There have been attempts to adapt videogames into feature films going on for decades now. Hollywood in particular is an industry on a constant look-out for intellectual property with strong ready-made brands, and popular games would seem as viable a resource as any. In theory it seems a match made in heaven – movies and games are both primarily visual media, after all, with particular similarities between action cinema and the most popular gaming franchises and titles. In theory it is a good idea. In practice it is a genre packed with high-profile, comparatively expensive misfires. In all likelihood the hit rate is not any higher or lower than popular film generally, but when an unknown or original property fails it dies with a whimper. When an adaptation of a globally recognised mainstream brand fails – as it did with Super Mario Bros (1993), Street Fighter (1994), or any number of others – it tends to make a lot more noise.
Senior figures within Japanese console giant Nintendo felt badly burned when Rocky Morton and Annabelle Jankel’s 1993 film Super Mario Bros failed both commercially and critically. It led the company to be extremely wary when it came to adapting its various game franchises again. When it came to their lucrative Pokemon series, both games and anime were developed in tandem as a cross-media phenomenon. Putting that long-running and very successful series of films and children’s series aside, really the only other theatrically released Nintendo film to date has been Joji Shimura’s Dubotsu no Mori in December 2006 – based on the videogames known in English as Animal Crossing. Despite the ongoing success of the Animal Crossing games across the world, the Dubotsu no Mori movie has never been released outside of Japan.
An 11 year-old named Ai (Yui Horie) moves to the seaside Animal Village one summer, and is immediately drawn into the close-knit community of animals who live there. She is promptly employed to deliver packages for the tanuki Tanukichi (Naoki Tatsuka) in lieu of paying rent, while befriending the fashion designing elephant Sally (Fumiko Orikasa) and the enthused cat Bouquet (Misato Fukuen). Over the four seasons of one year, Ai learns about community life in the idyllic, slow-moving town.
Perhaps the most obvious reason why Dubotsu no Mori has never seen a screen outside of its own country is because it is primarily aimed at small children. It follows a simple episodic narrative that is tailored for easily distracted young minds. It is animated in a simple but colourful manner. It suffers from a surfeit of cuteness and whimsy. Outside of Japan, the audience for anime mostly comprises obsessively dedicated teens and twentysomethings. For something this charming and naive, there simply is not a significant audience.
As an adaptation of a videogame, it is unsurprisingly one of the more accurate to be made. This is something of a double-edged sword, as fans of the game might already be guessing. Animal Crossing is a deliberately relaxing and quiet game. There are no monsters to fight, or princesses to be rescued. Instead players go fishing, or grabs net and go catching butterflies. They dig holes in the ground looking for fossils, which they then donate to an owl who runs the local museum. In adapting the game faithfully, Dubotsu no Mori becomes a properly sweet animated film about small town life, friendship, and the like, but it also becomes very modestly plotted, lacks urgency, and will likely struggle to entertain anyone beyond small children and fans of the game. One can imagine it working an awful lot better as a series of shorts, or even a five-minutes-an-episode television series. It is broadly enjoyable – a running joke about a penguin trying to relax and do some fishing is delightful – but is hardly worth tracking down and watching unless you are really interested in seeing it.