Summer Wars -- Film Review

This cautionary sci-fi anime effort is as thematically complex as it is visually stunning.

Reflecting a dizzying mélange of influences including "Tron," "Avatar," "WarGames" and even "The Social Network," "Summer Wars" is nothing if not au courant. This entertaining anime feature from Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda ("The Girl Who Leapt Through Time") has been a huge hit in its native country and is an official entry for this year's best animated feature Oscar.

The story begins simply enough, with young math genius Kenji accompanying his secret crush Natsuki on a trip to her family home to celebrate the 90th birthday of her great-grandmother Sakae. When Natsuki asks him to pose as her boyfriend to placate her pestering family members, he reluctantly agrees. It turns out that role-playing is something with which he's familiar, as he spends much of his time as an avatar in the virtual social networking world known as “Oz.”

When he solves a complex math riddle that has been mysteriously sent to his cell phone, Kenji unwittingly unleashes a malicious program called “Love Machine” that threatens to unleash devastation by, among other things, hijacking nuclear launch codes.

Being set up as the fall guy for the ensuing havoc, Kenji, aided by Natsuki and her extended family, has to dive into the virtual environment to undo the damage. This leads to several extended battle sequences set in Oz, depicted via a stunning mixture of hand-drawn and CGI visuals as an endlessly colorful world filled with grotesque, razor-sharp toothed avatars.

Summer Wars, which is being shown in both dubbed and subtitled editions, takes on more than it can comfortably handle in its attempted blending of sensitive family drama, riotous video game style action and pointed social commentary about the dangers of technology.

Running almost two hours, its increasingly convoluted narrative may be too difficult to follow for younger viewers. But its thematic ambition and dazzling visual style ultimately make it one of the more rewarding anime efforts to reach these shores.

Opened: August 2009 in Japan (Gkids)
Production: Madhouse, Nippon Television Network Corporation, Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co., D.N. Dream Partners, Warner Bros., Yomiuri Television, Video Audio Project, FUNimation Entertainment
Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Screenwriter: Satoko Okudera
Director of photography: Yukihiro Masumoto
Editor: Shigeru Nishiyama
Music: Akihiko Matsumoto, Tatsuro Yamashi
Art director: Youji Takeshige
Cast: Michael Sinterniklaas, Brina Palencia, Pam Dougherty, Todd Haberkorn, J. Michael Tatum, Maxey Whitehead
No rating, 114 minutes