Review: Summer Wars


Few films have pleasantly surprised me the way Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time did. A shockingly assured feature from a relatively new talent, that spectacular film cemented Hosoda as one of the most promising directors out there, anime or otherwise. It was exciting, heartwarming, and filled with rich characters. The animation, which stands up even to the standards of Satoshi Kon and Miyazaki, doesn’t hurt either. The film quickly earned itself a spot near the top of my all-time favorite animated films, and I’m certain that it will prove an enduring classic.

Whether or not Summer Wars lives up to the pedigree of its predecessor is up to the individual viewer, but I find it to be virtually as successful. Which is to say, it’s an absolute joy. The film takes what could be a fairly routine coming-of-age romantic comedy and transforms it into something truly special. That it won’t win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars is a shame. That it wasn’t even nominated is criminal- it was my favorite film of last year.

Summer Wars really has something to offer everyone. To compare it to other anime features is fair (the craftsmanship and warmth on display really is reminiscent of the aforementioned Miyazaki) but a bit short-sighted. If the film reminds me of anything, it would actually be the stronger 70s and 80s work from Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Like Back to the Future (for example), Summer Wars is a light-hearted, rousing, and ultimately uplifting adventure. Its intention is to make the viewer happy, whoever the viewer may be. Somehow, perhaps through voodoo magic, the film manages to simultaneously have massively wide appeal and feel like a singular artistic vision.  

A large part of this is the animation itself, which is pretty much unparalleled in both its art direction and production values. While I’ll always find truly hand-painted animation (Akira, Nausicaa) to be more purely impressive than the digital efforts of today, Summer Wars is able to do things that animators then could only dream of. The animation in the “real life” sections is stunning enough, but things really get crazy in the future-Facebook/Second Life/Warcraft universe OZ. This superflat-inspired digital world is amazing to behold, with is blinding array of bright colors and hundreds of unique characters. OZ is really something rare in the world of film: a compelling way to turn computer use into gorgeous action sequences.

I do have a few minor problems with Summer Wars, though none are major enough to keep me from loving the film. Here we have a movie that manages to introduce us to about twenty characters in less than two hours, and provide little story arcs for many of them. Unfortunately Natsuki, the female lead, ends up getting the short shrift as a result. Outside of a few major scenes, she is mostly delegated to the sidelines of this adventure. I would have definitely taken fewer minor characters if it meant giving Natsuki, who really steals the scenes she gets, a bigger part. The film also seems to have a bit of a confused opinion on the prevalence of technology in the modern age. It revels in showing us the wonders of OZ, but then lovingly depicts the family’s grandmother rallying people together using older methods. Luckily the overall experience is engrossing enough that these details (and the fact that so many people directly involved in this world-spanning situation are all under one roof) do little to detract from the larger pleasures.

Pleasures like… well, just about everything else. I mentioned earlier that Summer Wars makes it it’s business to instill the viewer with a feeling of joy, and it has done this for me over three separate viewings. Even though I know exactly what will happen, there are still moments of suspense that excite me, little character asides that charm me, and an ending that makes me well up a little and smile uncontrollably. Summer Wars gets my highest recommendation.

Editor's Choice!

Glenn Morris: Sorry, kids. Summer Wars undoubtedly has as strong a heart as any Miyazaki feature in its excellent family farce, but the movie strains to connect that deeper dramedy with a juvenile cyber-adventure. I’ve never seen as much reliance on suspension of disbelief. Every key player in an international conspiracy happens to be joined under the same roof to celebrate an old woman’s birthday, and handheld videogames are their nuclear deterrent when an A.I. goes rogue. This have-it-both-ways cautionary tale is virtuosity Fluffernutter, but I’ll nominate Real Life for best supporting actor. 67 — Okay

Tom Fronczak: (Japanese subtitled version) Summer Wars is the Avatar of Japanese animated movies in that it completely rekindles many classic storytelling design elements in new ways that have reset the standard for future decades. Please, spare me the Digimon complaints. What Sean pointed out is the only minor flaw that held it back from being my #1 favorite movie of 2010 (I went with The Social Network since it managed to outdo Pirates of Silicon Valley) but I can still confidently say that it has my favorite art direction of any film I’ve seen in my life. I’m always nagging friends about being too quick to call things “best ever” but after 25 years of waiting for a cyber world to artistically be executed exactly like I had always desired, it’s deeply satisfying to finally have something to hold up in the air and shout “This is exactly what I always wanted someone to make!” Every polygon of the virtual world they create is perfection, and it’s a shame it doesn’t actually exist as an MMO, because I’d easily pay upwards of $20 a month to partake in it. Lastly, it pains me to say this since I haven’t uttered this phrase since the late 90s, but the Japanese version is substantially better. Anime subtitle snobs have always aggravated me, but the dubbed version changes quite a bit of age authentic dialogue and it’s rarely as good as the original script. The best thing about this movie is that it’s a great film to watch with your entire family since it has something in it for both genders of all ages to enjoy. Truly a new timeless classic that’s easy to watch a hundred times but always makes you feel jealous of the first time you experience it.  87 — Excellent.

Geoff Henao: I feel very mixed about Summer Wars. On the one hand, it’s definitely one of the best, non-Hayao Miyazaki anime films I’ve seen in quite some time. On the other hand, it honestly doesn’t compare to Toy Story 3. Of course, I might be biased since Toy Story is an established and well-loved franchise. Summer Wars, for all intents and purposes, serves as commentary on society’s reliance on technology while also pushing strong family ties. The plot can be wormy at times, as it’s WAY too convenient to have people with internal intelligence against the conflict be united in the same place. The art’s magnificent, both in the real world and in the cyber world of Oz. The English voice actors run the gamut of stock anime VAs, although it was nice to hear the voice of Dean Venture (Michael Sinterniklaas) as the main character, Kenji. Is director Mamoru Hosoda the next Hayao Miyazaki? The potential’s there, but he’s quite not at that level just yet. 7.75 — Good.

Andres Bolivar: 8.35 — Great. Though Summer Wars suffers from a clumsy plot that stumbles towards its conclusion, every other element does its part to help you look past it. What it lacks in pace and flow, it makes up tenfold in charm and marvel. Weaving in themes of personal connections, family and technological dependency, Summer Wars becomes less of a narrative and more of an abstract idea executed wonderfully through amazing visuals and character design. The bewildering representation of the virtual world (Oz) and the elegant grace of old-world Japan create a wonderful duality that is both breathtaking and magical. By the film’s conclusion, you’re not quite sure how you got there, but you’re glad you went through it. 83 — Great.