Often recognized for his pop-bright colors and whimsical prints, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has spent his career blending the high with the low, using both contemporary ideals and classic motifs to craft his own unique works. That Murakami would want to expand out into the world of filmmaking isn’t surprising, and neither is his impulse to use the art form to otherwise explore the sorts of designs that pepper his already varied resume. What is surprising, however, is that Murakami’s feature debut, “Jellyfish Eyes,” ostensibly a film aimed at the younger set, is so beholden to adult issues. Clumsily told and poorly explained, Murakami’s heavy-handed narrative overshadows the clever artistry that otherwise marks the film’s copious animated charms.
The film stars appealing youngster Takuto Sueoka as Masashi, who has recently relocated to a small town (with a big secret!) with his mother. The countryside hamlet is meant to be a respite for the pair, as their move comes on the heels of the death of Masashi’s father — an event that is routinely recreated in his son’s nightmares, unsettling as that may be — but their new residence is unfortunately outfitted with a nefarious lab of some kind, which appears to mostly employ literally hooded bad guys, who are very obviously up to no good.
Anxious and alone, Masashi is both terrified and pleased to discover a strange, appropriately jellyfish-eyed being in his new home, which appears to take a shine to him without the slightest bit of provocation. Kurage-bo (“Jellyfish Boy”) is a flying, flashing bouncy creature who is obsessed with a cheesy treat that Masashi also relishes, both for its taste and the connection it holds to his deceased father. Eager for friends, Masashi and Kurage-bo bond immediately, and Kurage-bo’s adventurous attitude and good-natured spirit appeal to Masashi’s fundamental sweetness and mostly sunny outlook. In deference to Murakami’s background, the animated Kurage-bo is charmingly made, a happy vehicle for the filmmaker’s visual flair and style.
Masashi soon realizes that he’s not the only kid in town with a strangely animated creature of his own, though he’s the only one who does not control his with a nifty device that resembles a particularly slim smart phone, and he’s certainly one of the few who doesn’t use his pal for mayhem and misdeeds. While Masashi enjoys playing with Kurage-bo, other kids dabble in Fight Club-styled antics that see their creatures battling it out, stirring up something that can only be recognized as negative energy.
Despite the initial joy at discovering a town filled with kids who get their own special pet to pal around with, “Jellyfish Eyes” soon veers into inscrutable, heavy-handed material. The film’s villains are literally hooded, nefarious baddies, and their aims are never fully clear, thanks to a muddled explanation that only seems to hinge on some vague need for negative energy to feed their exploits (at one point, one of them even exclaims, “We need pure negative energy!,” the most significant explanation of their work the film is willing to offer). The hooded villains are responsible for the creation of the kids’ pets — known as “”F.R.I.E.N.D.s,” a cutesy acronym that stands for the otherwise unwieldy moniker “life-Form Resonance Inner Energy Negative Emotion and Disaster prevention” — and despite their huggable appearance and mostly good-natured spirit, they are apparently meant to inspire and ensnare those so-called negative emotions. What that all amounts to is furiously obscured, and no amount of wordy exposition can help the plot.
There is a shabby, nearly sloppy feel to the majority of the film, one that is often populated with lackluster sound effects, long stretches of little action and weak character development. Although the F.R.I.E.N.D.s look wonderful, instant kids movie classics, other special effects aim for a homespun appeal that looks cheap in practice. Sueoka is a worthy lead, a natural actor who sells his affection for the animated Kurage-bo without question, and who admirably blends together wide-eyed inexperience with youthful pluck, but the rest of the film isn’t worthy of him or the delightful Kurage-bo. Ambiguous aims and a perplexing narrative rob the film of the childlike wonder the animated portions so easily add in, making most of “Jellyfish Eyes” increasingly hard to embrace.
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“Jellyfish Eyes” opens Wednesday at New York’s IFC Center.