I once read a review about a critic who was talking about Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. He was reminiscing about the time in the film when he realized that it just wasn’t good. It wasn’t Star Wars as we know it.
That moment, for him, was when Qui-Gon-Jin reaches out and grabs Jar Jar Binks’ tongue, and prevents it from lapping up food at a dinner table with other people, including Kenobi, Anakin, and Anakin’s mom. Said critic writes that, at this time, he felt like he was watching a kid’s cartoon. A bad one.
A lot of us have those kinds of moments with things. Maybe a book, maybe an album, maybe an anime, where you get to a point and realize, ‘you know what, this just isn’t working.’
Allow me to ramble a bit; you see, I am not a movie critic, nor am I a layman. I am me. There are some things I like that others like, some that others dislike, and everything else. My tastes are unique, just like yours, and I do not prescribe to following either mass mob IMDB ratings or so called “esteemed” critics. That said, if you told me there was a movie, and regarding that movie, ten people had been pulled off the street, and they all said they liked it, and then ten “reputable” critics were asked about said movie, and they said they disliked it, I would say that generally - generally, mind you, and with exceptions a plenty - I would fall more on the critics side. It pains me to say that, a bit, because I do think some critics are pretty arrogant, but there you go.
That was the situation with Advent Children before I went into it several years ago. The movie was fairly well received among both anime fans and Final Fantasy fans, and I am a massive fan of both (I currently own well over 30 video games with Final Fantasy in the title, go figure). Yet it was also essentially universally panned by critics. I had hope though. Think of Final Fantasy VII for a moment. Go back to 1997, when it came out, or hell, whenever you played it. Remember the beginning? The first few minutes? You are an apathetic mercenary joining a rag tag group of eco-terrorists - yes, that’s right, eco-terrorists in a video game - trying to bomb the most powerful company in the world; one that is literally sucking the life force out of the planet and harvesting it as energy. If that’s not a “holy shit I can’t believe this is a 90s video game” moment, then I don’t know what is. And that’s not even talking about the curveball they throw you when, well, you know, Sephiroth, with one stab of his sword, proclaims that we can’t have nice things.
So I had hope; hope that Advent Children would be decent, hope that the story would at least be good enough to maintain the cool looking fight scenes that I had seen glimpses of. The CGI animation looked great, the music had to be good, and the characters were already there. This should be a home run, right?
Well, on my now third viewing of this movie, it pains me to say that I consider Advent Children to be bad. Very bad. And that moment, that moment when I realize this is true, happens from about the 6 minute mark all the way through the credits at the end. It’s just one big, bad moment.
Well, that was quite the rambling preamble. Where was I? Oh yeah, Advent Children. Advent Children takes place two years after FF VII, during a time of rebuilding and recovery. As any good appeal to a fan base begins, music ripped straight out of the game - orchestrated, of course - begins playing and we are thrust into the movie.
A strange disease; called Geostigma, is infecting citizens of Midgar. This will generally be cleared up as we go, but for a movie with such a simplistic overall plot, it throws two scenes at you right off the bat that leave you scratching your head because it’s impossible to know what is happening and/or the significance of it.
After a brief narration explaining The Lifestream and its importance to all life, a brief history of Shinra corporation, the aforementioned company that was draining it from the world, Jenova, and Sephiroth, the movie really begins. This voice over is enough to get a general cursory glance of the necessary knowledge, but to be blunt, it’s hard to get everything about this movie without having beaten the game, mostly because there is no character backstory and the various terms tossed around are not given explanation, other than the brief narration. Plus, there are a lot of game references; like the level up music being the ringtone of a character's cell phone. These are, admittedly, kind of neat and feel like a nice inside joke, of sorts.
One of the coolest moments of the film happens early, and we are given the full treatment of the beautiful animation and ridiculously over the top action sequences, as Cloud, riding a large motorcycle, is ambushed by three leather clad villains. There are flips, tricks, and sword slashes galore. It’s stylish, if nothing else. Sadly, this is quite literally the highpoint of the film. And it’s not without it’s problems; in just a few seconds, the bad guys give off a sense of “not very compelling.” They’re supposed to be a bit crazed, but instead they’re just annoyingly cryptic about the plot and what they are after.
And then, suddenly, we’re whisked away to a new scene with Cloud and new characters. And here is another strike; it’s never really established when, what, why, where, or how. Oh sure, the sign reads “Healin Lodge” (an obvious nod to us fans), but that’s about it. Why did the fight end? At what point did he come here? Oh, and by the way; Rufus Shinra is alive, he knows who Cloud just fought, and he wants his help.
You can tell this movie was not made by movie people because of all of these sudden narration jumps. The plot essentially ends up serving as a weak vehicle for combat. There’s a long fight scene in the famous FF VII church involving Tifa. Not much later, Cloud finds himself fighting the bad guys, only to be saved at the last second by a suddenly emerged Vincent Valentine, who seemingly knows everything that is going on, literally.
And there’s another problem; the series standbys just sort of pop in like it’s no big deal, with no explanation given. This often works to their detriment, because we don’t learn anything new about any of them, and their parts are often insignificant and unneeded and feel like they were just put in to be there. Barret is relegated to a very small role, Yuffie even less so. This was a prime opportunity to let us learn about some of these characters, and it is totally wasted.
And so, Square Enix returns to a combat scene when the narration is falling flat. Even the role of Jenova’s remains seems woefully understated, because before you know it, it’s practically destroyed in the blink of an eye. But then we’re given a massive summon and one final showdown between Cloud and the main antagonist.
There are some other slight highlights besides the animation and music. Reno, the Shinra bodyguard of sorts, is the only character that really shines. His humor and lackadaisical demeanor stands in stark contrast to the overabundant stoicism of everyone around him. He is the only character who’s dialogue sounds natural. Tifa especially suffers from some terribly corny dialogue, and so do most of the children. And it doesn’t matter if you’re watching subbed or dub; the voice acting is good either way, but the script falls flat.
Ok, so the villain’s main motivation isn't completely bad; they’re mad at the planet for the Geostigma, and in search of power in what feels like a powerless fate. But their portrayed craziness is so poorly done and erratic, and their way in which they are used to try to reveal information to the viewer without giving it all away seems really forced. The directors didn’t know how to handle exposition, so they passed it onto some poorly articulated characters and hoped it all worked. It didn’t.
It’s not without more disappointment, then, that Advent Children is a perfect example of an ending that is just way, way too convenient. Cloud has no right to survive what he does. There are corny near death scenes and apparitions of dead partners Aerith and Zack Fair, as if Square Enix had to attempt to justify working them into the movie too. Everything turns out a-ok.
So, we have a lack of plot and any sense of reasonable development and pacing of it, no character development at all, stilted dialogue, and a bad ending. That sounds like a lot of problems to me. After the financial failure of Spirits Within, it seems that Square Enix backpedaled into fan service. Advent Children simply feels like a giant name drop; an excuse to wheel out the Final Fantasy VII characters one more time, at the expense of narrative and cohesiveness.