'The Napping Princess': Film Review

Napping Princess Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of GKIDS
An enjoyable bifurcated adventure with current-tech themes.

Kenji Kamiyama takes a break from more violent fare for a sci-fi anime targeted at younger auds.

A sleep-deprived teen learns that conking out is a superpower in The Napping Princess, Kenji Kamiyama's fantasy about family secrets and self-driving cars. Kamiyama, a vet of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, brings plenty of sci-fi genre ingredients to what at times might look like a Miyazaki coming-of-age adventure. Though occasionally lopsided, the mix works well, and should play best to teens raised on Japanese 'toons.

Mitsuki Takahata voices the eponymous heroine, who is only a princess in her dreams. When awake she is Kokone, daughter of Jersey, an auto mechanic and part-time inventor. Raised knowing nothing about her mother's side of the family except that mom died in an accident long ago, she's something of a caretaker for the absentminded Jersey, who is perfecting a guidance system for autonomous vehicles.

Long before Kokone, we learn that her mother's father is a car mogul who has his own ideas about next-gen cars. Grandpa has an underling, Watanabe, who gets Jersey arrested on the premise that he has stolen the company's proprietary tech — parents may realize around this point that, princesses and talking stuffed animals aside, this tale isn't designed for 6-year-olds. Kokone and her buddy Morio wind up in possession of her father's tablet computer, which contains all the programming he has done, and must try to get him out of legal jeopardy before Watanabe can get to them as well.

Meanwhile, Kokone keeps nodding off and entering a world engulfed in mecha-versus-kaiju conflict, where a fantastic giant monster called Colossus is held at bay by human-controlled machines with suspiciously primitive controls. In this world, Kokone's stuffed dog Joy is a sentient sidekick and she is a sorceress held captive; consumerism isn't just a lifestyle, but the law. She eventually intuits that this world is connected to the actual one, and while we may never quite share her understanding of this conceit, the linkage comes in handy when Morio starts entering the dreams alongside her.

With the exception of a sometimes too lightweight score by Yoko Shimomura, the movie's look and feel beautifully straddles several idioms. But in terms of narrative drive, the "real" storyline always trumps the fantasy, especially after Kokone realizes how much has been withheld from her about her past. Unfortunately for those of us who buy into the screenplay's mystery component, Kamiyama interrupts the film's climax with a very long parallel action sequence set in Kokone's dream world; though we know the two are somehow linked, the nature of that connection isn't concrete enough that we can linger in fantasy without losing the story's momentum.

The picture resolves in much the way we expect, expanding Kokone's world so that reality starts to look almost as full of possibilities as fantasy. That's especially fitting given the girl-power revelations of the movie's final act.

Production company: Bandai
Distributor: GKIDS
Cast: Mitsuki Takahata, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Yosuke Eguchi, Arata Furuta, Tomoya Maeno
Director-screenwriter: Kenji Kamiyama
Producers: Naoki Iwasa, Yoshiki Sakurai
Executive producers: Yoshitaka Hori, Shinichiro Inoue, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa
Director of photography: Hiroshi Tanaka
Composer: Yoko Shimomura
Venue: Fantasia Film Festival

In Japanese
111 minutes