MINIMONI JA MOVIE: OKASHI NA DAIBOUKEN (MINIMONI THE MOVIE: THE GREAT SWEETS ADVENTURE, 2002) is a 54-minute movie designed as a showcase for the Japanese teen pop group, Minimoni, a four-girl spin-off of the popular J-pop phenomenon, Morning Musume. The film opens with the group filmed in live-action against computer-created backgrounds, but at the 14-minute mark, they become animated characters and spend the next 30 minutes entirely in computer animated form and only return to live-action for the last ten minutes. The girls play employees of a fantasy bakery (catering to little cartoon characters) devoted to pastries and cakes and are visited first by another human character, a cat burglar seeking to find the bakery's secret recipes, and then by four little animated fairies who carry off the girls--in animated form--to be punished in a hostile kingdom by a villainous queen who hates cakes and sweets despite having an army of gingerbread men to do her bidding. With the help of a robotic refrigerator, the cat burglar frees Minimoni from their dungeon cell and they then have to find a way to convince the queen to take a bite of cake again. That pretty much sums up the plot.
Minimoni consists of three of the shorter members of Morning Musume ("mini"=little, "moni"=Morning, get it?), Mari Yaguchi, Nozomi Tsuji and Ai Kago, and one member of the affiliated group, Coconuts Musume (performers recruited from Hawaii), Mika Todd, an American who sprinkles her Japanese with English phrases. The cat burglar/aspiring baker is played by Ai Takahashi, another member of Morning Musume and soon to join Minimoni. The queen is voiced by Yuko Nakazawa, one of the founding members of Morning Musume and one of the group's great beauties although she is only seen in animated form here. The four fairies are played by child members of the then-newly formed Hello! Project Kids, whose members would later split up into two separate pop groups, Berryz Kobo and C-ute, both of which are still active today. They become their live-action selves late in the film.
The film serves as a transition point for Minimoni. Mari Yaguchi, the leader, left the group after this film, paving the way for Ai Takahashi to take her place in it. Yaguchi even passes the torch by giving Takahashi her new Minimoni costume at the end of the film, while Mari puts on a "civilian" outfit for the finale. Yaguchi, Tsuji, Kago and Takahashi were all still members of Morning Musume when they made this, but have all since left the group. Nakazawa had graduated from the group the year before the movie was made. The four girls playing the fairies, doing their voices in animated form and appearing in live-action in the film's finale, are Maasa Sudo and Risako Sugaya, current members of Berryz Kobo, and Airi Suzuki and Mai Hagiwara, who are both in C-ute. They're absolutely adorable here.
Minimoni sings three times in the film. They perform "Okashi Tsukutte Okkasui~!" (Making Strange Sweets) early in the film in their bakery. They later perform it again, in animated form, in front of the queen in her castle, with slightly different lyrics ("Cake" instead of "Okash!"). Their big finale is "Genki Jirushi no Oomori Song," one of only two times a Minimoni song has been performed with both Mari Yaguchi and Ai Takahashi in the number (the second time being a surprise reunion during Minimoni's final appearance, seen at Morning Musume's Spring 2004 "Best of Japan" concert).
Ai Takahashi sings one solo song in the film, an almost lullaby-sounding ditty aimed at the gingerbread men. Yuko Nakazawa sings a song early in the film as well. I have been unable to identify either song. Takahashi and Nakazawa have two of the finest voices to come out of Morning Musume. Five musical numbers is less than I would like from these girls, but in a 54-minute movie, I should be grateful we got that many.
I saw this on a DVD which was in Japanese with no English subtitles. The story is told primarily through visuals, so I was able to follow it pretty well, although I missed some of the finer plot points, such as why the queen is so disposed to hate sweets (revealed in a flashback formed by painted illustrations) or why Mari leaves the group.
The film was directed by Shinji Higuchi, who has worked in different capacities on many anime productions (including "Neon Genesis Evangelion") and live-action sci-fi/monster films (the Gamera trilogy, 1995-99). He went on to direct the excellent live-action disaster movie, NIHON CHINBOTSU (JAPAN SINKS, 2006).
Minimoni also got the animation treatment (2-D cell animation, rather than CGI) in two "Hamtaro" movies, THE HAMTARO MOVIE (GEKIJO BAN TOTTOKO HAMUTARO HAMU HAMU LAND DAIBOKEN, 2001) and HAMTARO THE MOVIE 2 (GEKIJO BAN TOTTOKO HAMUTARO HAM HAM HAM ~ JYA! MABOROSHI NO PRINCESS, 2002), spin-offs of a popular children's cartoon series about hamsters. I've seen both of those movies and I prefer the 2-D cartoon hamster caricatures of the girls to the 3-D human ones in this film. However, they only make cameo appearances in the Hamtaro movies while they're the stars of this one.
If you're a fan of any of the performers I've mentioned in this review, this film is definitely a must-see for you. If you're not a fan, then you're probably not reading this.
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