Director: Kenichi Maejima
Script: Masahiro Yoshimoto
Voice Actors: Kaori Shimizu (Alice); Ryo Horikawa (Nero); Chihiro Suzuki (Yuan); Fumihiko Tachiki (Nicholai); Mariko Kouda (Maria)
Viewed in Japanese with English subtitles
A.LI.CE was the first Japanese animated feature film to be completely computer animated. With a story by Masahiro Yoshimoto, the writer of the Dreamcast videogame Shenmue II (2001), it follows a young girl named Alice who is the youngest person to travel to outer space in a competition. She finds when she crashes back to Earth at the North Pole that she has travelled thirty years into the future, where a man named Nero has enslaved humanity with his use of a super computer. With the help of Yuan, an oafish young guy and the rechristened Marie, a robot waitress on the spaceship who is rebuilt and develops a sarcastic personality, Alice sets out to find out what happened to her and the world of the future.
As a computer animated film A.LI.CE has dated badly. Only two years after its release the film was dated when Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) was released. The use of 3D models and effects with 2D animation happens quite a lot in anime now, but full 3D animation is not as common as in US productions. The earliest examples from 1999 with this film to the mid-2000s are a fascinating period I want to explore more. All the ones I know of have been completely forgotten. All of them have been effected by time. All of them look like cut scenes from Playstation 1 videogames. Viewing A.LI.CE with these factors in mind, I bear in mind the issues and take interest in it with hindsight. There is a ghostly air to the animation which I find a strange delight in. A.LI.CE is dated to the point it now has an inherently unique atmosphere to its fakeness that engages me, something I seriously doubt other anime fans have and may merely be an obsession of mine. It's an obsession I have in general with dated computer effects from the early nineties or the Money For Nothing music video era before, finding more pleasure in them then modern computer animation for the most part. The appreciation for the hard work making them, like here in A.LI.CE, is felt out of respect for the creators. I find them interesting out of an appreciation of the marks and flaws that make up a piece of entertainment as well as their virtues. I find them entertaining because they are clearly fake and the results are completely off-kilter as a result in some cases.
There are things in the production of A.LI.CE which directly influence this and shows the aspects of the animation that I found compelling to soak in viewing the movie. As anime scholar Jonathan Clements would point out, contributing to the extras on the old UK DVD release, a production like this turned the characters into equivalents of puppets, restricting the movements possible without them doing the equivalent of them vibrating about as they move as if on strings. The plot compensates for this. The North Pole location the film is set in is very isolated, with only a few flashbacks being the exception, and the lack of cast helps reduce the effects. The forces of Nero are faceless robots and the Liberation Force against him, whose leader is a duplicitous scientist with questionable intent for Alice, consist of only him, a strong red haired female soldier and background soldiers dressed and looking the same. There are many vehicle chase and vehicle action scenes, and other movements are carefully edited around. The puppet effect on the characters, like watching a clip from Thunderbirds, turns them into being like you in humanoid form but from a different reality instantly. The simplistic locations around them with their distinct use of heavy colours adds an artificiality that is more enticing to me than wanting realistic computer animation. Bear in mind reader that I have a preference with the abstract and the fantastical, not completely against realism in art and able to find it as worthwhile, but unless the realism is done properly and not false, I prefer stories that are willing to be unrealistic on purpose or by accident. This drastically dated animation appeals to me for seeing the work that took place to create back in 1999 and for seeing how age has drastically effected it in 2015.
A.LI.CE's real problem is how similar the plot is to so many other anime and how sluggish it feels depicting said clichés in comparison. Like other anime there is a ecological slant to the villain's intentions where they desire to save the natural Earth from mankind, a fascinating trope in anime you can even find mentioned briefly in a work as lurid as Apocalypse Zero (1996), but barely touched upon here. The Liberation Force is also like in other anime led with morally grey politics in the head office, but its barely covered baring a villain who needed a moustache to twirl while stating his plans. The protagonist is an innocent teenage girl with a pure heart who merely wants good in people, seen in many anime and here as bland. Even when the events of the future she is in involve her directly, she is still the same character without change. Nearly everyone else is a cipher. Yuan is a fun character, but he is the easy going, slightly bumbling male lead you find in other anime. Nero the villain created from a tragic past. The female solider merely tough and able to survive when her troops are cannon fodder. The scientist a one dimensional villain. The exception, though she is a cliché too, is Marie who makes up most of the film's entertainment. Another sexualised female robot armed to the teeth with guns and gadgets, but she has a surprising amount of human reflection and emotions than is usually depicted in such a character, a sparring partner to Yuan who merely laughs off him calling her a trash heap affectionate with mirth. There's an ironic joke that, when everyone looks like an artificial doll because of the animation, the female robot looks like she was animated with more facial expressions and body language than everyone else. It's not surprising how much time was devoted to her when she has three different visual appearances, including a sexy green haired woman in a cleavage showing top and a blue haired spunky tomboy form, in the film explained away by her getting upgrades.
The incredibly dated animation in its blockiness does not diminish the hard work in attempting a brave first experiment. This is actually a great virtue when the plot is average. What ended up being more watchable in A.LI.CE as entertainment is the charm because of this in spite of the flaws. There is an earnestness especially with the unsubtle ecological message, and the characters of Yuan and Marie become immensely helpful in their light relief. The best parts are proof to how clichés can add a pop and energy to a story regardless of the lack of originality. It is a curiosity now which I appreciate more for this and as part of the history of 3D animation in anime, a romp in spite of its dullish plot. After this from the mid-2000s onward, you get completely 3D animated anime like the entirety of Shinji Aramaki's filmography from 2004, except Viper's Creed (2009), and a few other releases. The pioneers I am slowly going through like A.LI.CE have nearly all been forgotten. In one case this is despairing as my personal favourite, Malice@Doll (2000), is a twisted and dreamlike body horror sci-fi piece that feels like nothing else and uses the limitations of the animation to add to its weird tone. Something like A.LI.CE is more of a fascinating example of the animation attempting to succeed in its goal, but it's a shame to forget it.