Appearances are deceiving in “Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie — Rebellion,” an alternately enchanting and exhausting anime adventure in which cutesy characters and peppy vocal turns belie a darker, angst-ridden narrative. The third film in a cinematic trilogy spun off from a popular Japanese TV series (the first two pics simply condensed the show’s 12 episodes with a few tweaks and new material), “Rebellion” delivers a convoluted conclusion sure to prove beyond baffling to any franchise newcomers. Pic was a box office hit on home turf (where it was released Oct. 26), but its overseas appeal is strictly limited to those already under the “Magica” spell.
“Rebellion” presumes a healthy familiarity with the pre-existing “Magica” arc and its thoughtful, somewhat bleak subversion of anime’s “magic girl” genre. In one of the series’ primary twists, magic powers are obtained through Faustian bargains that ultimately cost young girls their souls. Locked in an eternal battle with villainous witches, magic girls eventually are so overtaken by despair they transform into witches themselves — becoming the very thing they’ve spent their lives fighting against. The series finale found 14-year-old pink-haired heroine Madoka (Aoi Yuki) sacrificing herself to erase the cruel fate awaiting magic girls everywhere by making a deal to eliminate the existence of witches.
Although it’s set directly after those events, “Rebellion” opens in a sort of alternate universe with Madoka blissfully unaware of what she’s done. Repeated imagery from the series premiere episode signals someone has mysteriously hit a reset button. Characters who previously perished are miraculously resurrected, and Madoka and her fellow magical classmates — including Sayaka (Eri Kitamura), Kyoko (Ai Nonaka) and Mami (Kaori Mizuhashi) — battle monstrous creatures dubbed “Nightmares” instead of witches. It’s Madoka’s devoted, raven-haired protector Homura (Chiwa Saito) who first suspects all is not right in their world and begins to investigate who, or what, is the cause.
The answer to that question gets right to the heart of the franchise’s emotional throughline: the deep, loving (and apparently platonic) friendship between Madoka and Homura. “Rebellion” essentially exists to advance their relationship in ways guaranteed to leave the target audience swooning and weeping in equal measure, even as anyone outside the fanbase struggles to make heads or tails of anything that’s happening.
An abundance of trippy imagery courtesy of stop-motion animators Gekidan Inu Curry adds to the pic’s determined inaccessibility. While all the key characters and settings are rendered in traditional anime style, Gekidan has seemingly been allowed free reign when it comes to realizing the Nightmares, and expands upon the distinctive witch attacks they created for the original series. The result is a deeply strange panoply of surreal beings resembling paper-cutout collages inspired by classical Russian and Czech animation (and reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s animated interludes for Monty Python). One minute a Nightmare appears as an army of dancing ballerinas dressed in white, the next it’s an indistinguishable blue creature that spits out bears as giant hands rise up in the background.
Such idiosyncratic technique initially makes for a dazzling juxtaposition with the film’s otherwise conventional, if entirely proficient, animation. But the quirky touch soon feels like a gimmick and wears thin from overuse throughout a nearly two-hour running time. At a certain point the hyperactive editing and hallucinogenic images cross a line into sensory overload, becoming a calculated distraction to keep viewers from thinking too hard about the paradoxes that begin to open up in the narrative.
With the primary creative team (and entire voice cast) reprising their roles from the TV series, directors Akiyuki Shinbo and Yukihiro Miyamoto manage to deliver a handful of notable setpieces — including an epic, gravity-defying gun battle between Homura and Mami that would make the Wachowskis jealous, and a playful “Round Cake Song” musical sequence that turns a Nightmare attack into a moment of schoolgirl whimsy. While “Rebellion” has been billed as the end of a trilogy its resolution is hardly decisive, leaving the door wide open for more “Magica” to come.