Dragon Quest: Your Story (Movie Review)

Dragon Quest: Your Story was released in Japanese theaters on August 2nd, 2019 to huge fanfare. The core of the movie’s plot is directly lifted from Dragon Quest V, which is commonly considered to be one of the most popular entries in the long-running series. The unique aspect of this story is in how it follows the main character from birth, emphasizing how specific events have affected this hero and how he relates to the grand narrative at hand. It is a phenomenally personal story amidst a semi-standard “save-the-world” plotline, especially with its focus on the importance of family.

A listing for Dragon Quest: Your Story was put up on Netflix a few months back to much confusion. The distribution rights in Japan itself were on pause due to a potential lawsuit involving a decades-old novelization of the game’s story and names that were used within. Not only that, but the idea that a Dragon Quest film – a franchise that hasn’t exactly been the most popular in the west – would be localized and distributed through a streaming network? It seemed far-fetched; yet, on February 13th, 2020, many fans’ wishes came true as Dragon Quest: Your Story was released with an English dub.

But is it any good? Does it give lie to the idea that most gaming movie adaptations are garbage? Or is it able to stand apart from what has become the norm and be special in its own right?

Before proceeding to talk about the movie, a very heavy SPOILER ALERT is necessary. If you plan to play Dragon Quest V at all, please do so BEFORE watching this film. This film follows the general story points of Dragon Quest V very closely, so many of the important moments from the game are shown in the film. Whether you play the Super Famicom version, the Nintendo DS remake, or the mobile port of the DS remake, if you care about spoilers at all, finish the game first.

…this is very much a presentation by fans and for fans.

The film is very brisk and fast-paced at the beginning. Moments of gameplay from the actual Super Famicom game provides a framing device for the early portion of the story. The first few hours are crammed into the first few minutes by way of this presentation, and for fans of the game, it will be nostalgic to hear the music and read the dialogue they remember. Newcomers to the series may find the presentation to be quaint and nostalgic in a retro gaming sense, but one can easily get lost among the details and not understand which character is which. In this way, this is very much a presentation by fans and for fans.

After the initial introductions, the film slows down somewhat to catch its breath and let you get more acquainted with some of the main characters. The protagonist, Luca, has never been voiced properly in any game before (since Dragon Quest leans more towards silent main protagonists), so some may disagree with the more carefree and slightly airheaded characterization he has. He is, at least, understandable in his reactions, and many of his best moments are comedic representations of certain scenes from the game. The father-and-son relationship that played out on-screen was particularly touching to me, and was the first time I really felt myself identifying with a father character in a film.

The main fault of the movie, though, has to be the pacing. It is just plain difficult to squeeze a 40+ hour JRPG story into less than two hours. While you do get brief moments of quiet and reflection, there is simply not enough of that throughout, which leaves the impressions that things are rushed and even unsatisfying to a certain degree. This stands in contrast to how the Dragon Quest games play out in particular because of how the series is intentionally slow-paced and character-focused. By the end of Dragon Quest V, you know these characters so intimately that you can very easily picture how they would react in any given situation; you can only have these same emotional attachments to the movie versions of these characters if you are already familiar with them from the game.

That is not to say, however, that this movie is poorly made or not worth your time. Indeed, one can argue that this is the most faithful game-to-movie adaptation ever created. The film makes up for its pacing by delivering a story with such heart that it is hard to fault it. While the character designs steered away from the traditional Toriyama art style, it still honors its roots with its monster designs and the general aesthetic. It is one thing to see the spells play out in the video games, but to actually see how they would play out in dramatic fashion on screen in full cinematic glory is quite the spectacle. The music is pleasant and enjoyable, taken straight from the games in orchestrated fashion. A tear very nearly came to my eye the first time they played the main overture in full.

There has to be one note made about the ending. Without spoiling what transpires, it is clear that this was, and still is, a controversial way to end the film. It is unexpected and jarring; yet, given how Dragon Quest is such a cultural icon in Japan, and is important to its popular culture, you can see how it makes sense. Without knowledge of the importance of the franchise in its home country, one can easily find it to be hollow and confusing, and perhaps even dissatisfying. I enjoyed and understood why the decisions were made, but I understand that many will disagree. I do think that there are a lot of important spiritual ideas one can take from the ending, especially in the areas of idolatry and the worth of our material possessions.

I definitely believe Dragon Quest: Your Story is a worthwhile film to watch. While the story is condensed and rushed, it is still an adaptation of one of my favorite video games, and I believe the merits of it still shine through. If you don’t care about spoilers, I think this would actually be a great introduction to the franchise as a way of getting used to how the franchise is presented, even if it is somewhat truncated. There is no telling how long the movie will stay on Netflix, so what are you waiting for? Become the hero of legend!

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