I freely admit I'm a tough critic. Very few movies result in 100% positivity from me because, as someone who writes creatively, I'm always looking for the balance of story and character progression in screenwriting - a balance, I admit, can't always be met due to considerations of budget etc. I also have high expectations, especially seeing rave reviews. Perhaps unfairly, Summer Wars also happens to be one of my favourite animated movies ever, so there's a certain degree of heightened expectation when it comes to Mamoru Hosada's films.
So while Wolf Children was an aesthetically beautiful movie with some beautiful character beats, some elements of the writing and the conventionality of the overall story weren't my favourites on a personal level.
Warning: Major spoilers.
I really noticed the soundtrack of the movie, which is unusual for me. Probably because it's used very copiously throughout the montage-heavy first act. I love the serene, gentle sound, making you think of eternal summer days. The movie, with its emphasis on the countryside, the quiet domestic moments of family and coupled with the deceptively simple animation style feels clean. Refreshing, simple and, to an extent, rather escapist.
As expected, the animation is gorgeous in that classic Mamoru Hosada style. Delicate lines, flat colouring but a really organic way of integrating 3D elements (the cars!) into the backgrounds. The light of traffic passing outside the window. There were details like the leaves of plants, blurred out in the foreground of a shot, moving as raindrops fell on them. I was pausing to just admire those little things.
I think the werewolf influence on Hana and her husband's relationship was glossed over rather quickly, but yay for the girl taking the initiative.
The major tragedy of the Wolf-Man's death was heartbreaking and Hana choosing to bounce back and raise the children well was admirable to the extreme. The movie was strongest at showing us the humorous, exasperating but also rewarding process of raising children who are a little 'different'.
I had to admire Hana's almost superhuman strength and patience - especially catering to Yuki's demanding nature (I was probably similar to her when I was little). The amount of work it must have taken to refurbish the old house...it was hard to believe she could accomplish that all on her own. It was very foreign to me to see someone so cheery in the face of adversity, but it was heartwarming to see her slowly integrate herself into the country life.
I was happy for them when the villagers started to interact with Hana and her family more and Grandpa Nirasaki's tsundere guidance was very sweet.
I’m glad Yuki's cheery personality meant she made friends immediately when going to school, because the cliche route would have been to make her an outcast.
Unfortunately, it took one, observant new boy to catalyse a dramatic change in Yuki's attitude and causes her to, unfortunately, feel like she has to conform to societal pressures in order to fit in. I’m glad she’s a good child who recognises when she’s caused inconvenience to her mother with her actions - that scene in the car after the principal's office was sweet. It’s heartbreaking how, sometimes, just one comment from an unsuspecting stranger can change you for life
What Yuki's arc lacked was a fallout after her fight with Ame. Besides losing control once (for which Souhei already forgave her), it didn't feel like she had continual inner conflict with her werewolf side, especially since she seemed to be good friends with Souhei afterwards. I was surprised that it became her primary conflict because it felt like the issue had already been resolved earlier.
(also, the two little kids that Yuki and Souhei stayed with in the gym knew they were still at school and had their abandoned bags but didn't tell the teacher that there were still two students left at school? What??)
Yuki and Ame's relationship with the werewolf and human sides of their identity takes an interesting reversal as the two grow up. Yuki goes from a girl completely comfortable with her wild nature to repressing her werewolf side and becoming a 'proper girl' (grr, gender roles).
Ame goes from a timid boy who is scared of everything and an outcast in the human world to wild wolf. I do wish they had shown more of Ame's relationship with his teacher.
It made me really sad that neither completely resolve the conflict between their two sides because I hoped that both would see the merits of both being wolf and human. Yuki becomes 'fully' human by participating in the human world while Ame decides to retreat completely into the wild.
The relationship between the siblings felt unresolved and distant after the fight and that was a part that I felt the movie should have addressed - even a glimpse of Ame in Yuki's graduation photo would have been a nice bit of closure.
Speaking of which, was I the only person rather appalled by Ame's actions? No matter how strong the 'calling of the forest' was, you left your mother to search for you during a typhoon. And it didn't seem like there was a particular, dire problem with high stakes (like, say, the forest creatures were in danger without a leader) so my initial reaction was shock at how inconsiderate his actions seemed, especially since he probably knew his mother would look for him and that she was a human, incapable of finding her way through the forest.
Perhaps that's the central conflict in the movie - the fact that sometimes we have sides and needs that others can't comprehend. Ame being eleven in human years doesn't mean he's not an adult in wolf years...and Hana's 'test' was understanding and accepting that? If so, the message could have been conveyed more clearly.
While I totally admire Hana, did it seem like she got the short end of the stick? In the end, she has to live without both her children, despite having been the long-suffering mother to both of them.
Wolf Children is ultimately a story about a mother's love, which is a topic I feel I'm not very entitled to comment on. It reinforces a sense that a good mother sacrifices everything for her children and unquestioningly so, and I do hesitate personally in lauding that approach, or even viewing it as an 'ideal' attitude for a mother (especially seeing how she ended up totally unable to stop/control Yuki or Ame even when they were fighting badly with each other).
As simply a character, she was a sweet and giving person and I connected with her and admired her. I connected less so with Yuki and Ame's central conflicts so I think that was a weaker aspect of the movie.
Wolf Children is still a pretty refreshing, sweet film with that quaint, countryside focus, but rather more conventional and 'safe' with its exploration of certain attitudes than I would have liked.