Before I start I want to implore you to give You Are Umasou a watch. I’m going to try to spoil as little as possible here but watching the movie with fresh, unassuming eyes like I did is both a great experience and drives home points I’m going to make. It comes with my highest recommendation.
Many people would write off You Are Umasou at first glance. Its silly looking dinosaur designs scream “for kids!” and indeed this is a film that can appeal to all ages. But that’s just it, it’s for *all ages*, not just children. In fact its ability to have this wide appeal is thanks to its exemplary visual storytelling and thematic richness.
All-ages movies (at least the effective ones) are bundles of raw emotion. You Are Umasou could be watched without subtitles and you’d still understand its moment-to-moment emotional core. Each character’s emotions are portrayed through their expressiveness and interactions. When Heart’s heart melts to Umasou it’s apparent because we see his expression as the little guy innocently cuddles up against him. When Heart later decides it’s in Umasou’s best interest to part ways we see the pain it causes him to come to this conclusion. Sure, the way he “races” Umasou may not be entirely clear without dialogue but the effect of the scene is felt regardless.
Kids pick up on what they see more than what they hear, thus exposition can hinder their ability to follow the plot. This is not an easy task to pull off; you need to have top-tier writing and direction talent to convey a story without a heavy reliance on words. Dialogue must become the flavor.
Don’t mistake this for watering down a story though. Trimming the fat that can bog down adult-oriented films leaves the writers with more room to develop characters. Heart’s nature of being a meat-eating Big Jaw (this movie’s equivalent of a T-Rex) is juxtaposed with his nurturing upbringing by herbivores. This theme is explored in full as he struggles to balance these two sides of himself. The film never stops in its tracks to dictate this to the audience, we see it happen on-screen as he overcomes each obstacle.
This script also understands one of the core tenants of what makes a good screenplay: setups and payoffs. Nearly every beat established early bears itself for emotional release later. For example, as a child Heart is fed berries because he can’t stand the taste of leaves. When the plant-eating Umasou later brings him berries unassumingly it turns into a bonding moment that cements their relationship. After having succumbed to his meat-eating nature Heart is reminded of his childhood and realizes it’s his destiny to care for Umasou. The metaphor of the berries symbolizing nurture is used throughout the film to further his arc in similar ways.
It needs to be said that despite being a film suited for all-ages there is plenty of bite in the film– quite literally as we see the food chain in full effect. Dinosaurs get mauled and eaten on-screen. There are fights between dinosaurs where minor dismemberment occurs. What passes in a “G rated film” in anime might not fly for that rating in Western media.
And even that’s not always true: just look at The Lion King where Mufasa is dropped off a cliff by Scar. Where a cackling pack of hyenas are surefire nightmare fuel. Simply put, being for all audiences doesn’t mean creators have to shy away from disturbing imagery. It actually packs more of a punch when set against playful moments.
I honestly find very few flaws in You Are Umasou. The only major critique I have is that the third act pushes Umasou into the sidelines as Heart single-handedly overcomes his biggest obstacles. Much of the film is centered on Umasou’s growth which isn’t paid off particularly well but because everything else works so well you’d be forgiven for not even noticing it. It’s the one thing that keeps the film from being a masterpiece, honestly. Anything else I could point to here would be minor nitpicks not worthy of mention.
None of this is to mention the directorial acumen of this film with great shot composition and creative, well-timed editing. A whole bevy of filmmaking techniques are on display here including montage, visual passage of time and the use of character-defining sound effects that add so much to their personalities (I’m thinking of Umasou’s pitter-patter footsteps as he scuttles along). Plus, these films tend to be beautifully animated.
If you’re the type that would normally avoid You Are Umasou because of a stigma against its broad appeal then I think it might just change your mind. Beyond its kid-friendly veneer lies a standout film that does away with the trappings of “mature entertainment” often born from complacency. Give it a watch.