Jellyfish Eyes

Before we begin, I suppose I should confess to a cultural blindspot: before watching Jellyfish Eyes, my familiarity with artist Takashi Murikami's work was limited to the album cover he created for Kanye West's Graduation (you know, the cute one with the bear soaring through the sky). After watching the film, I gave myself a quick crash course on the rest of Murikami's work, and was treated to an abundance of striking (and sometimes comically graphic) cartoon imagery. It's easy to see why an artist like Murikami would want to make a colorful CGI-filled fantasy film (a lot of his most prominent work feels like dazzling conceptual art for some sort of outlandish anime series), but Jellyfish Eyes ultimately serves as a reminder that artists who are brilliant in one medium aren't necessarily brilliant in another. This is the cinematic equivalent of Michael Jordan playing baseball.

The story begins with a group of moody teenagers dressed in black, huddled together around some fancy hi-tech equipment in some sort of futuristic laboratory. Who are these people? Hard to say, but they're clearly up to no good. Then we're back to earth, where an ordinary young Japanese schoolboy named Masashi (Takuto Sueoka) encounters a strange, adorable little flying jellyfish that looks like a cross between the Pillsbury Doughboy and a pink parasol. The film borrows more than a little from E.T. during these early passages, as the jellyfish fearfully hides in the shadows and is lured out with the promise of Colby Jack cheesesticks (this film's equivalent of Reese's Pieces). The boy dubs the jellyfish “Jellyfish Boy” (sure, okay), and the two become inseparable friends.

Ah, but Jellyfish Boy isn't the only mysterious creature in town. It seems that almost everyone at Masashi's school has gotten their own crazy little pet. These things are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s (which stands for “life-Form, Resonance, Inner-Energy, Negative Emotion, Disaster prevention – eeesh), and most of the students are using them as live-action Pokemon. The F.R.I.E.N.D.s have furious battles with each other, and the kids control their moves by using a high-tech phone app of sorts. It turns out that Jellyfish Boy is incredibly gifted at this sort of combat, but something about the whole thing bugs Masashi. Is it possible that the aforementioned black-clad teenagers are using these F.R.I.E.N.D.s to power an mysterious energy system fueled by negative emotions? Sure, sounds plausible.

There's admittedly a sense of ridiculous, Saturday morning cartoon fun in the film's premise, but it doesn't take long at all for the movie to descend into headache-inducing chaos. The assorted CG creatures are sort of fun-looking, but honestly, the character design work mostly feels like something a few mid-level Nintendo game designers could have sketched out over the course of a long weekend. The only genuinely marvelous creation is a giant dog-creature (played by a man in a suit) that looks like some sort of shaggy Jim Henson character on steroids. Unfortunately, that guy comes and goes pretty quickly.

Almost the entirety of the film's second half feels like watching someone else play a video game. No, I take that back: it's like watching someone else play Pokemon, Super Smash Bros. and Skylanders simultaneously. The thin story gets buried under a sea of flashy-but-mediocre special effects, and the pop soundtrack struggles mightily to convince the audience that they're watching something ridiculously fun. Though it has Murikami's visual signature present throughout, much of Jellyfish Eyes resembles one of Robert Rodriguez's terrible family films: a sloppy, incoherent eyesore that overdoses on cheap special effects.

Admittedly, Jellyfish Eyes does have some ambitious thematic ideas at its core. There's an interesting message here about the way powerful corporations prey on the imaginations of children, replacing their own unique fantasies with franchise mascots and encouraging children's more violent instincts. These are ideas worth exploring, but the actual experience of watching the film is so tedious that they don't make half the impact they ought to make. If you're going to offer a critique of soulless corporate product, you should probably start by making something that is actually better than that product.

The most amusing thing about this movie is that it has now received a lavish home video release from The Criterion Collection. I suppose the movie does have some cultural significance due to Murikami's involvement (did Criterion secure the rights before seeing it?), but the film itself is easily one of the worst things to grace the fine series. Still, I do find some perverse enjoyment in the idea of this sitting on someone's shelf right between The Seventh Seal and The 400 Blows.

Jellyfish Eyes

Rating: ½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 2013