Back in February, the River Oaks Theater screened Masaaki Yuasa’s visionary anime “Mind Game” as part of their Midnight Madness lineup. The 2004 animated fantasy that fixates the audience with sensory overload received a small theatrical run this year after being acquired by GKIDS, the studio also behind Yuasa’s new release “Lu Over the Wall.” The brightly colored fairy tale about a mermaid named Lu is fun for the whole family with elements of Miyazaki’s “Ponyo” and “Totoro” plus Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” and those wonderful old Silly Symphony cartoons from Walt Disney.
After concentrating on mature audiences with animated features like “Night is Short, Walk on Girl” and the Netflix series “DEVILMAN crybaby” based on Go Nagai's manga, writer-director Masaaki Yuasa takes a detour with the kid-friendly “Lu Over the Wall” which softens his mind-expanding visual style for a more playful form of entertainment. Music plays an important role in the film that’s centered around an acceptance theme and there’s nothing better to break down barriers than a good song and dance.
The story takes place in Hinashi Town, a small conservative fishing port, think of it as the anime version of Bomont from the film “Footloose” which would make our eponymous heroine Lu (Christine Marie Cabanos), the mermaid version of Kevin Bacon. Life in the small town is boring for Kai (Michael Sinterniklaas) a withdrawn middle school kid who creates music on his laptop and then uploads it to the internet. Together with classmates Yuho (Stephanie Sheh) and Kunio (Brandon Engman) the trio form a rock band named Siren and begin practicing at an abandoned amusement park accessible via boat on Merfolk Island.
Mermaids have always been part of the village’s folklore which is kept alive by the elders, like Kai’s grandfather who claims to have experienced run-ins with the mythical creatures. When Siren begins practicing at the old park, the music attracts a cute small mermaid named Lu who sprouts legs and begins dancing. This causes a chain reaction and soon anyone nearby is also uncontrollably shuffling their feet. The dancing in the film is like those old school Silly Symphony black and white cartoons by Disney.
Yuasa has a keen imagination which makes for an entertaining adventure that includes Lu’s ability to move blocks of water through the air, a merman father that resembles a giant shark dressed in a suit while smoking a pipe, and the merpeople’s affinity to vampires which includes biting humans and animals to turn them into mermaids, mermen, and merpups. And merpeople also react negatively to sunlight much like a bloodsucker. Any exposure to ultraviolet rays causes sets the sea creatures on fire.
“Lu Over the Wall” may sound a little frightening but it’s not and small kids should be okay. The animated film travels down familiar territory that includes greedy humans wanting to capitalize on the mermaids and scared townsfolk who want to destroy the creatures. We get a glimpse of the lore surrounding the merpeople and the history of a legend that cursed the town ages ago.
Masaaki Yuasa may be working in restrained mode, but his visual style remains intact. Lu is an adorable protagonist that audiences will adore while absorbing the vibrant animation. “Lu Over the Wall” is a great excuse to get the family together for an outing to the cinema.
Opens today in Houston at AMC Studio 30 and Monday 05/14 at Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park. Playing in Austin at Regal Gateway Stadium 16 and opening Monday 05/14 at Cinemark 20 and XD.