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Ninja Kids!!!
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by Jay Seaver

"The first attempt to fill the Potter void comes from Japan."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: For the last few years, I've had this recurring joke about how hiring Takashi Miike to direct family movies is the Japanese equivalent of Warner Brothers getting the rights to Harry Potter and deciding that the right man for the job is David Cronenberg. Now, though, it's just a thing that happens every year or two, not a cause for shock as much as an indication that this particular kiddie flick, even if otherwise average, will at least have a few memorably bizarre moments.

An adaptation of the long-running comic and cartoon Nintama Rantaro, the movie follows title character Rantaro (Seishiro Kato) as he goes off to start first grade at Ninja Academy, where his parents (Shido Nakamura and Rei Dan) hope that he will learn to become a great ninja not have to work as a farmer as he does. He soon makes friends, particularly Shinbei (Fuuta Kimura), a sleepy, roly-poly fellow, and Kirimaru (Roi Hayashi), a poor but hardworking boy who takes babysitting jobs to make tuition. They get into mischief, but pull together when a nice kid in the fourth grade, "gangsta hairstylist" Takamaru Saito, finds his family attacked by members of their old clan.

I've never encountered any of the franchise's previous iterations, but I am not surprised at all the hear that Nintama Rantaro started life as a four-panel gag strip with more of a focus on punchlines than continuing (mis)adventures. That's how the movie often plays, like a stream of skits about just how goofy it would be to have grade-school kids learning ninja skills in the classroom, with even the climactic race broken up into distinct comedy bits that last a few minutes at most. It's not necessarily a bad way to put a movie aimed at young children with short attention spans together, although it feels very stitched-up at times - Takamaru is introduced just when the filmmakers seem to realize that the movie needs a bit of a plot for its finale, and Rantaro being a particularly fast runner wasn't brought up before the race starts.

The jokes themselves aren't bad, although they are pitched to a very young audience that is likely already familiar with the material. For instance, there are a couple of bits that just consist of Rantaro eating a meal, sighing contentedly, and commenting that ninjas really like curry, which just has to be something from the original comics; it's too random otherwise. There's some extremely simple gross-out humor - the headmaster's arguable nemesis is a stray dog that poops all over the place - and some fairly extreme slapstick. It's not all crude, though - Miike and screenwriter Yoshio Urasawa are able to make a running joke about people falling into holes execute perfectly every time, and they are clever enough to occasionally understate a bit like Rantaro and his father playing "catch" with throwing stars and wooden shields.

It's probably fair to say that an adult's enjoyment of this movie is somewhat related to whether or not they can watch little kids messing around with sharp objects and see potential comedy gold rather than a reason to ban the movie. To be fair, there's nothing realistic about this movie; it's set in a bygone era but has its cast using modern slang and attitudes, with characters sometimes quite literally breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. Visually, the movie is thoroughly committed to being a live-action cartoon - several actors must have had a hard time staying upright with all the prosthetic make-up on their heads, and that's before the lumps start forming from getting clonked there. In general, the world of Ninja Kids!!! is brightly colored and charming, but doesn't cross the line into being overwhelming.

The cast (young and old) is appealing, too. Seishiro Kato is cheerful and funny behind his big glasses, with Roi Hayashi and Fuuta Kimura making good sidekicks. As the teachers, Takahiro Miura and Susumu Terajima do the tricky job of supporting the kids without showing them up or overacting more than the roles require, while Shido Nakamura and Rei Dan are funny as Rantaro's parents while also always getting through how much they want the best for them.

I mention Harry Potter in the opening paragraph, and I wouldn't be terribly shocked if the boy wizard's success was what inspired Warner Brothers Japan to see if their own bespectacled boy going to boarding school to learn the secret family business might wind up a good substitute for that ending franchise, at least locally. Though superficially similar, they're very different things, and I doubt any sequels to "Ninja Kids!!!" would develop the sort of depth that the Potter stories did. On the other hand, I think this movie's cheerful zaniness is often more fun, and might appeal to the younger kids a bit more.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22596&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/13/11 20:46:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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