Goblins are disconcerting, even if their worst offense (in this case) is stealing food. For an 11-year-old girl named Momo, they are more annoying than terrifying, just another tiresome aspect of moving to the countryside with her mother. Not only is Momo expected to meet new friends and make nice with her grandparents, she’s also trying to get over the death of her father. He left behind a sheet of paper that’s addressed “Dear Momo” but is otherwise heartbreakingly blank. Goblins? Let ’em do their worst.
Hiroyuki Okiura’s gently fantastical animation approach proves apt for this familiar little story. Okiura is a veteran animator whose previous solo directing project was Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)—a significant title in Japanese animation—and he took seven years to complete this film. It’s an earnest combination of a realistic setting and a crazy supernatural streak, with the three goblins providing the latter. They’ve been summoned by some obscure bit of hocus-pocus; really, their function is to tease Momo, but also protect her and ease her toward reconciling her unhappiness. In short, they’re doing what everybody’s inner goblins should be doing. Except they’re more colorful: One’s a grinning, toothy lummox, another a fish-faced idiot with a well-timed talent for flatulence, and the third a small, monkey-like troll who’s a little slow on the uptake.
A Letter to Momo itself is a little slow, a very pretty object that doesn’t always keep the metronome moving (it’s 120 minutes long, which is going on a bit). Okiura revs it up for the big climax, a genuinely eyeball-dazzling extravaganza that brings hundreds and possibly thousands of magical creatures onscreen for a giant chase; at one point the creatures form a giant moving tunnel around a highway bridge during a thunderstorm, a truly psychedelic sight. Although digital technology has made this kind of thing possible for live-action films, this is still the kind of sequence you can stare at and say, Yep, this is what animation was uniquely invented for. Even with the slow buildup, there’s no reason the audience that responded to something like Spirited Away shouldn’t fall under the sway of this one, too. Opens Fri., Sept. 5 at Varsity. Not rated. 120 minutes.