“Summer Wars” starts out like the worst kind of romantic comedy; a cute girl pays a nerdy guy to accompany her on a trip back home, and then shocks him by telling her family he’s her fiance. You totally expect Jennifer Aniston to pop up somewhere. But once it gets past this stupid excuse for a plotline, it becomes a really engaging movie. Turns out her family is actually interesting; they’re the proud but penniless descendants of a Samurai line, and there’s plenty of inter-family dynamics, old crushes on cousins, and shallowly buried hatchets to make things interesting. Twenty minutes in, and “Summer Wars” feels much more like a French family drama than the stupid American romcom it started out to be.
And then it becomes thoroughly anime, but not in a bad way. The geek faux-boyfriend, whose name is Kenji, gets pulled into a giant hacker plot through an online program called Oz, which seems a lot like the real-life programs Second Life or the Sims, except way bigger. A rogue program hacks into Oz, and starts to create all kinds of real world mischief. It starts off by messing with people’s cell phone service, but quickly escalates past that, and eventually winds into the realms of armageddon. (“Summer Wars” stretches a bit past the boundaries of credulity here; one wonders why governments would make traffic grids accessible to an online gaming platform, let alone nuclear arsenals.) It is up to Kenji and his newly-adopted, multi-talented, constantly bickering, Samurai-descended family to save the world. (Turns out a rogue member of the same family actually wrote the program that’s doing all the damage, so it really is up to them.)
Director Mamoru Hosoda uses the platform of an online environment to create a unique and visually arresting style of animation; each family member has a different avatar, and they all come from different streams of pop culture, from Pokemon to Mario and beyond. “Summer Wars” is the most visually interesting animated film I’ve seen in a long time; it’s bright and bold and almost infinitely varied; there’s a lot to look at here, and one could spend a viewing just watching the corners of the screen. Couple this arresting style with a well-paced, interesting plot (after that stumble in the first twenty minutes) and truly engaging, nuanced characters, and you have a better than average film, let alone anime film. “Summer Wars'” complicated plot might be too much for children, and there are still adults who think animation is kid’s stuff, but if you’re somewhere in between, you might find this the kind of anime even non-fans can appreciate.