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‘Mia and the Migoo’ gets spirited away in an homage

A brave young heroine encounters yeti-like creature “MiMigoo” French-produced traditional-style hand-drawn animated film thdisplays strong influence Hayao Miyazaki.

A brave young heroine encounters a yeti-like creature in “Mia and the Migoo,” a French-produced, traditional-style, hand-drawn animated film that displays the strong influence of Hayao Miyazaki.

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‘Mia and
the Migoo’ ★★

Mia Amanda Misquez

The Migoo Wallace Shawn

Jekhide John DiMaggio

Aldrin Vincent Agnello

Jojo James Woods

GKids presents a film directed by Jacques-Remy Girerd. Written by Girerd, Benoit Chieux, Antoine Lanciaux and Iouri Tcherenkov. In English. Rated PG (for thematic elements, some peril and brief mild language). Opening today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: August 12, 2011 12:21AM

The influence of acclaimed Japanese animation wizard Hayao Miyazaki is clear in “Mia and the Migoo,” an award-winning film from French director Jacques-Remy Girerd. Mia (voice of Amanda Misquez) is a Miyazaki-style brave young heroine on an eco-themed journey who has random encounters with grotesque characters. Like Miyazaki, Girerd remains committed to traditional, hand-drawn animation, a welcome change from computer-created images.

But “Mia” also incorporates some of Miyazaki’s weaknesses — narrative incoherence and a remote, chilly quality — while never reaching the soaring visual or emotional scope of “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke,” or even “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” Because of a weak script, “Mia” seems like “Ferngully 3: Revenge of the Developers.”

Mia lives in an unidentified South American country. Her father, Paulo (voice of Joa­­­quin Mas) has taken a dangerous job far from home. As he works on a construction project building luxury homes in a pristine part of the rainforest, he is trapped in a cave-in. Mia immediately senses that her father needs her. She visits her mother’s grave to say goodbye and sets off to find him.

The man behind the construction project is Jekhide (John Di­Maggio of “Futurama”), a cal­­lous bully who relies on bribes, intimidation and worse to get the project done. Gunpowder is “the smell of brute strength and power,” he tells his kind-hearted young son, Aldrin (Vincent Agnello). As he prepares to hunt down the mysterious creature that has been obstructing the builders, he visits a giddy weapons dealer (James Woods) to assemble an arsenal. “I’ll take that flame-thrower as well,” he says as he adds to the list of purchases. The yeti-like creature he pursues is the Migoo (Wallace Shawn), guardian of an “Avatar”-style Tree of Life. Mia and Aldrin will have to help the Migoo guard the tree or life on Earth will be at risk.

The Migoo are lumpen, go­lem-like muddy figures, and so dim-witted and con­­­­sumed with bickering, it’s hard to imagine that they could protect a paper clip. There’s one intriguing suggestion that they are not several entities but a single one, shifting from big to small, many to one. This echoes Mia’s mystic connection to her father, somehow waking, hundreds of miles away, the instant that he was in trouble, as well as the theme of our interconnectedness to our environment. But it quickly gets lost in an unbalanced, too-many-cooks script (five writers are credited). Distracting flashes of crude humor dissipate any connection to the characters and odd encounters derail the momentum. And the climax muddles the film’s eco message.

The visuals are also a disappointment. The total control permitted by computer-generated animation has achieved and even exceeded photography to reach a kind of hyper-realism, liberating the practitioners of hand-drawn animation to experiment with a more free-form, impressionistic form of storytelling. Recent animated masterpieces like “Cor­a­line” or “The Triplets of Belleville” are thrilling demonstrations of strong personal taste rejecting many of the tools offered by computer graphics in favor of a distinctive personal vision.

This freedom puts even more of an obligation to make each artistic choice serve the story. Girerd outlines most of his figures with a glowing alizarin crimson. It may be intended to suggest the heat of global warming but it just makes them look bruised. Red underpainting seems to add a radioactive glow to the backgrounds, as well, highly out of place for a movie that celebrates the rich greens and blues of fertile vegetation and life-giving waters.

“Mia and the Migoo” does have some striking images with strong color blocks. They would be impressive illustrations in a children’s book. But animation is about movement. The lack of fluidity in “Mia” is not an artistic choice; it is an inadequacy that in closeups recalls the lips-only action in the old “Clutch Cargo” cartoons. Combined with flat vocal performances and dialogue, it undermines the interdependence and connection between the characters and their environment — and also between us and the story.

Nell Minow is the film critic for the website

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