Greener grass: Critical reviews of “Wonder Egg Priority” and “Otherside Picnic” (2021)

This blog would be generous to say “despite my best efforts” in describing our failure to watch enough anime in 2021, but then I’d be apologizing for not being a big enough weeb, and why would I do that? There are a few anime I wanted to watch last year that I haven’t gotten around to: “Sonny Boy,” “86,” maybe that one with all the ghosts and fan service, or the one where the detective is already dead.

Still, in the interest of pretending to round out the best/worst of the year, here are a couple of anime I watched that were, at least, pretty good. They have the added bonus of a kind of thematic synchronicity: cute girls doing things in other worlds. Intriguingly, the two shows reflect different approaches to presentation: one illustrating the highs and lows of ambition; the other illustrating the quality of consistency.

“Wonder Egg Priority” was the first anime of the year to really catch my attention (in a positive way – more on that later). It begins with Ai, a withdrawn heterochromatic (I learned that word because of this show – who says anime ain’t educational?) girl, following – as I recall – a talking firefly to a secluded garden. There, she receives an egg that takes her to a dream realm where she can battle fantastic creatures to defend the holdover souls of young women who have committed suicide.

Ai later learns that she is one of a group of girls buying eggs from the garden’s dream egg vending machine. As the girls each pursue a particular wrong they seek to right, they will grow closer, explore dark spaces in their lives and learn more about the mysterious mannequins that oversee the garden. The show has a few twists to pull before its conclusion, which was… we’ll get there.

But before we do, there is much to recommend about “Wonder Egg Priority.” The show is gorgeously presented, with detailed, smooth animation and stylish design, particularly during the technicolor, almost psychedelic, dream world battle sequences. Monster design is typically fantastic and logical within the narrative, with the creatures suggesting the regrets and jaundiced worldviews of the suicidal girls.

It helps that the script is usually smart and often fearless. It tackles taboo topics like suicide, depression, abuse, relationships, sexuality, legacy, guilt and purpose, and it does so in a way that makes sense for its youthful cast without ever being overly simplistic. There are consequences to the girls’ actions. Characters can get scared, quit or die. Between that and the show’s intense visual design, it’s easy to see why it was compared to “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” upon release. It even has contrasting opening and closing themes: a stately choral piece for the opening, which received much praise, and J-power-pop sung by the various leads for the closer, which feels odd after some of the episodes given its intense upbeatness but kicks all the same if you’re in the mood.

It’s not quite as tight as “Madoka,” with some of the late game revelations so dark they threaten exaggeration, but at least it builds to them. Regardless, “Wonder Egg” is easy to recommend to “Madoka” fans. It’s a thoughtful, stylish and satisfying 12-episode anime, that… wait, it concludes with a 13th episode, a double-length special that was released three months after the show proper? Well, I don’t see how that could leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth.

But of course it could. It’s really a pity because the 12th episode was a decent conclusion. It was a little incomplete, but not more than any show that’s hoping for a second season, so the special already unnecessary to this blog. Still, there are some decent moments in the special, ones with a maturity, acceptance and release that fit the atmosphere of the series well. It was on track to end with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a world-weary sigh.

Such sighing was undermined by a couple of things that cannot be ignored. First, half the special is a recap. That wouldn’t be the worst, especially after a break, but the series already had a recap – one that the Internet speculates was giving the writers a minute to catch their breath, especially given how it’s an entire episode and not a halfway point-five. One recap in a season of anime is not unheard of; devoting a fully numbered episode to it stands out; having a second one is strange to say the least.

There is also a revelation about the identity of one particular character that is utter left field sci fi bullshit. There was no setup for it. It just happened. Worse, it was unnecessary (there’s that word again). Said character already had a singular backstory to set them apart from the rest of the cast. A last minute attitude change could have been baked in, but instead, we get a complete overhaul.

Then there’s the final moments of the show, when the atmosphere of thoughtful resignation the episode had been building since the recap ended is cast on the rocks of fist pumping “to be continued.” Why? If the producers wanted a second season, why not stop at the more organic conclusion of the 12th episode? Or, if they felt that wasn’t enough, why lace such a melancholy mood into a special only to subvert it in the last 30 seconds?

Throughout its run, “Wonder Egg” always had a kitchen sink attitude toward piling elements on top of elements, building a massive tower to strain at the infinite, but it was always smart and stylish enough that it worked despite threatening to topple over… right up until it didn’t. In the end it finally went too far, but the show certainly had a hell of a time going there.

In a different parallel reality, we have our second show, “Otherside Picnic” The series follows Sorawo and Toriko, two college students (not high schoolers!) who have random access to the otherside, a dangerous shadow world that resembles a bombed out version of our own populated with misshapen monsters and psychic traps that ensnare unwary explorers. Enigmatic Toriko is searching for her missing friend; downcast Sorawo is along for the ride, frequently to her own chagrin.

Much of “Otherside Picnic” is familiar, and I’m not just talking about the homages to Russian sci fi in the title and premise. The show is based on a light novel series; has a boilerplate J-rock opening and closing; has some not-so-subtle hints of queer relationships; sports a beach episode; features a goofy “on the next episode of” sequence at the end of each episode. Across the board, it’s a very anime anime.

Luckily for us, it also happens to be a pretty decent horror anime. It doesn’t get under your skin like the best of them, but it is smart enough in its presentation to engage on atmosphere alone, like a junior Silent Hill. A few early episodes stand out. The season’s second half starts verging more into fantasy and less into straight horror, but the monster designs continue to hold up. Even a couple of goofy ones can be explained by the narrative’s link to urban legends and web conspiracies.

Regardless, the show presents itself throughout like a relationship driven drama. The two leads are pretty standard character types – the ditzy Toriko and the nervous Sorawo – but their oil and water interactions are watchable, and there are enough suggestions of darkness and intrigue to keep things moving. Better than either the girl-on-girl comedy or the low Gothic horror is how easily they both gel. The two genres feel genuinely complimentary rather than one just an excuse for the other. It’s fairly seamless and so pleasantly surprising when one realizes it. If there was anything in the anime that this blog had not seen before, it was that.

So which show is better? Naturally that requires some context. If you want is a show to recommend, then “Otherside Picnic” is the clear victor. “Wonder Egg Priority” is by far the more offbeat choice, and both its quirks and inconsistencies make it the harder sell. On the other hand, “Roadside Picnic” does not feature any of that anime’s fascinating highs or frustrating lows. For better or worse, “Wonder Egg Priority” is the show that will stick with me.

Paradox revisited: A critical review of “The Time Machine” (2002)

One of the neat things about doing this for an occupation is the opportunity to go back in time, if you’ll allow the metaphorical indulgence, to reevaluate old pieces of media. That includes both classics to see how good they were and stinkers to see how bad they actually smelled.

“The Time Machine” turns 20 this year (give or take a couple months, thanks to this blog’s lax posting schedule… I mean, thanks to the quirks of temporal travel), and it is still remembered as a splashy sci fi bomb, which didn’t break even in its native land and fell far short of expectations abroad. Compare that to 2003’s steampunker “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which also underwhelmed but later found a playfully appreciative audience on DVD. Why didn’t “The Time Machine” get the same treatment?

Probably because it’s a different kind of picture, one that is both better and worse. This “Time Machine” is the story of Dr. Alexander Hartdegan (Guy Pearce), who proposes to his galpal (Sienna Guillory) only to watch her get killed the very same night (this should be troubling because it indicates a lot of what will make this time machine tick: convenience). Since Alexander is a Victorian-era gentleman scientist, he figures time travel is the best coping mechanism. His eventual invention and subsequent attempt to prevent her death in the past fails, so he travels into the future to search for answers. What he finds is the human civilization he knew destroyed, replaced by a symbiotic war between two humanoid races: the playful, naive Eloi and the sinister, secretive Morlocks.

The original “Time Machine” novel was a critique of class structure, and the 1960 film was a timely antiwar tale. This “Time Machine” distinguishes itself by being based on a question instead: What if? The discussion is carried on over the centuries by Alexander himself, engaging with equally offbeat thinkers like an eccentric public library AI (Orlando Jones) and the melancholy chief Morlock (Jeremy Irons). This is probably the film’s strongest element, partly because Pearce, Jones and Irons are the film’s most charismatic performers, and partly because it actually covers some interesting territory, getting into things like metaphysics, cause and effect, how tragedy creates identity and destiny, and the morality of evolution.

Beyond that, there’s not much else to hang onto. Any part of the script that is not light philosophical debate is painfully contrived. As previously mentioned, Alexander proposes to his 19th century waifu and watches her die in the same night, thus setting off the whole thing. When he travels to the future, every single time he stops he’s next to something significant – the info dump that is the New York Public Library, the moon exploding, whatever – and he’s always in and out so quick. Alexander’s future waifu (Samantha Mumba, occasionally lapsing into an Irish accent) tells him he has to get her brother back to the past. The second he asks why, Morlocks attack, almost like the script is answering his question. In the ensuing scuffle, a 19th century engineer proves to be an effective fighter in a future war. Later, a burst of… time energy stuff from the time machine only kills Morlocks and leaves Alexander and his pals unharmed.

At least the explosion looks OK, as OK as 2002 could look. The special effects were called a mixed bag even at the time. It’s true that not everything lands, but this blog feels that’s because the movie tried everything it could think of to make things pop. Both Stan Winston Studio and Industrial Light & Magic worked on the practical and CGI effects respectively, so it’s not there was a lack of talent. There are time lapses (natch), explosions, Morlocks bursting from the ground and bounding over things, skeletal ironwork monuments that belch smoke and fire. It is a bit much, and the film never quite finds an individual visual identity – you can tell we’re going farther into the future because everything is more orange each time – but again, it’s OK. Do you like steampunk and Predator? You’ll probably appreciate what’s onscreen.

It feels like contemporary critics picked on the explode-y parts because they were so prominent. Almost every part of the film seems to be in service of selling it as an action-adventure extravaganza, and a shallow one at that. The rushed performances, the convenient plot, the time traveler as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later hero, everything orange. Not only does it leave the film out of breath, it leaves the audience out of a serious reason to be here. Roll up and see the time machine! Even the action-packed poster asks: “Where would you go?”

You know where I’d go? To a movie that kept some of the steampunk Predator style but pushed the philosophical debate more. Don’t get rid of the spooky Morlocks and pretty time lapses, just give me more carefully spaced conversations about guilt and causality. Amp up the Morlocks as utilitarians. Play up the Eloi as Daoists. They accept fate. Is that so bad? Maybe it is, but since the movie never got into it, I’ll never know. It would have been more interesting than “Avatar,” that’s for sure.

The problem there is that no one probably would have funded a movie like that. The film itself is a paradox. It’s a big budget sci fi flick that occasionally makes some intriguing observations. Those observations can get lost in the budget, but the only reason it had the budget it did is because it sold itself as a slick, and ultimately soulless, sci fi adventure flick. Remove the slick soullessness, and you risk losing the budget that got you Stan Winston and Guy Pearce. But lose them to focus on a quieter movie, and the film becomes less financed, so likely less talented and less interesting to look at.

There is a somewhat infamous moment in the film when Alexander is briefly detained by 22nd century rent-a-cops trying to get him into a shelter. New York City is in stereotypical apocalyptic ruins, and klaxons abound. When Alexander demands to know what’s going on, one of the cops asks if he’s been living on a rock. “Yes,” he cries. “I’ve been living under a rock.” The cop looks to his partner, then calmly explains that the moon has exploded.

That scene took some Internet flak for its “bad science” (check out the artistic license entries on the film’s TVTropes page – moons don’t explode that way!). While that seems like an odd hill to die on – we’re dealing with the paradoxes of time travel and the limitations of Victorian technology, and you’re really complaining about six seconds of burst moon? – it misses the point. The vehicle by which we get this information is another convenience, but it’s also arguably the most human moment in the film. Who else but a human being would be foolish and curious enough to ask a question in the middle of catastrophe? Who else but another human being would be foolish and kind enough to indulge them with an answer? The charm of this film is that it also stops to ask these questions; the pity is that it doesn’t do it often enough.