Anime is a fantastic form of Japanese animation that is distinguished by its stylized characters performing insane stunts and actions while looking absolutely gorgeous. Director Zack Snyder brings that unique pizzazz to western live action filmmaking with Sucker Punch. Every frame is beautiful to look at, the action is intense and the story is just goofy enough to remind of Japanese sensibilities. Sucker Punch is one of the best realizations of live action anime in recent history – but don’t expect much more.
Emily Browning plays a young woman sent to an insane asylum after accidentally killing her little sister. To escape the horrors of her situation, she imagines that she’s in a bordello, performing burlesque shows where she’s nicknamed Baby Doll. The other girls aren’t impressed with her until she’s forced to dance for the first time. Faced with yet another harrowing situation, Baby Doll drops another level deeper into her imagination where she meets a Wise Man (Scott Glenn) who guides her as she hatches a plan to escape the bordello and consequently the asylum. Every time Baby Doll dances, she’s sucked into her imagination where she faced with a fantastic, life threatening situation that she must overcome. The rewards for doing so, however, affect her real life, giving Baby Doll another tool to escape with each dance survived. The idea of freedom inspires the other girls – Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) – and they become embroiled in Baby Doll’s vivid imagination.
Sucker Punch is ambitious to say the least. There are a lot of elements in this film and not all of them seem necessary to tell this story. As such, some audiences may be put off by constantly having to realign their expectations throughout the film. Judging from the costumes and the cars driven, Sucker Punch appears to take place sometime in the 1950’s. Within minutes of acclimating to the period, the setting seamlessly changes to the bordello. Within minutes of that change, the audience is introduced to Baby Doll’s “dances” which alter the setting to something even more jarring, like a Japanese temple with giant samurai or a futuristic train with robot soldiers. Adding even more confusion is the dissonance of elements within the dance sequences. Consider a World War I trench battle, except the Germans are undead soldiers powered by steam and clockwork and the bordello heroines wield modern firearms, with one of them piloting a futuristic mech-warrior. The variety is so wild and lacks any kind of setup that Sucker Punch flirts with turning into a mess, but it miraculously keeps it all together once all the rules of the world are established.
The attraction of Sucker Punch is largely based on the “dance” convention, which is satisfying in its own right. Those sequences are amazing set pieces that will delight the senses. Despite the characters being surrounded by mostly CGI and being able to survive attacks unscathed that would normally kill a person, the action is thrilling and unique and will definitely speak to anime and video game fans. It’s also worth noting that even though the action sequences are handled by an all-female cast, every moment comes off completely believable within the rules of the movie and is a pleasure to the last frame. Finally, any real world violence, such as people being shot or stabbed, is typically handled off-screen, which makes Sucker Punch a safe choice for families who want to enjoy some great action together without parents having to field delicate questions on the ride home.
While the story and conventions aren’t for everyone, the visuals certainly are. Sucker Punch is pure eye candy. The color palette and set design constantly change, keeping viewers engaged as it morphs from the drab and dreary asylum to the lush and vivid brothel to any of the unique dance settings. Fans of anime are the ones who are in for a real treat here. For them watching the wispy tendrils rise around Baby Doll before she leaps into the air to slice a giant Bushido swordsman in half as well as many other anime-inspired moments will definitely be worth the price of admission.
Sucker Punch is regrettably held back by a few blemishes. First, it takes a little longer than seems necessary to establish the world of the film. Second, there isn’t a lot of character in any of the protagonists. Audiences don’t really understand the girls’ motivations are for aiding Baby Doll or what their weaknesses are. So when one of them loses her nerve and does something to betray the group, it seems to come out of nowhere. Finally, there are some key plot points and lines that come off corny and there’s some gobbledygook narration about angels that bookend the story. Despite these few criticisms, Sucker Punch mostly delivers on a great time and is sure to please its younger demographic.
At its core, Sucker Punch celebrates the infinite space that every person can count themselves as the king or queen of within the nutshell of their minds. Bad dreams plague everyone. It’s up to the individual to survive them as best he or she can. Sometimes that means using a sword.