Level-5's Ni no Kuni franchise has always flirted with cinema. The original game features animated cutscenes from the acclaimed Studio Ghibli, as well as music from composer Joe Hisaishi, creating an audiovisual landscape that hearkens back to classic animated films. While Ghibli didn't return for the game's sequel, Ni no Kuni II still adheres to a similar art style. With such a pedigree, it was perhaps inevitable that Level-5 would attempt to craft an animated feature of their own, but unfortunately, the Ni no Kuni film is a pale imitation of Studio Ghibli's work. The movie never escapes the shadow of its more famous influences and is an unsatisfying viewing experience.
The story of the Ni no Kuni movie follows two high school friends, Yuu and Haru. Yuu is intelligent and insightful but confined to a wheelchair after a mysterious accident. Haru, on the other hand, is athletic, hot-headed, and devoted to his girlfriend Kotona, whom Yuu has unrequited feelings for. When a mysterious assailant leaves Kotona injured, the two friends find themselves whisked away to the other world of Ni no Kuni, where the Evermore kingdom's Princess Astrid (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Kotona) is suffering from a curse. Yuu and Haru must uncover the connection between Kotona and Astrid, as well as vanquish an enemy that threatens both worlds.
The story starts off promising enough: the friendship between Yuu, Haru, and Kotona feels genuine, and an early sequence focused on Yuu's disability serves as very effective characterization. Once the party arrives in the other world, Yuu suddenly finds himself able to walk, a twist that reminded me of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Unfortunately, the plot quickly unravels from there. Part of the problem is that the setting itself is really uninteresting: there are some lighthearted attempts to lampshade the video game origins of the series, but for the most part, the banal fantasy setting and storyline is played with absolute seriousness. There's also an incredibly forced conflict between Yuu and Haru that escalates really quickly around the midpoint of the film, and the justification for it barely holds up under scrutiny. The identity of the mysterious assailant is also really predictable, and while I can't fault a kids film for having a somewhat boilerplate storyline, I can fault it for the massive info dump it springs on the audience after the "twist." There's so much new information thrown at you in the last act of the movie that it strains credibility. Everything builds up to an anemic and dull climax wherein the big bad turns into a giant spider monster that would make Jon Peters proud, and the heroes have to defeat it with a newly introduced magical artifact (which is certainly in keeping with the film's JRPG origins but doesn't make for a terribly exciting conflict).
Another problem is the dual character of Kotona/Astrid, with the former only serving as a damsel to be rescued by Haru, and the latter serving as an object of desire for Yuu. Neither character really has much agency in the plot beyond their relationship to one of the boys, although Astrid admittedly has a lot more to do than poor Kotona, who spends most of the movie in a hospital bed. There is a cool redheaded female knight named Bertha, but she also really doesn't get to do much: in fact, one of her major scenes takes place entirely off screen. Still, the supporting characters are a lot more varied and interesting than the heroes themselves, who are both fairly one dimensional.
So even if the story and characters aren't up to snuff, how is the presentation? After all, the Ni no Kuni games have great audiovisual design, if nothing else. On the plus side, Joe Hisaishi returns to score the film, and the music is excellent. The main Ni no Kuni theme is still a phenomenal piece of music, and it is used to great effect here. Unfortunately, the visual design of the film is a mixed bag. The 2D animation is pretty good across the board, but the occasionally interspersed 3D visuals, especially in the large-scale battle near the end of the movie, are pretty jarring to look at. It's certainly not the worst-looking animated film to be released in recent memory, especially for a video game tie-in, but when stacked against genre contemporaries such as the work of Makoto Shinkai or Momoru Hosoda (or, heck, the recent CGI video game adaptation Dragon Quest: Your Story), Ni no Kuni just doesn't compare.
All in all, the Ni no Kuni film isn't terrible, but it certainly could have been a whole lot better. There are good ideas scattered here and there, but the movie never coalesces into a greater whole. The generic setting and contrived storytelling on display here don't do the franchise any favors, and with more exciting anime fare to watch on Netflix, I find it hard to recommend journeying to this other world.