In its first weekend, the card game-turned-kids’ TV show-turned-feature-length film came in fourth at the box office, behind Alien vs. Predator, Princess Diaries 2, and Collateral, but ahead of The Bourne Supremacy, The Village, and The Manchurian Candidate. As far as anime goes, this film–directed by Hatsuki Tsuji–is not in the same league as wonderful Spirited Away or even Pokemon. Critics have complained that the film is nothing more than an extended infomercial for the card game, but they are too generous: The film is flatter than the card game, whose multi-colored, carefully crafted figures are cool looking–much cooler, in fact, than the film’s animated versions.
As we learn in the opening scenes, the duel monsters card game, in which the teenage Yugi Moto is an undefeated expert, has its roots in the pyramids of ancient Egypt, where a secret has been locked away in the tomb of Anubis, the Egyptian Lord of the Dead. When Yugi solves a puzzle concerning an ancient artifact and an archeological exhibit brings Anubis’s tomb to the local museum, the way is prepared for an unleashing of evil of Ghostbusters proportions.
Initially some of the characters were interesting and humorous. Pegasus, the long-haired creator of the game in which Yugi excels, drinks red wine spritzers and speaks in droll, affected tones. He mocks the spoiled and obnoxious Kaiba, Yugi’s would-be nemesis, for his repeated inability to beat Yugi’s powerful cards. When Kaiba moans about his predicament, Pegasus responds facetiously, “Sounds like somebody needs a hug.” Then there are Yugi’s friends, one of whom talks like a New York mobster: “Nobody but nobody calls me a nobody, you bunch of nobodies!”
The film does manage to tack on a moral about true power residing in friends and in a belief in the heart of the cards (whatever that might mean).
In the midst of the card battles, the contestants not only play their cards, but also comment on strategies, such as, “This is a nice trick to know when you want to summon more than one monster at a time” and “Polymerization allows me to fuse my three dragons.” The grand contest between Yugi and Kaiba turns into a cosmic battle between an ancient Pharaoh, Yugi’s card-playing persona, and Anubis, the Lord of the Dead.
As it becomes clear that the two contestants are not entered in just an innocent card game, but that Anubis is somehow manipulating the game in order to recover his lost strength, Pharaoh pleads with Kaiba to end the duel. “You’re playing with forces you can’t possibly understand.” The prophecy proves true, as Anubis brings the card monsters to life and apocalyptic activities ensue. Yugi’s friends, desperate to assist him, end up fighting a horde of mummies, who look like rejects from that animated classic, Scooby Doo on Zombie Island.
Discussing with my eight-year-old son and Yu-Gi-Oh!-card aficionado the lackluster critical response to Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie, he said, “I won’t like it if it is just a commercial for the kids.” Then, like every good movie fan, his skepticism of the critics kicked in, and he added, “They didn’t like Snow Day either, and that was a good movie.” To his credit, he also ranks Holes, To Kill a Mockingbird, and LOTR among his favorites.
In a pleasant role reversal, my son was patient with my silly questions, although he occasionally added a condescending smile to his explanations as if to say, “Dad, you just don’t get it.” I still don’t, but neither, it seems, does he–at least not when it comes to the movie. As we were leaving the theater, he said he liked the movie, but it “really was just a long card game.” There were no requests to see it again, and no speculation about whether we would purchase the DVD when it appears: the two telltale signs that kids really enjoyed a film. If that’s the best this movie can get out of an eight-year-old fan of the card game, it must be doomed.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.