Rating caveat: I gave this so-called animated feature (in truth, it’s a long commercial) a low rating because I found it so boring that I spent most of its excruciating 89 minutes fantasizing over how to torture Ken Hanke for making me review it.
To be fair, you should know that my movie pal liked it. “Really good,” Zach Maynard enthused. “On a scale of 10, it’s a 7.” Zach is 12 years old.
I stared at him in disbelief. “Adults don’t get it,” he said. “It’s a kids’ movie.”
“It wasn’t what I expected,” the avid Yu-Gi-Oh player continued. “I thought it would be all duel-to-duel, but there was some extended fiction to it.” (“Extended fiction?” I ask. “You know, ma’am,” he explained. “A story within a story.”)
Why is Yu-Gi-Oh! — the trading-card game, the TV show, the movie — so popular? “Monsters and destruction, of course,” Zach explained, as if it were self-evident to anyone who had even one molecule of coolness.
Indeed, Yu-Gi-Oh! is monster heaven (dragons, gargoyles, sphinxes, feral imps, evil elves, terrifying phantoms), an endless variety of fangs and claws and volcanic exhalations primed for instant annihilation. (Blue-Eyes Shining Dragon — a benign, scaly, cerulean fire-breather with giant scissors wings — is Zach’s favorite monster.)
What about the destruction? It was pretty tepid to me. No violence really, no blood-curdling screams. Just a sound effect or two and then the defeated monsters disappear. Zach reported that Cartoon Network programs (where American kids catch the half-hour versions of Yu-Gi-Oh!) can’t show violence.
“Kids don’t really care whether there’s gore or not,” he added. “It’s about the dueling.”
For adults who are unlucky enough to have to accompany their own young duelists to this movie, here’s my crib sheet: Fair-haired Yugi Moto (voiced by Dan Green) is the world’s champion of the ancient Duel Monsters card game. In a metropolis reminiscent of Bladerunner, obsessive fans watch Yugi’s combats on giant outdoor video screens. His main competitor, Seto Kaiba (voiced by Eric Stuart), is dark, rich, dramatically caped and determined to win. The humans have spiky hair and big eyes like in those dopey Keene paintings of the ’60s and ’70s. (Every kid knows this as the distinctive style of Japanese drawing, called anime or ani-manga.)
Millennia ago an entity known as The Pharaoh defeated the evil Egyptian dog god, Anubis. Now some ill-trained archaeologists have gone and released Anubis and his horde of linen-wrapped mummies from their sandy prison — and this wicked deity wants to destroy the world. Somehow he takes over the body of Kaiba and, repeating these beings’ lineup of the old days, The Pharaoh in turn takes over Yugi. This explains why, for most of the movie, the two main characters, who are teenagers, talk in adult voices.
Anubis is such a mighty force that he’s able to fend off the power of Yugi’s precious Egyptian gods’ cards. “It hurts, doesn’t it?” Anubis sneers, “when you put your faith in the gods and they let you down?”
And as the ancient gods and their monsters duke it out in their mythical war, the movie’s young duelists and their buddies deal with the bad guys back in the real world. Among Yugi’s loyal homeboys is Brooklyn-born Joey (voiced by Wayne Grayson). “Joey doesn’t have a very big part,” Zach said about his favorite character, “but it’s important.” Tea, a fearless card-game groupie in a miniskirt (voiced by Madeleine Blaustein), doesn’t duel, but she is the quintessential team player. “Friends till the end!” Tea cries as she jumps out of a helicopter to help her pals in the streets below.
Also offering assistance is silver-haired Max-A-Million Pegasus, the game’s simpering inventor (voiced by Darren Dunstan). It’s a good thing most parents will snooze through the movie, because some of them might pay enough attention to be upset by this character’s actions.
Then, after enough onscreen duels to fry my eyeballs, the good guys somehow win.
A tyke in the row in front of me greeted the ending succinctly: “Cool!”
But it wasn’t that simple for Zach, the thoughtful third-grader. “I took three points off,” Zach said, “because the movie was one big run-on, with no parts where people stop and ask, ‘What does this really mean?’
“There was no mystery at the end,” he continued. “There should have been a puzzle, so they would have it to figure out in the second movie.”
Zach seemed concerned that I might end up writing this review with less than a full deck. “Ma’am, how are you going to know the correct spelling of everyone’s name?”
“Ah-ha!” I wanted to shout. “I have the Book of Secrets card!” (Never mind that some uncool adults call it the Internet.)
– reviewed by Marci Miller