Dragon Quest: Your Story Netflix Review
As a series, Dragon Quest is experiencing a historic boom in popularity in the West. In 2019 alone, the Switch received Dragon Quest XI S Definitive Edition, Dragon Quest Builders 2, and ports of Dragon Quest I-III. This doesn’t even include possibly the biggest boost of the year, the inclusion of the various Hero guises in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The series is becoming more well-known, more recognisable, and the price of Dragon Quest games available on the secondhand market is spiking.
Amidst this influx of content, not only was the first western Dragon Quest mobile-only title, Dragon Quest of the Stars, released in February 2020, but the first feature-length Dragon Quest film crossed the Pacific as well. The Dragon Quest series is reaching out beyond video games with the Netflix release of Dragon Quest: Your Story, which is a game-to-movie adaptation of Dragon Quest V, which first launched for the Super Famicom. Join Matt Masem and Elmon Dean Todd, both longtime fans of the series, and see whether the transition succeeds or fails, and feel free to add your own thoughts to the comments section below.
Elmon: The story of the film revolves around the plot of Dragon Quest V. Your Story follows Luca in his quest to seek out his mother and the Zenithian sword. Though there are several minor story differences to the video game, the film touches on the major plot points all the way to the final showdown with Bishop Ladja.
The film’s introduction showcases the early story beats of Luca’s childhood by portraying the narration in tandem with the original Super Famicom gameplay. Though the opening scene plays on the nostalgia of Dragon Quest V veterans, newcomers will find it baffling, glossed over, and lacking the building blocks for the emotional connection required for the cast. Luca’s interactions with Nera and Bianca are shown with 16-bit text boxes, and these scenes fail to sufficiently depict how they bond with him. After a lacklustre intro, the movie transitions to the CG scene of Luca sparring with his father, Pankraz.
From there, the story finds its stride and does a great job of covering the highlights of the game content whilst remaining engaging. The only problem is the fast pacing; Luca rushes from one scene to the next, and doesn’t slow down long enough to let the audience entirely digest the emotional impact and struggles of key scenes. Still, the story of Dragon Quest V covers a lot of material, and the film effectively condenses this in an effective way while keeping the crucial story elements.
Matt: Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii has stated before that Dragon Quest V is one of his personal favorite Dragon Quest games. Adapting a story that is beloved by both its creator and its fans alike is a tall order, but overall it was nicely done. Having played through Dragon Quest V a good half-dozen times in my life, I constantly found lots of little moments here and there that were omitted or outright changed from the game, but in each case I could understand the changes in terms of increasing the pace of the action or reducing the complexity of a long, multi-generational story.
While I didn’t agree with some characters being cut or side stories omitted, it all fit in quite nicely with a cinematic experience, and objectively I can see where those not familiar with the original source material won’t feel as though they’re missing much context. Comparatively, the Ni no Kuni movie that released on Netflix approximately a month earlier completely ignored the plot of both video games to tell a completely new story based in the world of the games. That was a much tougher pill for me to swallow than some trimming and tampering with plot points and characters, and that thought in the back of my head while watching Your Story made me appreciate it all the more.
Cast and Characters
Elmon: I’ve watched the movie in both English and Japanese, and the voice acting seemed top notch in both languages, though the Japanese cast (consisting mostly of high-profile Japanese actors) took some liberties with their character roles. The movie characters differ somewhat to the character personalities of the game. Bianca, for instance, seems like more of a fiery character in the movie than she ever did on console, and the voice actor emphasised this. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but some Dragon Quest V purists may scoff at the changes.
The English actors followed in the footsteps of the Japanese ones, and performed their roles astonishingly well, if not better in some cases. Ladja sounds more villainous and sinister in the English dub, and his voice actor deserves much praise for his role. Luca, Nera, and Bianca’s voice actors do an amazing job as well, and this was one of the few animated films from Japan where I did not find myself wanting to switch back to the Japanese audio.
Matt: Having only watched the movie in English, I completely agree with Elmon’s assessment of the English voice acting. As a fan of a series that’s not extremely popular in the United States, I’d have been happy with watching this movie only with English subtitles or with a half-hearted dub. Netflix went all out though and hired very capable voice actors to really make the characters come alive. As pointed out above, these characters aren’t carbon copies of the ones from the video game, but they fit right along with personalities common in modern-day animated movies and television shows, thus the small changes don’t seem in any way bothersome.
One interesting thing I did on my first viewing of the movie was watch with both English audio and English subtitles on. While the voice actors had to follow animated mouth movements and adapt their lines to that, the subtitles were under no such restriction. I found some interesting differences, and though they were mostly small, they were noticeable. The subtitles often were a bit richer in places, such as when Sancho describes Luca’s mom as “beautiful and intelligent,” while his voice actor just said, “kind.” In the end, no meanings or plot points are changed, but for a slightly more enriching experience, fans might want to make time to watch it with subtitles at some point.
Elmon: The controversial decision to stray from Akira Toriyama’s style may anger some Dragon Quest fans, but I think the art direction works very well for this film, considering its broader appeal for newcomers. Had the producers tried to follow Toriyama’s designs, I’d imagine this film to resemble something akin to Dragon Ball Super: Broly. While that would’ve been nice to see, the CG provides a different flavour, especially with its charming take on characters such as Bianca and Luca. Even Ladja looks more sinister and memorable compared to the game, and the artists did a really good job with this.
The soundtrack retains the songs encompassing the series. At first, I thought the tracks, which all come from the various games of the series, would either execute in a choppy manner or not fit in well at all, but surprisingly, most of them slide gracefully into their respective scenes. The exception is ‘Overture’, which is overplayed two times too many, and in one scene, its execution sounds jarring.
Matt: I don’t have much of an ear for music, so while I recognized most of the music as Dragon Quest music, I didn’t know the music came from a variety of Dragon Quest games until I read about it later. It was all quite well done, but the things that stood out most for me were more the sound effects from the games being incorporated into the movie. At one point Luca discovers a secret room and the discovery sound effect used throughout the series plays. Another great one is upon noticing a monster has absconded with a treasure, the cursed sound effect plays, really driving home the “oh no” moment.
As to the visual art direction, I couldn’t agree with Elmon more. It has a broader appeal than it would had it stayed 100% with Akira Toriyama’s style and I’m completely fine with it. While it’s been derisively called “How to Train Your Dragon Quest” by some fans, honestly that’s the best description of what it looks like, and it’s not a bad idea to design a more niche movie in a style widely praised and recognizable. The monsters look exactly as they do in 3D Dragon Quest games and human characters, and Bishop Ladja especially, are so detailed and full of expression. It looks great. It looks like something worthy of being in theaters.
Matt: At first I was a little hesitant to show my three and six-year-olds this movie, mainly due to the death of a character early on. While not shown in detail, there’s definitely a squishy sound as the final blows are delivered off-screen. A couple days after I first watched it alone, my eagerness to share my Dragon Quest fandom with the family won out, and we sat down to watch it together. The kids absolutely had a blast! They’ve seen me play the games off and on all their lives and instantly recognized most of the monsters. Due to repeated readings of the Dragon Quest Illustrations: 30th Anniversary Edition book, they even recognized many of the human characters as well. While they expressed confusion about what was going on near the ending, the movie wrapped up well enough for them to enjoy the entire experience and ask to watch it again soon after it was finished.
Elmon: My five-year-old kid loves this movie so much that it’s now her favourite film. She was on the edge of her seat during most of the movie, and really adores Gootrude, the protagonist’s slime sidekick. She did not understand the 16-bit introductory sequence, nor the twist near the end, but the rest of the characters and especially the villain, Ladja, thoroughly entertained her. One comment that stuck out about Ladja was, “Look at his chin!” Yes, a very memorable villain.
This movie has now been on repeat in my living room ever since it was released a couple of weeks ago and I do not mind one bit. Hearing Koichi Sugiyama’s music over and over again is much more pleasant than the music in other children movies that I will not name here. I think Dragon Quest: Your Story is a great film for kids, and the characters have many endearing traits.
Matt: Without getting too specifically spoilery here, let me just say the the climax of the movie was… odd. It’s definitely not something out of Dragon Quest V and took me completely out of the feeling I had from the rest of the movie. The movie made a choice about how it was going to portray the final battle, and it was something commonly mentioned in the negative reviews I read on Japanese review sites.
After already knowing how the movie would end for the past six months, I can say I was surprised both by how direct it was in its message to fans and how okay I was with the way it went down. Maybe because I tend not to take things too literally or too seriously, I just enjoyed the awesome visuals that accompanied the odd climax and the flashback scenes and nostalgia they brought about.
Elmon: I completely agree. The climax was a prime example of deus ex machina. I’ve read many reviews in Japanese during its initial release in Japanese theatres, so I expected something bad, but even then, the ending still took me by surprise. The movie did little to build towards this moment, making the whole scene appear contrived whilst belittling the audience’s investment in the characters. In this case the film would have been fine taking the cliché route.
However, the ending still had an emotional pull that will resonate with gamers — those of us who grew up with Dragon Quest and spent time getting to know and love these characters. I understood the message, but still think it would have been better left out. On the other hand, one of my daughter’s favourite parts was the final battle and the ending, even if she didn’t comprehend why things were happening like they were.
Matt: My feelings can be summed up by a phrase I’ve seen batted around by fans since the movie released: “The movie was really good, but that ending stunk.” As a standalone movie, it perhaps moves a bit too quickly for those unfamiliar with the source game, but it tells a fun, great tale all the way through, give or take the ending. While the Akira Toriyama style is eschewed for something that looks straight out of DreamWorks, that takes nothing away from how beautiful it all is.
Elmon: My thoughts as well. They could have simply omitted the twist near the ending, and the movie would have been fine. The beginning was another weak part, too, as it breezes over the most important part of the film: introducing the characters and their relationships with each other. When the audience meets Bianca and Nera later on, those early scenes from the Super Famicom game do little to tie them into the story. Had the producers actually animated the introductory childhood sequence in lieu of the 16-bit story highlights, the audience would have had more time to bond with the characters, allowing for more emotional investment when Luca meets them later on.
Despite these gripes, the film has potential for a much better reception in the West due to there being less nostalgia for Dragon Quest V. Many of the Japanese audience grew up with this game and had a lot more expectations riding on this film, and any shortcomings were magnified immensely. In absence of these expectations, many viewers in the West came into this film fresh, with little to no nostalgic investment in the story, and this works in the film’s favour. Dragon Quest: Your Story is still an entertaining and charming movie, but the flaws prevent it from being a masterpiece.