18 May 2017
Although I'm the closest UK Anime has to an intrepid Fairy Tail reporter, it should probably be noted that my credentials in that field are somewhat weak. Yes, I review the show's UK home video releases, but they're currently so far behind the cutting edge of the show's narrative (and indeed the manga, which is now drawing to a close) that I can't even begin to pretend to be current on what the series is up to. That puts me in something of an awkward position when it comes to Dragon Cry, the new Fairy Tail theatrical film that positions itself very much on the cusp of the franchise's final act - thankfully, it didn't seem to impinge too deeply upon my understanding or enjoyment of the film, so if you're in a similar boat you shouldn't be too wary about watching it unless you're intensely spoiler averse.
We enter the story for this film in medias res, with Natsu's brief reminiscences on his upbringing interrupted by the realisation that he seems to be chained up in some kind of flying prison. In fact, the events taking place are the culmination of his escape from incarceration - just one of the many things that Dragon Cry has no time to dwell upon - and with that escape complete we finally get to hit the rewind button and go back a few days to how he ended up there.
Natsu and company's adventure begins thanks to a dire threat to Fiore which comes into the possession of a ruthless and decidedly dangerous fellow named Zash Caine, who uses his substantial powers to steal the film's titular Dragon Cry - a staff originally belonging to Fiore that has the power to destroy entire nations having absorbed the sorrow and anger of dragons over many years. Needless to say, this isn't the kind of item you want to fall into nefarious hands, so it's up to Fairy Tail's finest to retrieve the staff before it's used for ill - a task which initially seems like a piece of cake, but of course inevitably turns out to be anything but.
Everything follows a rather predictable pattern from here - it turns out that Zash is himself not the real mastermind behind the Dragon Cry's theft; the original reason for pilfering the staff is actually less malevolent than it initially seems; then other twists and turns bring us some notable action scenes and a final battle to save Fiore from being razed to the ground.
In other words, the standard Fairy Tail story-telling formula is all present and correct here - it's sexy, it's sassy, it's occasionally silly, but it also has a desire to be heartfelt and surprising as it stacks up reveals around its story and characters throughout. The problem is that this formula works perfectly in a long-running anime series where there's plenty of time to examine characters and motivations in amidst the action, and Fairy Tail is as good at leveraging that formula as it gets to pull at the heartstrings one moment and have you laughing at its goofiness the next. Throw everything you'd normally squeeze into thirteen or more episodes of TV anime into a 90-minute film however, and your troubles begin...
Most notably, none of the characters or story beats that emerge throughout the film are given anything like enough time to really have any impact here - existing characters effectively just "do their bit" and little more save for the very end of the movie, while the film's original cast all have great character designs but almost literally zero personality. This makes it hard to care about what happens - the new characters feel so throwaway there's never much of a feeling of dramatic tension as it seems impossible that they might ever have the brains or guts to triumph, and that kills a lot of what happens dead in the water to leave action scenes perfunctory and even the final act of the film feels like an inevitability rather than a tense finale.
There's also simply not enough time to explore any of the film's finer points - there are some big reveals spread throughout Dragon Cry that the viewer would be given plenty of time to soak up during a TV story arc, but here they're thrown out on-screen only to be ushered aside for the next reveal or big event just minutes or even seconds later. The movie has some genuinely smart pivots in terms of character motivations in particular, but the fact that they're never given time to breathe only ensures that they further contribute to the lack of personality the newcomers to the cast exhibit. The issue of timing is one that pervades every inch of the movie - each scene feels too brief or too rushed to really get its point across, and the result is a work that almost feels more like a recap film than a standalone work in its own right.
If this big screen Fairy Tail outing doesn't get our blood pumping narratively, how about its presentation? Dragon Cry certainly offers up a hefty dose of fan service in every sense of the word, offering up some classic moments from most of its best known major characters, while also finding every opportunity possible to kit Lucy and Erza out in the skimpiest outfits possible so that they can jiggle for the camera. Thanks to the lack of time to dig deeper into those characters it does feel a little leery, but it's nothing new for the franchise so it's hardly a black mark against it either.
While the film broadly feels in line with its TV outing in terms of animation, perhaps the most notable part of its presentation is the use of colour and backgrounds - there are some beautiful establishing shots of the Stella Kingdom which serves as the setting for events, and a major battle that starts out at dusk and runs on into sunset until the night sky comes into view provides a gorgeous ever-changing palette to light up proceedings that I'm not ashamed to say was my favourite part of the entire film. Rather than a film that looks good from beginning to end, it's these little moments and neat touches that elevate it above Fairy Tail's TV animation.
Having generally consumed Fairy Tail via its decent English dub, it was actually quite refreshing to return to the show's Japanese cast for this subtitle-only theatrical run - it's easy to forget the stellar talents sprinkled throughout the dub, and they offer up a good reminder of that here, albeit perhaps surprisingly reining things in a little for a series that often turns its character's reactions up to eleven in comparison.
At the end of the day, one suspects that Fairy Tail: Dragon Cry does enough to keep fans happy - it's funny, sexy and puts together all of the facets which make the series the success that it is. However, I can't help but want more - there are characters, ideas and plot points in this film that I wanted to know much more about, but Dragon Cry never had time to tell me about any of them as it raced onwards to hit its next story beat, and as a result it felt like a lot of what makes the franchise stand-out compared to other long-running shounen series gets lost in the rush. Perhaps this story arc would have been better living with the limitations, but enjoying the extra room to breathe, that a full TV anime series can offer, as in this theatrical form it feels too compressed to truly prosper.
Fairy Tail: Dragon Cry screened nationwide on May 17th courtesy of Anime Limited, with further screenings from May 19th. Screening details can be found on the official web site.