So I'm a bit late getting around to this movie but when it did come out I saw reviews from reviewers I liked and realized that if most of them were negative about this movie that I was unlikely to love it either, possibly not even like it. But I'm hardly going to turn down seeing a movie for free so why not, I was sure it wasn't going to be absolutely terrible!
There are still unexplained, magical things in the world, as college student Hana learns after falling for a classmate and discovering that he is actually a wolf. This doesn't bother her and they begin to fall in love and have two children, older sister Ame and younger brother Yuki. But after tragedy strikes Hana and the children move into the countryside away from prying eyes as she tries to figure out if she's raising children or puppies.
In case that last line worried anyone, no I did not think the movie was terrible but I didn't like it either. I did arrive a little late and miss the very beginning of the movie (I'd guess about 5 or 10 minutes of it) but I don't think that interfered with anything since I was already familiar with the basic premise of the movie. A widowed mother must raise two part wolf, part human children and moves to the countryside to become isolated except that the people in the countryside turn out to be wonderful, open people as her children wrestle with their dual natures. The premise was fine but the execution fell flat for me in quite a few different places, more than I expected.
To start with, I thought that choosing to have Ame narrate the entire story was a strange choice considering that she's only one of the three lead characters. I would have chosen to either have Ame, Yuki, and Hana take turns narrating (especially since it's Wolf Children) or to have Hana alone narrate since she's how the story starts. I also felt like there was too much narration but that could have been for the sake of a younger audience than I, the auditorium I was in did have a lot of kids (I was impressed that they seemed to be keeping up with the subtitles). Hana herself never felt like a parent to me, we never see her get mad for her children or mad at them for any reason and that felt very unnatural. I understand that her characterization was supposed to be a bit flighty and floaty, someone who is, like her children, a bit removed from the world but I felt like the story overdid it especially with all of the new responsibilities she had to acquire. I felt like her characterization was less character building and more providing an excuse for how Ame and Yuki could turn out the way they are without troublesome viewer questions like "wait why aren't the parents noticing this?!"
As for our titular puppies, pre-timeskip Ame and Yuki reminded me a lot of kids I see at work every day, especially with how the two of them are so different. I think Hosoda nailed how kids can be just more full of energy than you ever expect or, more rarely, just completely withdrawn and very rarely interested in anything. Those were the best character moments in the whole movie and I especially liked how even Ame would go from this very rambunctious girl to being very shy around strangers, that again rings true for me for many of the interactions I have at work and even with my own cousins when they were younger. After the timeskip however Ame and Yuki both looked and sounded too old (Japanese version) to me and that threw me off for the rest of the film. I think the story was trying to play up how they might be human kids but wolf adults but it just didn't work, I didn't even think of that explanation until long after the movie. The switch in personalities between Ame and Yuki felt strange too, Yuki has a near death experience which makes him appreciate his wolf side more (even though that's what nearly got him killed) and Ame wants to be more human and girly after, nothing? Yes her classmates didn't like the same kinds of things were cool but they didn't seem to be excessively teasing her about it, it's an overblown reaction that Hana should have noticed and talked to her about, even if that conversation didn't accomplish anything. Both of them also act a bit too maturely after the timeskip which was at odds with how naturally child-like they seemed before that, I've heard that Hosoda was inspired by raising a family on his own but I wonder how old his children currently are if that's the case.
Regarding the visuals, while pretty the many sweeping landscape scenes didn't awe me but rather bored me. There was nothing new and breathtaking in them the way I would feel during a Ghibli or Shinkai film or even from photos I can see anywhere. The snow scene in particular bothered me since I have walked miles in nearly foot deep snow and it's not nearly as easy as the characters made it look, the scene tried to ignore the real world for the sake of "magic" but couldn't get me to buy into it. Princess Kaguya's most important scene reminded me of this, I felt like in both cases the director had one scene they really wanted to make and yet couldn't perfectly fit it into the story, although Hosoda succeeded better that Takahata. And for me that's the final nail in the coffin, if I can't at least say "the story is weak but the visuals are amazing" (which I could maybe say for something like Ponyo, on a generous day anyway) then I really have no reason to recommend the show. I know plenty of people feel differently so for them, Funimation has licensed the title in the US (it's not streaming online anywhere that I know of) and Yen Press is publishing the manga adaptation of the film.