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Fantastic Fest Review: First Squad

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2009

Over the years, I’ve been exposed to a lot of animated filmmaking. You could say that when it comes to feature-length animated works, I’m a connoisseur of sorts. And whether it is the CGI-driven stories of Pixar and Dreamworks or the 2D hand-drawn fairy tales of Walt Disney, I’m always jumping at the chance to see something new and different in the animated world. And that love for animation doesn’t end with the borders of the United States, but expands out into the rest of the world, reaching all the way to Japan and even as far as Denmark (as we saw earlier in Fantastic Fest when I reviewed Journey to Saturn).

Which brings me to the Russian/Japanese hybrid film First Squad. Writer by Russian scribes Alijosha Klimov and Misha Sprits and animated by the folks at Japan’s Studio 4ºC (the same studio that put out Batman: Gotham Knight last year), First Squad follows a young Russian girl with special telepathic powers named Nadaya, who was once a member of an elite squad of psychic warriors trained to fight the Nazis in World War II. But after a deadly attack leaves the rest of her squad dead and her without anywhere to go, she sets out on her own. That doesn’t last very long, as she’s quickly picked back up by the army and brought in for a very special mission. You see, the Nazis are in the process of bridging the gap between our world and that of the dead, and they intend to bring back Baron Von Wolff, an ancient knight whose power is unmatched in either realm. Von Wolff and his army of the dead would have no problem taking out the Soviets, thus ensuring Nazi victory on the Eastern front. To counter, the Soviets use Nadaya and a special dimensional travel machine to make contact with her old squad, now on the other side of death, and get them to stop Von Wolff before he can cross over into our world.

It’s a very unique and interesting concept for a film, which unfortunately gets bogged down in its own desire to create a method of narrative delivery that is completely unique. Allow me to explain. The film begins with some incredibly beautiful animation, mostly of news reel-style footage that leads in with the history behind the story, explaining what is happening on the Eastern front as Germany and the Soviet Union wage war. It melts quickly into some incredibly intense and visceral action. Then, the film begins to cut to live-action, documentary-style talking heads – Russian scientists and historians who give additional background information to support the animated story at hand. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem, if it wasn’t stretched throughout the film, causing the entire feature’s pacing to be painfully clunky. As well, the doc-style moments get lost in minutia, with one scientist taking several moments to explain what sedatives are – a little too much talk, with too little substance.

Between these boring, drab live-action moments though, is where First Squad shines. The animated portion of the story is deeply engaging, fast and furiously vibrant. The only downside to the onslaught of action is that, when set against the somber tone of the live-action, some of it comes off more like the banging of pots and pans in a once quiet room. It is a storytelling strategy that is intended to be jarring, but ultimately ends up being quite an annoyance. And that’s where First Squad ultimately loses its audience – in its inability to maintain a consistent tone. Or for that matter, ever decide what sort of story it wants to be. If it were recut as a strictly animated film, it could be a very entertaining, blistering 40-minute adventure. But as a 73-minute hybrid of many colors, it falls on its own sword in the same hard and fast manner that characterize its visceral action sequences.

The Upside: Animation is beautiful, action is visceral.

The Downside: The story is paralyzed by the infusion of live-action, doc-style interview footage.

On the Side: The human realm battles shown in this film are all based on real World War II battles and are choreographed exactly as they happened, with the exception of the army of deadites that ultimately show up.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)