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Hugh David on anime’s answer to the summer blockbusters

Once reserved for the rare mainstream crossover super-success, the spin-off theatrical feature has become standard for major anime franchises. As such, it’s a surprise to realise that the terrific Fairy Tail has only just reached the point where it gets to have one. Still, if ever there was a franchise tailor-made for the feature format, it’s the action-packed comedy of the notoriously destructive mages’ guild.

Our heroes – fire mage Natsu and his flying sidekick Happy, money-happy Lucy, ice mage Gray, Guild’s finest Erza, dragon slayer Wendy and her flying sidekick Carla – find themselves with time on their hands after a spectacularly botched mission.  When Lucy comes across a starving, tired young woman called Éclair with her bird-like friend Momon, and takes pity on them, little does she know what a meal and a drink will come to cost both the Guild and her personally.

Writers about film have been discussing the Western blockbuster season as somewhat lacklustre so far this year; they only need to look at Fairy Tail: Phoenix Priestess, however, for a taste of what they are missing.  This is the perfect summer blockbuster movie, as well as a textbook example of how to do a spin-off feature just right.  At 85 minutes long there is not an ounce of fat on its bikini body, while still finding room for drama and humour alongside the explosive action.  Modern-day Hollywood could learn a lot from Phoenix Priestess, even as it sticks to lessons from an older version of the American Dream Factory.

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That is not to say it avoids cliché. As with the manga and the TV series, one of the essential strengths of the movie is it wholeheartedly embraces the big clichés of the shonen form, running through the essentials of a good action movie on its way to the large-scale destruction of the climax. The other previously-noted strength that comes to the fore here is the emotional core of the story as expressed through the characters; we know Natsu has a big heart, and we know that when the chips are down we can expect the Guild members to stand up and be counted, but how that is used here to create a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” climactic scenario in which Guildmaster Makarov has to make the hard decision of a general at war that will tear Lucy apart is simply stunning.  The film goes as big on emotions as it does on destruction, so make sure you have a box of tissues to hand.

In fact the only thing the film could have used is available on the UK release, and that’s the wonderful ten-minute prologue featuring Éclair and Momon.  It is as beautifully animated and scored as the rest of the film, and is so clearly of a piece with it it’s a shame it wasn’t inserted into the main running time for an extended cut. It makes the perfect accompaniment to a lovely master of the film worth owning.

Fans of the franchise will have no hesitation about picking this up.  Rest assured that those looking to dip a toe in will find the movie a rollicking ride even without in-depth knowledge of the individual characters.  If you want magic, action, drama, laughter and tears in a Friday night pizza-and-beer package, this is the anime to buy.

Fairy Tail: Phoenix Priestess is released on UK DVD and Blu-ray by Manga Entertainment.

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