Cute, very cute, and splendidly psychedelic, “Lu Over the Wall” is a Japanese animated little-mermaid tale from prominent TV anime creator Masaaki Yuasa opening Friday at the Embarcadero. The storytelling is messy, but the spirit is exuberantly winning in this all-ages adventure.
Combining his established free-form animation style with more conventional and realistic imagery, Yuasa’s hybrid fantasy suggests a mix of “Ponyo,” “Yellow Submarine,” bouncy Disney fare and a PG-rated reworking of “The Shape of Water.”
The story centers on a friendship and a sea of green.
Screening in Japanese (subtitled) and English (dubbed) versions, the movie transpires in a remote fishing village, where sulky, Tokyo-bred middle-schooler Kai (voiced by Shota Shimoda, subtitled version; and Michael Sinterniklaas, dubbed) lives at his parasol-making grandfather’s house, having moved there with his father after his parents’ divorce.
A talented musician, Kai impresses classmates Yuho (Minako Kotobuki/Stephanie Sheh) and Kunio (Soma Saito/Brandon Engman) with his compositions. They persuade him to join their band.
When the trio rehearse on Merfolk Island, their music attracts Lu (Kanon Tani/ Christine Marie Cabanos), a friendly, pint-sized mermaid with a rubbery face and an alien voice.
After Lu, arriving in a wall of water, visits Kai, the two outsiders bond. Soon Lu is part of the band. When music plays and she sings and dances, her tail transforms into legs.
The townsfolk, however, associate mermaids with disaster even as they find Lu adorable. After entrepreneurs make Lu an entertainment attraction, unexpected consequences endanger everyone.
Too much is going on in this movie: an action sequence involving Lu’s sharklike father, a heavily promoted fish-processing workshop, endangered-sealife poaching, fish skeletons flying through the air, a cowboy-hatted businessman touting a theme park and vampiric mermaid acts, for starters.
Yuasa barely develops or ties together many of the plot threads.
Yet he directs the untidiness with an auteurish verve not found in animated Hollywood family fare; and while his various visual styles can clash more than jibe, they strikingly demonstrate the merits of 2D animation.
The realistic appearance of everyday village life provides viewers with a credible, tangible sense of place. The psychedelic-looking merfolk feats, which include magic with water and, in the case of Lu’s father, performing a wildly fiery deed, are spectacular. Amorphous shapes add a surreal tone. Expressive lines lead to hilarity when Kai can’t stop his body from dancing.
As for the story, which includes bouncy kid stuff, teen angst, fantasy action and bits of horror, Yuasa, despite the excess, immerses viewers in the whirl.
At the same time, he doesn’t forget themes of friendship and understanding that exist underneath, leaving audiences charmed and a little moved.
Lu Over the Wall
Starring: Shota Shimoda/Michael Sinterniklaas; Kanon Tani/Christine Marie Cabanos; Minako Kotobuki/Stephanie Sheh
Written and directed by: Masaaki Yuasa
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes