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First Squad: The Moment of Truth
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by Jay Seaver

"How do you mess Nazis and Soviets fighting an occult front up?"
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "First Squad" seems like it would be a great idea: A secret occult battlefield between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, cleverly working in real historical details, told via animation done by one of the world's best production houses, Studio 4C. Unfortunately, it seems as though nearly every time the writers had to make a decision about how to tell the story, they made the wrong one.

They at least picked a good story to start with - the German Ahnenerbe (an occult branch of the SS) intends to resurrect Baron Von Wolff (voice of Sergei Aisman) who attempted to conquer Russia in the 13th century, only to perish when the battle was fought on a frozen lake, which swallowed his army whole. To counter this army of ghosts, General Below of the 6th Division has Nadaya Ruslanova (voice of Elena Chebaturkina), a teenage psychic who has, unfortunately, lost her memory - and most of the rest of First Squad, so she must train to retrieve them from the other side.

There's the basis for a pretty good movie here, and Studio 4C certainly holds up their end of the bargain; the animation is gorgeous. Nobody else outside of Disney does such a good job of augmenting cel-based visuals with CGI (they do some great POV camera shots, a killer with traditional animation), and they really hit the sweet spot between historical accuracy, somewhat exaggerated character design, and imaginative visuals. Director Yoshiharu Ashino and his team in Japan do just about all that can be asked of them.

Russian writers Aljosha Klimov and Misha Shprits let them down in a big way, though. They lean on a number of anime/manga devices that aren't particularly useful here - what purpose does making Nadaya amnesiac do, other than give the characters a reason to explain things to her? It takes up valuable time that could be used telling the story. Her team is fairly generic; though they're given a few obvious personality traits, it's hard to see what any other than Nadaya brought to a paranormal strike force (maybe that's why they're dead before the movie starts). The villains are as sketchy as the heroes.

And despite all that detail that could do First Squad a lot of good if fleshed out, the film still seems horribly padded. There's roughly twenty-five minutes of story in a picture that is ostensible 73 minutes long, and the rest is either characters talking in circles or live-action, faux-documentary footage. Now, using them could have been an interesting decision, but they say very little that is not also said by the characters. After the third or fourth time out of a couple dozen that they appear, the switch to a black screen filled with a talking head elicits groans.

(It's almost as if The Moment of Truth was planned as something forty to forty-five minutes long, which you can sell in Japan, but which is very hard to distribute in Russia or North America, so they filled it out with something much cheaper than quality animation.)

"First Squad" may be the most impressive job of squandering a quality premise to appear this year: It takes real effort to make a movie this bad out of an idea this good, especially when there's nothing to complain about on the technical end.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19553&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/11/10 04:51:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2009 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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