Three hundred years in the future, a manmade ecological disaster has left the world overrun by vast sentient plant-life. Humanity is divided in two factions. The inhabitants of Neutral City try to live in harmony with nature and appease the hooded, leafy-faced humanoid creatures known as Druids that protect the sacred Forest. The neighbouring kingdom of Ragnar are more militant and have begun amassing a mighty armada of war machines, aiming to reclaim the Earth.
A boy named Agito (voiced by Ryo Katsuji) stumbles onto a machine that has kept a girl named Toola (Aoi Miyazaki) in suspended animation over the past three centuries. Returning to civilisation proves a culture shock for Toola, who realises her own father was the scientist responsible for the worldwide disaster. Hoping to restore the world as it once was, Toola allies herself with Ragnarian warrior-scientist Shunack (Kenichi Endo), himself a refuge from Earth’s past, as they attempt to rediscover ancient technology buried deep in the forest. Meanwhile Agito, like his father before him, consults the twin nymph-like beings that rule the forest and is transformed into a silver haired super-being. With his newfound powers he tries to convince Toola that rather than revive the old ways, they should create a balance between mankind and nature. But Shunack has other ideas.
Studio Gonzo are the current kings of fan-favourite anime. They blitzed their way to the top with a string of television shows giving hardcore otaku exactly what they want: cool hardware, eye-candy aplenty and sci-fi action, with plots compelling but not too taxing on the brain cells. However, for their second anime feature, following Brave Story (2006), Gonzo evidently sought to prove they could make a more ambitious, thought-provoking film to rival Studio Ghibli. Hence Origin - Spirits of the Past includes a lot of heavy-handed eco-sermonising, obviously intended to evoke memories of the peerless Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Unlike that Hayao Miyazaki classic, Origin’s ideology is muddled and, while solemnly expressed, is far too simplistic. The message that life would be so much simpler if mankind renounced technology and embraced nature seems wilfully naïve and a little hypocritical given the film makes full use of cutting edge computer graphics. The script even lacks the courage of its own convictions as a twist lays the blame on one misguided scientist rather than humanity as a whole.
Aside from those elements pilfered from Nausicaä (including a formidable female supporting character who switches sides and two warring tribes that unite against a global threat), Origin brazenly steals its entire climactic third from Miyazaki’s masterly Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986). Once again a megalomaniacal villain resurrects lost technology to use against humanity and tries to spawn a new master race with the pure-hearted heroine. Despite its derivative nature, Keiichi Sugiyama does some imaginative things with a seamless blend of traditional cel animation and CGI. Gorgeous animation keeps this a consistently eye-catching adventure yarn, especially the apocalyptic opening scenes of green dragons unleashing their fury upon a helpless earth. There are also some superb CGI mecha, but sadly the characters are one-dimensional and the only original elements (the twin forest nymphs, a race of so-called “enhanced beings” who include Agito’s father) are left frustratingly vague. The trippy transmutation climax, which carries echoes of The Fountain (2006) and the original intended ending to Edge of Darkness (1985), is quite engaging. A soaring soundtrack by Taru Iwasaki does its best to inject a level of solemnity the pulp plot does not wholly deserve.