‘Letter to Momo’ is a girl-centered masterpiece

Yesterday, two of my kids, ages 11 and 8, and I saw the new animated movie by Hiroyuki Okiura, “Letter to Momo.” From the first scene to the last, we were riveted by the gorgeous animation and the fantastical story about how a young girl finds her courage.

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When the movie opens, Momo’s father has just died in a boating accident, and she moves with her mother from Tokyo to a small village. Lonely, frightened, and displaced, Momo tries to cope with solitude while her mother spends her days in seminars training to be a caretaker so that she can be the breadwinner for the family. It is during these long days alone that Momo encounters three creepy, terrifying, and constantly starving goblins. These three creatures who only Momo can see play a key role in the story, and what I loved about them is that they are not cute, but grotesque. As Momo comes to love them, so do we. It is a rare and special narrative– and the polar opposite of Disney, not to mention Roald Dahl– where “ugly” beings are not only good, but also become beautiful to the viewer. This alone, is a crucial lesson for kids, and I was so happy my kids experienced it. My only complaint about them is that all three goblins are male.

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The last few scenes of the movie are so stunning, I got chills. At one part, thousands of creatures create a tunnel out of their bodies to protect Momo. In another scene, the villagers set straw boats with lanterns out onto the sea. There are several thunderstorm scenes where the animation of the rain and lightning is mesmerizing. I read that “Momo” took seven years to make and that does not surprise me at all. I love Momo’s look too, her expressive eyes and messy hair, though she’s almost always in pink which I found kind of annoying.

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Still, Momo is not a Minority Feisty. There are female characters throughout the story. Momo’s mother and great grandmother are main characters, and so is another young girl, Umi who¬† is the only other character also able to see the goblins. Umi’s older brother, Yota, hangs out with a gang of kids that includes a girl and Momo becomes good friends with him, no romance.

I almost didn’t see this movie. It was not on my radar at all, and not only am I obsessed with children’s media, I am a huge fan of Hiyao Miyazaki to the point that I actually cried when I heard he was retiring. Yet, “Letter to Momo” did not make it on Reel Girl’s annual list of children’s movies coming out in 2014. The only reason I heard of “Momo” is because when I picked my daughter up at school on Friday, we went to get her a bagel, and while she was gobbling it up, I perused the left over free local newspaper. There, I saw the picture of a girl–a girl!– and then read the review. The next day I packed two kids in the car, planning to have my husband drop off the third. That was when I discovered the movie had subtitles. Never have my kids sat through or even attempted to sit through subtitles. I was also nervous because once I learned about the movie, I read a few reviews that it is bloated, should have been 20 minutes, and needs an editor. Though I sent the 5 year old home with her dad because she can’t read, the two older ones and I proceeded to the theater, an art house with a screen not much bigger than a TV. But my American kids who get way too bored way too easily IMO, could not disagree more with those reviewers. They did not even finish their popcorn. I can’t imagine one scene being cut. There is a dubbed version out too, and I’m going to take my 5 year old back to see that one.

Reel Girl rates “Letter to Momo” ***HHH***