Moon in the Hidden Woods, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/16/19 09:05:34

"An interesting if uneven animated fantasy from Korea."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: South Korea has been a spot where the frame-by-frame grinding out of animation is done for a long time, but has seldom been a place where notable animation is initiated; I cannot remember a Korean animated feature getting much notice since "Wonderful Days" (aka "Sky Blue") fifteen years ago. "The Moon in the Hidden Woods" probably won't be the one that remedies this; it looks rougher than theatrical animation from other countries and while imaginative, the storytelling leaves something to be desired.

It follows Nabilera, a princess of sorts, but one who is not interested in being a child bride for Count Tar at all, despite being told that this may be the only way to return the moon to the sky from which it has disappeared, replaced by Muju, the red night sky. She flees and meets Jang-goo, a meteor hunter from a small village, as well as rival Guntheir from a neighborhood village. She is right not to want any part of Tar - he is in league with Muju in a plan to plunge the world into darkness - but it may be too late to rally the mystic forces necessary to stop their plan.

Visually, The Moon in the Hidden Woods takes most of its cues from Japanese animation, but looks like a theatrical anime from twenty or thirty years ago, or perhaps a lower-budgeted television show (where director Takahiro Umehara has done most of his work), with flat colors and broad shots where you can see scads of background characters standing dead still. The character designs feel like a similar sort of throwback in their bold simplicity and with their oversized accessories. They are still interesting for coming from a different cultural place, though far enough removed to not necessarily feel specifically Korean to a foreign audience. It often seems as if they are hoarding their resources, saving their best work for the climax and mostly able to allow the creativity, from making street music a game to moon fairies appearing as mammoths, to make up for what it doesn't have technically.

From the festival screening, it often seems that director Takahiro Umehara and co-writer Kwon O-Hyun make weird choices as to what to lay out and what to have the viewer pick up along the way, although that may be something that's as much subtitling as anything else and rectified by the time distributors pick the film up. The mythology is fanciful and dense enough to sometimes fall into the spot where half seems obvious and half requires explanation, with many of the characters just barely fleshed-out enough to have a job to do when the finale comes, especially the princess who somehow comes off as obnoxious despite generally trying to do the right thing.

Part of that comes from the film apparently being pitched toward kids (though it can be tough to tell in a festival environment where they're a very small part of the audience), although if that's the case, Korean kids are apparently ready to roll with an apocalyptically Lovecraftian force of nature to fight. Of course, some of that fighting is going to be done via music, a catchy percussive beat with dancing that naturally leads to a finale that may be dangerous but also fun, throwing its characters into a carnival-ride sort of battle that never quite seems too silly for the fate of the world to rest upon it. It's a very distinctive case of cute and occasionally giving way to something eyebrow-raising.

It is, if nothing else, a movie that gives its audience something new to look at and a different sort of fantasy environment, and children's entertainment can always use more of that, even if it's not perfect.

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