? Why is an ancient evil trapped in a bathroom stall? Who cares! This is the 7-year-old’s logic of the toy box: if it’s in there, put it all together and play. (It’s also what 7-year-olds do when they make potions out of stuff in the fridge.) The justification for the choices can come later if they even come at all or if they’re even necessary. The point is the invigorating joy of inventiveness from director Hitoshi Takekiyo and co-screenwriter Yoichi Komori.

There’s so much weirdness going on in After School Midnighters, and weirdness is one of the things I enjoyed in the movies I loved growing up. Weirdness forces kids to embrace and ponder strange ideas, which enlarges the possibilities of the world even if the weird things are total impossibilities. It also enlarges the imaginative possibilities in a kid’s head. After watching a weird thing as a kid, a little inner voice seems to say, “You can tell stories like these? Let me out-weird this!” Only good things can come from the impulse to out-weird the weird things that you love.

Revenge and adventure are the catalysts for the film’s story. Our three kindergarten-aged heroes — Mako, Miko, and Mitsuko (a peppy girl, a prissy girl, and a cool weirdo girl, pretty sure that’s the order) — mess up the science room in the school and vandalize Kun. It’s playful, like the doodling kids do in book or on a hallway wall, but it’s still vandalism. The enraged Kun vows he will have vengeance and lures the three brats back to the building at night to make them suffer. Goth, who’s more levelheaded, thinks the girls can actually help save the science room from being closed down. To do that, they must win three magic medals which will grant a single wish when brought together.

There’s magic in After School Midnighters. There’s also mad science thanks to Mr. Kun. He’s an incredible inventor who makes things things that don’t always work as planned. Mad science if the best kind of science, maybe because when it fails it has a tendency to fail spectacularly. These blends of the supernatural and science fiction in a gigantic school building create a space for the filmmakers to run wild. The animation similarly comes unhinged in the more imaginative moments of the movie. It’s vibrant and exaggerated, and while not as technically accomplished as a Pixar film, the animators make up for that with sheer moxie, sort of like the film’s three little-girl heroes.

I mentioned the toy box approach earlier, and I think that’s fitting because the movie feels like a work made of play. There are no idle or boring spots in After School Midnighters because there are few idle or boring spots during play time. In the lesser kids movies, there are obvious spots where the filmmakers have run out of decent material. That’s where the punch-up crew comes in most times, adding gags to fill dead space. Good kids movies don’t need punch-ups.

Like children at play, just when things could get boring in After School Midnighters, Takekiyo and Komori decide to change the rules or throw in a new element from the toy box. These infusions of creativity add excitement and mystery without feeling like they’re outside of the story. What’s most surprising is the cohesiveness in this jumble of elements, as if each bit complements the others. (The same can’t be said of those refrigerator potions.) After School Midnighters is unpredictable in the best of ways, and at each little swerve of the story, I couldn’t stop laughing out of sheer joy.

What’s more, After School Midnighters contains no scenes of overt sentimentality in order to win unearned sympathy for its various characters. This film doesn’t need that. The characters are all likable in their own strange ways, even the ancient evil, who’s so frightening and cool looking. He’s definitely one of standouts in terms of character design. That’s what makes the various characters in After School Midnighters work: no matter who they are or what they are, they have a sense of existence that goes outside of the confines of the movie. The world of After School Midnighters, even down to its strange subterranean bugs, is so well realized. It’s alive.

The movies I loved growing up and still love today had to pass the following test: would 7-year-old me want to live inside the movie? Having carefully consulted 7-year-old me about After School Midnighters, the answer here is a resounding yes. I just hope 7-year-old me invites me over to play every now and then.

Alec Kubas-Meyer: In the midst of the extreme horror and violence on display at Fantasia, After School Midnighters is a brilliant breath of fresh air. Three kindergarteners must go through three trials against monsters and ghostly beings in order to acquire three magic medals. But the monsters are loveable, the ghostly beings are hilarious, and the children (often the scariest creatures of all) are freaking adorable. Even the obnoxious one who is always talking about how expensive her 6-year-old lifestyle is. And that’s saying something. If I have one complaint, it’s that the song and dance number early on is a tease of something that never comes; the film is not a musical. But even though I wish that the Godfather-inspired rabbits would sing a mourning song for their time-travelled brother, I really can’t hold that against the complete success that After School Midnighters is. 85 — Exceptional

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.