Much of the narrative of Netflix’s original anime movie Bubble revolves around a group of radical young people who take part in “Tokyo Battlekour,” a team parkour game of capture-the-flag set amid the submerged ruins of a metropolis. As a post-apocalyptic riff on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, it’s an outlandish, willfully silly approach to literary adaptation played almost completely straight. Not to be mistaken with Judd Apatow’s immediately forgettable Netflix original The Bubble, Bubble is tender, even meditative. But its best ideas are sadly swept away amid a wave of half-formed ones.
Taking place in a future Tokyo that’s now mostly underwater as the result of a strange “natural” disaster characters call the “bubble fall,” Bubble (directed by Attack on Titan and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress’ Tetsurō Araki) follows an introverted young man named Hibiki as he encounters a mysterious girl, Uta, who may have a connection to that apocalyptic event and the magic floating bubbles left lingering in its wake.
Even in occupying a flooded and abandoned city, Hibiki and his friends and rivals run the risk of being evicted by the authorities — the dogmas of the old world cling to what little remains. Bubble could stand to explore that in a little more depth, especially considering the restorative note of the ending. Instead, it focuses on its fairy-tale retelling, falling back on narrative cliché: A young man, disconnected from the world around him, meets a mysterious young girl who knows nothing about that world, but still pushes him to live in it more fully. (It’s a tale as old as time: a boy meeting and falling in love with a sentient bubble who dresses like a Japanese pop idol.) The classic coming-of-age, boy-meets-girl fantasy romance is charming enough, and so is Uta learning about the way of life for Hibiki’s “Blue Blazes” parkour team. But by falling back on something so familiar, Bubble sells its most interesting story angles short.
The clumsiness of the film’s world-building doesn’t help. The details of this quiet, isolated post-bubble fall Tokyo and its denizens are delivered through heavy-handed exposition that also proves awkwardly timed: Viewers learn about the state of the city in a monologue after already seeing it pretty comprehensively. But the undercuts and partially cornrowed hair of its various radical dudes are endearing regardless, even if most of the supporting cast remain as simple archetypes rather than fully realized people.
While the plot beats can be forgettable, the platformer-esque set-pieces are engaging. The characters’ freerunning let the most overt hallmarks of Araki’s direction shine through — the zooming and swooping through digital environments and the incredibly cool first-person perspectives that often feel video-gamey in the immersion they provide. While the film isn’t exactly an homage to the thrill of platformers, it’s hard not to think of them as Hibiki puzzles through finding new and unexpected routes and footholds.
It’s honestly funny that writers Gen Urobuchi, Naoko Sato, and Renji Ōki chose parkour to differentiate their Little Mermaid riff from other anime inspired by the story, like Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo or Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over The Wall. But it’s a choice in keeping with Araki’s previous directorial work — particularly Attack on Titan — as the characters dash and leap through city spaces, with a thrilling sense of vertigo in the way the camera follows them over drops and across rooftops.
But the film also constantly reminds the audience of its story inspiration. Where Ponyo and Lu chart their own creative courses, in Bubble, Uta literally refers back to the original Little Mermaid story as playing a role in shaping her decision-making. There’s a tragic, self-fulfilling prophecy to her engagement with that story. She was born into a sacrificial role that she feels duty-bound to fulfill, rather than living an actual life. But like so many other aspects of the story, that one element feels a little undercooked.
Again, Urobuchi, Sato, and Ōki make absolutely sure this theme doesn’t pass viewers by. One character actually reads the fairy tale to Uta. She has some interiority, but a lot of it is defined by Andersen’s text, as she relays how she feels like Andersen’s unnamed mermaid. The writers overexplain the story’s most obvious parts while leaving several crucial and baffling threads dangling — like the ominous, masked group of freerunners who repeatedly intrude on the teens’ “Battlekour,” then unceremoniously disappear with little explanation. The film’s failure to establish its main threats ends up feeling unintentionally funny — the idea of “evil” bubbles doesn’t land, and neither do those interfering freerunners, who essentially wear supersoakers on their feet. As a result, it’s mostly the action that sticks in the memory.
There’s some genuine visual poetry to Bubble, though, such as its sequence about finding spirals in the natural world. That eternal pattern is illustrated through a shimmer of light in a spinning bike wheel. (It’s one of a few Bubble moments that recall Gurren Lagann’s similar obsession.) In the same respect, Bubble’s flirtations with psychedelia and the metaphysical stand out from its more earthbound action sequences, as the film conjoins nature and the cosmos through song. Such moments bring in vivid, almost hallucinogenic color, especially compared to Araki’s previous works, defined by rust, metal, and blood.
That downtime is nice, especially as the film’s editing begins to place the characters in tune with the natural world around them, cutting in quiet moments to flora and whatever fauna remains. The story is at its best in these moments, as it reconciles Hibiki’s struggle with agoraphobia and his comfort amid such scenes, contrasting the overwhelming noise of past city life with the hypnotic, rhythmic sounds of nature. When this character study is pushed more to the forefront, all the film’s elements dovetail perfectly — the post-apocalypse drama, the fantasy romance, and the extreme sports.
Hibiki and Uta use their athleticism to find a place for themselves in a city that would otherwise be dead, and to find freedom away from the confines of the streets. While the film’s parkour matches begin as competitions between rival teen gangs, Hibiki and Uta make them resemble a dance instead. The depiction of the primary couple in motion is striking, but so is the painterly detail of the close-ups on characters’ faces. In the less kinetic, more meditative moments, the film’s aim in telling a somewhat tragic, ephemeral love story feels clearest. It’s captured in glimpses of serenity amid the film’s chaos, so it’s hard not to mourn that the rest feels so unfocused by comparison.
Bubble is at its best when it’s dealing with its main character’s psychology, rather than the dramatically inert threat of angry magic bubbles. It illuminates more about its cast when it isn’t dealing with its ridiculous “Tokyo Battlekour” rivalries. And the film’s conclusion is beautiful, no matter how unformed the ideas behind it are. It’s a handsomely animated film where the Little Mermaid learns parkour. That commitment to the anime tradition of taking literary adaptations in completely unexpected directions has got to count for something.
Bubble is streaming on Netflix now.