Advances in computer animation have begun to arrive so quickly that they hardly have time to register. Given the gap between the visual detail of Toy Story and Dinosaur, for example, it seems that more than a mere five years ought to separate them. But even in this atmosphere of technological indifference, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within looks impressive, with a computer-generated heroine whose hair waves in the breeze and whose close-ups reveal visible pores. Voiced by Ming-Na, and rendered in enough detail to register subtle changes in emotion, Final Fantasy's Aki is arguably a more realistic-looking heroine than Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft. The notion that animation should be an iconic representation, rather than an imitation, of life may be getting thrown out the window. The world around Ming-Na's character seems no less concrete. Set in the year 2065, some time after a disastrous conflict with translucent extraterrestrials has driven most of humanity into domed complexes, Final Fantasy presents a fully realized vision of its world, with technology that seems as fully functional as the humans who use it. It's such a neat trick that quite a bit of time passes before it becomes clear that Final Fantasy doesn't have much more to offer. Adapted from a popular video-game series, Fantasy feels far less mercenary than most game-to-film imports. Though a bit convoluted, it offers a real story, albeit one steeped in a familiar variety of anime-derived New Age spirituality, with Ming-Na struggling to harness an earth spirit to counter the destructive aliens. Mentored by Donald Sutherland, she's aided by a crew of soldiers including Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, and Peri Gilpin, whose vocal performances lend an added layer of gravity to the film. Not that it needed much more. After a while, the dour tone and leaden plotting get the better of the technical achievements on display. By the fifth or sixth light-show battle with the alien forces, the novelty has worn off; in a film dependent on novelty, that's pretty much the equivalent of a screen flashing "game over." Though its reputation as a landmark of modern animation, and possibly the first stirrings of a new form, comes pretty much assured, its successors will need to offer more.
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