Review: 'Modest Heroes' Packs Massive Heart into a Humble Package

When former Studio Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura first formed Studio Ponoc, fans were curious to see what kind of projects would come out of the fresh studio. After making major waves in 2017 with their debut film, Mary and the Witch's Flower, the studio's follow-up project is surprisingly much more "modest."

Studio Ponoc's Short Films Theatre will be a series of short films highlighting different storytellers, and though the first volume focusing on the smallest heroes seems like a quiet debut for such a project, there's a hidden swell of emotion therein that leaves you excited for what comes next.

Modest Heroes, the first such volume, collects three different short films with varied animation styles and context, but it's all held together by a strong thematic thread of small figures making huge shifts in their lives. As the title of the volume suggests, Modest Heroes highlights those you wouldn't initially consider "heroes" in the conventional sense, but that's where the surprise and wonder comes in.

Only running at around 15 minutes or so each, each of the inclusions here is strong enough to support a full feature film all on their own. The collection gets off to a strong start with "Kanini & Kanino," directed by Mary and the Witch's Flower director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. This short follows the titular duo, who are two tiny -- tiny -- children who live underwater. When their father is washed away suddenly, the two young children brave the dangers of their surroundings in search of him.

Like Flower, this is an incredible sight to behold with its blend of realistic, yet fantastical CG design with traditional 2D animation. It packs a wallop right out of the gate for this short film collection and works well as an introduction to the series overall.

The second short, "Life Ain't Gonna Lose," is directed by Yoshiyuki Momose and provides a stark contrast to the fantastic setting of the first by focusing on a very real fear a mother can have. When young Shun is born with a heavy dairy and egg allergy, the kind that sends him into shock with just a taste, his parents struggle to deal with trying to keep him healthy amid a world full of potentially deadly allergens.

The 2D-animated short of is without borders or heavy inks, meaning that each of the characters moves with an impressive fluidity that's incredibly pleasing to the eye. The film feels huge, but like the first short, the world feels intimate as Shun and his mother share a very real bond. Modest Heroes' three tales convey a sense of grandeur all while never losing sight of the emotional connections tying all of them into a single package.

It taps into a magic realism that's especially prominent with the final short, "Invisible," directed by Akihiko Yamashita. This tale follows an invisible main character, who hardly speaks, so much of his inner turmoil is portrayed through a damning sense of isolation. It’s full of fantastic shot compositions which squeeze in a ton of feeling even without a face as a discernible point of reference. Providing a fine balance between "showing" and "telling," the final short ends on a distinctly hopeful note much like the others.

The only major criticism for this first volume of shorts is that, well, it's just too short. These three films are so well made, so jam-packed with narrative, it definitely feels like one more film was needed to balance out this production. But it's hard to fault Studio Ponoc for this. Originally intended to release with four shorts, with one directed by Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, Modest Heroes eventually released with the three shorts mentioned out of respect for Takahata, who unfortunately passed during production.

Modest Heroes is a fantastic first volume for an ambitious project, and fans will undoubtedly anxiously await what comes next. Seeing the creativity and the boundless imagination so tightly condensed in such a blissful way leads to a wonderful experience throughout.

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Rating: 5 out of 5

Modest Heroes is currently on a limited release run in theaters on January 10th and 12th. Both English subtitled and dubbed screenings are available, but schedule and locations may vary.