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Ai and Rosie in Animal Crossing: The Movie.
Image: Toho

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The Animal Crossing movie has one major original twist

But otherwise, the 2006 anime is like watching someone play the game

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For the most part, Animal Crossing: The Movie is pretty straightforward. The 2006 animated film (which was never released outside of Japan, though the adventurous can find dubbed and subtitled versions online) is based broadly on the popular video game series. As in the games, the central village is populated by familiar characters such as the owl Blathers, the hedgehog Able sisters, and the elderly tortoise Tortimer. Everybody still loves the musician dog K.K. Slider. And when characters shake the trees, fruit falls out of them. It’s so similar to the game that Animal Crossing fans might tune out while watching it, in favor of actually playing one of the franchise entries, whether it’s Pocket Camp or New Horizons. But it’s worth staying focused up until the movie’s finale, which is beyond belief.

At the beginning of Animal Crossing: The Movie, a young girl named Ai moves to Animal Village, and the tanuki businessman Tom Nook immediately takes her under his wing as a delivery person. As a natural part of the job, she comes to know all her animal neighbors, including Yu, a young human boy from a different village. Characters plant trees, breed flowers, catch bugs, go fishing, design patterns for the Able sisters, and even react to things much as they do in-game, emitting flowers when they’re happy, experiencing personal gusts of cold wind when they’re unhappy.

Mostly, Animal Crossing: The Movie feels like a detached version of playing the games. It’s the kind of spin-off project that mostly seems designed to make viewers think, “Oh, right, I remember that character,” or, “Hey, I can do that in the game.” Those sorts of Easter eggs became small highlights, as the rest of the movie progresses at just as sedate a pace as the game, with the thinnest thread of a story holding it all together. Though the village is rendered more realistically, the characters are almost entirely 2D replicas of their 3D game models (except Ai, whose features are a little less dead-eyed in the film version). Watching the movie feels a lot like watching someone else play an Animal Crossing game, with faint touches of a kids’ movie. Even the musical themes are pulled right out of the franchise.

Some of the film’s details are a little strange. Playing Animal Crossing leaves an audience with so much to do that they may forget to think about the character details. But given the movie’s slow pace, the same questions linger. For instance, Ai is 11 years old. Were the game’s villagers always meant to be children? And how old are the animals? The alligator Alfonso behaves like a child, and Ai makes friends with the cat Rosie and the elephant Margie, which might put them in a similar age range. But the wolf Whitney and the eagle Apollo seem to be adults with full lives already lived, as they offer advice to the younger characters and are addressed with more respect than friendliness. (At one point, Rosie tells Ai that there are rumors that Whitney and Apollo used to be a couple, which brings up the question of animal romances.) The cat Kaitlin and her daughter Katie also appear in the movie, which raises the question of where all the other animal children are.

animals and humans congregate under string lights
A festival scene in Animal Crossing: The Movie.
Image: Toho

But all those questions come up through regular gameplay, too, so it’s not as if the movie is taking the franchise in a particularly radical direction. If anything, it’s a little behind the times — New Horizons doesn’t require players to conform to any gender identity, but the movie draws a clear line between girls and boys and what is considered appropriate for both. Yu is allowed to wear costumes and run around catching bugs or finding fossils; by contrast, Ai is expected to be demure, wearing mostly the same clothes and shaking her head at what Yu gets up to.

The movie’s compliance with game lore ends when a UFO crash-lands in the village. At first, the incident seems like a typical part of the franchise. As in Wild World and City Folk, Gulliver the seagull crashes his disc-shaped spaceship, then asks for help recovering its lost parts. Ai and her friends recover what looks like a gear, but instead of being a lost part, it turns out to be an alien being that morphs into various shapes — a gear, a blob, a giant version of Ai’s head — kind of like the strange mirror-creature in Annihilation. As the alien’s brethren arrive to take it home, it briefly envelops Ai in a sort of space capsule, surrounding her with hazy stars and nebulas before taking its leave.

a girl holds a strange, shiny shape
a girl is confronted by a larger version of her head
The alien, in different forms, in Animal Crossing: The Movie.
Image: Toho

The alien is weird, and frankly a little unsettling. Its default shape is a shiny grey blob, and it has an unknown energy that almost comes across as malevolent in the otherwise staid world of Animal Crossing. That sense of strangeness is even more striking given that the alien being has no equivalent in the games, and hasn’t been worked into the series since the movie’s 2006 release.

That suggests that maybe the introduction of an outright alien was too big of a step outside the games, which are by and large about improving your everyday life rather than anything so literally alien. Rather than replicating something in the game or introducing a new feature, the alien is meant to up the cinematic stakes beyond the game’s tranquility, making the movie a little more exciting than a play session for people familiar with the game, and making it more accessible to those who aren’t.

Translating a game to film when it has no real story beyond paying off your home loans requires the introduction of something new into Animal Village’s sleepy world, hence actual aliens. The alien encounter also feels like the kind of event that might occur if the Animal Crossing games ever ended. Instead, they encompass seasons, years, lifetimes. The movie, which only covers a blip of time in comparison, needs this kind of eccentricity to make a mark. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make it a draw on its own. While the movie is a pleasant diversion for Animal Crossing completists, and it’s less of a mess than video-game movie adaptations like Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed, your time would be better spent making your own Bells to pay off Tom Nook.

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