There’s “animation for grown-ups” and then there’s Masaaki Yuasa. The idiosyncratic director of Mind Game and Ping Pong has made a name for himself with a resumé of visually imaginative, largely mature-audiences-only films and TV series. The most recent, a reboot of the perennially rebootable Devilman franchise, finishes off its pilot episode with a neon-colored pansexual orgy that ends in a bloodbath. The next logical step was obviously a kid’s movie.
Lu Over the Wall, produced by his own Science Saru studio, is every bit as imaginative as the rest of his body of work, but whereas previous Yuasa works would veer from ominous to outrageous to sweet to explicit to metaphysical, Lu is perfectly happy to stop at sweet. And so am I, quite frankly: Yuasa can be really good at sweet, something that’s often overshadowed by his more mile-a-minute tendencies. A kind of Shape of Water-for-juniors that also happens to be a dance movie, Yuasa’s feature-length foray into G-rated territory is as unexpected as it is disarming. (“Hope no one gets eviscerated in this one!” reads one comment on an Instagram post by U.S. distributor GKIDS.) (Nobody does.)
Kai is a miserable, affectless teen hopelessly stuck in his small beachside town. His only solace is writing and uploading songs to the internet, but when two his classmates discover his secret talent, they enlist him in their band, SEIREN. While practicing on the abandoned Merfolk Island (as one does) their jams attract an unexpected fourth band member: Lu, a music-loving mermaid with a curiously captivating voice. She becomes their secret weapon, adding an irresistible danceability to their music. But Kai and his bandmates must keep her a secret, since the town has been hostile to merfolk for generations.
Lu was produced quickly for an animated feature, and it shows, for better and occasionally for worse. Yuasa’s intentionally flat, endlessly malleable style makes the musical sequences — particularly the beachside dance scene where Lu makes her public debut — feel effortlessly joyful and light on their feet. Other sequences feel like they could have used more time, particularly an eye-popping climactic rescue scene, the scale of which feels like it gets away from Yuasa a bit. (The animation was done with a combination of hand-drawn cels and Flash, giving the film a kind of abstract, graphical feel at times.) When the film is at human-merfolk eye level, it’s easier to engage with. The more spectacular scenes — usually Yuasa’s opportunity to shine — may have you checking your watch.
But throughout the film, Yuasa’s eye for vivid colors and slapsticky antics lead the way. One particularly wonderful touch involves Lu’s vampire-like power to transform any creature into a fishtailed mer-thing; when a poundful of dogs is in danger of drowning, Lu’s solution is ridiculous and adorable. There are so many great visual ideas from one scene — the merfolk’s ability to manipulate and move water so that they are not bound to the sea makes for some great, only-in-animation physics. Lu’s father is an enormous shark-like creature that wears a suit and smokes a pipe for no discernible reason.
Less inventive is the base premise — Lu, with her spritely inhuman charm and lack of actual teen-girl moodiness and depth (particularly compared to Kai’s bandmate Yuho) inevitably coaxes Kai out of his shell and helps him truly embrace life. The film is less explicit about its interspecies romance than Guillermo Del Toro was, but it still raises the question of what kind of mythically outsized circumstances can nudge a person into a relationship with a non-human partner. Yuasa isn’t necessarily thinking about these things; he’s more interested in getting your toes tapping and eyes popping, getting Lu’s mer-ska theme song stuck in your head for all time. And on all those counts, he succeeds admirably.