RESPAWN: 'Dōbutsu no Mori', The Animal Crossing Movie

RESPAWN is a monthly column exploring the intersection of video games and film by Millicent Thomas (featuring guests).

For this months column, special guest Amy Louise O’Callaghan takes you on an exploration through the Animal Crossing movie, Dōbutsu no Mori – I know, I had no idea it existed either. The game is famed for its therapeutic village full of friendly creatures, and with New Horizons out now, we thought it best to celebrate.

First published on the Nintendo 64 in 2001, the popular series of social simulation games, Animal Crossing, has been released on various consoles throughout the years, including the GameCube, Wii and Switch, as well as Nintendo’s collection of portable DS consoles. Praised for its open-ended gameplay, each game follows the player as they move to a charming village inhabited by a rotating cast of anthropomorphic animals.

Unique in its construction, Animal Crossing forgoes any sense of plot, instead encouraging players to complete small, simple tasks such as fishing, bug hunting, shopping, and getting to know the eccentric cast. Making use of real time clocks and calendars, as days pass in the real world, days will also pass in your virtual village. Abandon your game for a few weeks, and you will return to a village full of weeds, cockroaches, and very upset animals. In including real time and eschewing plot, Animal Crossing is a game that is meant to be savoured, favouring short bursts of daily play over week-long binges. It cannot be completed, instead players are encouraged to relax and effectively enjoy life’s simple pleasures. 

Driven by the success of Animal Crossing: Wild World in 2005, an animated feature was released in Japan in December of 2006. Titled Dōbutsu no Mori, the film follows an eleven year old girl named Ai, as she moves to Animal Village. Game staff assisted in production in order to replicate the same audience appeal that the games have, and the film follows certain beats from Wild World, including Ai working for Tom Nook, which functions as a tutorial in the game, as well as in-game events such as the fireworks festival and a special visit from an NPC named Gulliver. 

The film attempts to depict a slow, meandering story in the vein of Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro, eking a plot from the simple activities and gameplay present in its source material. Some elements, such as a friendly rivalry between two neighbours, Mayor Tortimer’s relentless re-election campaign, and a broken relationship between two older villagers manage to add colour and life to a world that is generally left up to a player’s imagination. On the other hand, the inclusion of more dramatic elements, such as a dangerous fossil hunt and the film’s final act are out of character for Animal Crossing, and not indicative of the slow, steady nature of the game. This illustrates the problem at the core of Dōbutsu no Mori, as it attempts to carve action and suspense out of something that triumphs because of its lack of such things. 

Ultimately, the plot of Dōbutsu no Mori, despite the dramatic inclusions, fails to be as insightful and interesting as the game it is based on. Time pushes forward in leaps and bounds, glossing over vital character and relationship development in favour of squeezing as many Easter Eggs and in-game events as possible into its 1 hour and 27 minute runtime. One of the many joys of the Animal Crossing series is that nothing can be done quickly. You must work hard, regularly returning to the game, in order to build the town up to the best it can be. This is where the story of Animal Crossing, if it can even be referred to as such, cannot be translated from game to screen, because the the emotional points and attachment that the player feels is a product of the time they have invested in the game – something which cannot be replicated through the act of watching a film.

Further to this, one of the most vital plot elements of Dōbutsu no Mori is the friendship between Ai and fashion designer Sally. In-game, this would be a friendship based on months of toil, in which the player must regularly help their favourite villager with their every want and need. In Dōbutsu no Mori however, we are presented with mere vignettes of Ai and Sally’s friendship, as the months plough forward, quickly shifting from Spring to Summer to Autumn. In a move inspired by in-game events, Sally leaves Animal Village in pursuit of her dream, leaving Ai to find out from other villagers that her best friend has left. Reminiscent of how you can often return to your game to find your favourite villager has moved from your town, Sally’s departure in Dōbutsu no Mori lacks the emotional gut punch associated with the event because the time invested in her as a character and in her and Ai’s friendship pales in comparison to what the player would have otherwise invested in her in-game counterpart. 

Dōbutsu no Mori is an imperfect and perhaps unnecessary attempt at bringing Animal Crossing to the big screen. The structure and demands of film itself are ill-suited for the plotless, slow-paced game, and the film ultimately comes off as rushed, with a trudging plot that lacks the character and emotions that are present in-game. A cute film for children, certainly, but a successful incarnation of the beloved series, maybe not.

by Amy Louise

Amy Louise O’Callaghan is a filmmaker and illustrator from the tiny city of Cork, Ireland. When she’s not watching films, she enjoys drawing and playing lots of video games, but never actually finishing them. Some of her favourite films include Heathers, Carrie, Suspiria (1977) and The Little Mermaid. She’ll watch almost anything, but particularly enjoys cheesy horror films and anything from the teen genre. You can follow her on Twitter here and on Letterboxd 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.