It became eminently clear halfway through 1998, with the release of the American Godzilla, that Toho's planned retirement of their most prominent kaiju superstar wouldn't end up being as long-lived as had been the intention, and plans for a proper Godzilla movie to come out the following year were put into place. But their back-up plan to force Mothra onto the A-list with a new series of movies still had one title left in it, and thus it is that the Mothra trilogy of the 1990s came to its swift close in December of that year with Rebirth of Mothra III, or according to the original Japanese, Mothra 3: King Ghidorah Attacks.

It is not a very good movie, but it's a goddamn sight better than Rebirth of Mothra II, and it suggests, at least, that the studio learned all of the right lessons from that movie. Among them: bring back Yoneda Okihiro (who had directed 1996's Rebirth of Mothra), don't rely so much on CGI, King Ghidorah or variants thereof makes for a better villain than some brand new creature built around a tortured metaphor for poor waste disposal systems, and - the most important - kids' movies though these be, it's not inherently necessary that there plots be immovably focused on kids. Not that ROM 3 completely eschews young people in the cast; it's just that Suetani Masumi's third consecutive script in the series finally makes a choice that should have been considered from the get-go: making for-real protagonists of the Elias, the tiny fairy sisters Moll (Kobayashi Megumi), Lora (Tate Misato, new to the role), and wicked Belvera (Hano Aki). This is a wise shift, given that their complicated family history is a constant underlying the stories, whereas the rotating clutch of indistinguishable young folk pulling focus throughout the trilogy don't really matter on a personal level; their inner lives are totally generic, and their function solely that of cattle being run through the details of a story that needs human-sized objects.

Lo and behold, the Elias scenes in ROM 3 are the first in the trilogy where the non-monster plot elements actually have any kind of emotional resonance; right from the opening, when a surprisingly muted Belvera visits her sisters to unexpectedly give them advice and hints about protecting themselves from the impending arrival of the King of Terror, it's clear that the film's treatment of sibling relationships and the push-pull dynamic within them will be a bit more compelling than if it just threw a couple of random kids at the story and let them work out their problems on a level that has absolutely nothing to do with the main action. Which, to be scrupulously accurate, does happen; the film boasts a trio of human siblings, Shota, the eldest, and his sister and brother Tamako and Shuhei (I haven't been able to scrounge up the actors' names), and while Shota does contribute some decent amount to the development of the actual narrative, the feeling is always that the kids are commentary on the Elias' relationship, not the other way around.

Regardless, the film is broadly a story about how siblings sticking together in the face of adversity is more powerful than siblings breaking off into bickering (a pleasant change from the thudding literalism of the "save the environment" themes of the last two), and how this saves the world from King Ghidorah, the aforementioned King of Terror. Specifically, it's about how Mothra travels millions of years back to the end of the dinosaurs (130 million years, said the subtitles of the version I was watching; I won't hold that against the Japanese original just in case, but being exactly twice the accurate figure seems very odd regardless), to defeat King Ghidorah during his first visit to Earth, when he himself was responsible for destroying the great creatures; this backfires, and in the present, the nasty version of the three-headed space dragon that had been rounding up Japanese schoolchildren to eat them was replaced with an even nastier version. This forces Mothra, who has already gone through, like, a dozen different incarnations so far in the movie, to adopt her strongest form yet in the desperate hope of saving the day.

That would be another important lesson learned: ROM 3 is far heavier on monster fighting than either of its predecessors. This is good up to a certain point: that point is somewhere near the end of the first fight between Original Ghidorah and Whichever Damn Mothra (Rainbow Mothra, I Think), a battle which the mighty moth handily looses, and one starts to really think about the fact that Mothra is just a big old moth. And it starts to become increasingly hard to watch fight scenes between two winged creatures without a single forelimb of note between them, and not be a little annoyed at how much that limits the possibilities for the fight choreography.

That being said, all the monsters look pretty good: the three subtly incarnations of King Ghidorah, in fact, look pretty great, with the ancient version found in Earth's past rather effortlessly becoming my all-time favorite embodiment of one of my particular favorite daikaiju, with its craggy, rock-like skin and all. The parade of Mothras range from the totally unacceptable (Rainbow Mothra's mouth looks so plasticky that you expect it to clack when she shuts it) to the fully impressive (the last one, with an especially lovely wingspan, and the last toy-like fur on any Mothra puppet yet seen in close-up), but that's about par for this particular puppet-based monster.

All of the non-monster effects work, while a definite step above ROM 2, is pretty dodgy, though. And even that's overlooking the dinosaurs, seen relatively briefly: they are the absolutel nadir of Toho's output, looking like toys being shaken about by children whose hands are just offscreen. Beyond that, one of the other worst moments comes right after one of the best scenes in the whole film: without yet having seen King Ghidorah, we've seen flashes of his body and his shadow, and we've seen his handiwork in the form of of a school room devoid of children, but full of the bits and pieces of their busy day. It's genuinely creepy and unsettling, horror of a sort that I'd have never expected from a movie of this sort, and then just a couple of minutes later it's resoundingly spoiled by a scene that shows some other kids taken from a playground by means of one of the cheapest video distortion effects you could possibly imagine. There's the usual bad CGI (some worms pursuing Shota that look like they exist in some other reality completely), and some unusually bad compositing of the very small Elias against the very large monsters, and the whole thing has a really hard time maintaining its reality in any kind of persistent way.

But at least it's not as persistently stupid and aimless as ROM 2. The monsters look good, and the ridiculous time travel plot happily recalls the similar cornucopia of half-logic that accompanied King Ghidorah's last appearance in 1991's bizarre Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. Nothing about it sticks out with any kind of personality or cinematic achievement, but at least Toho's last attempt to make a daikaiju eiga centered around any monster besides Godzilla went out on a relative upswing. The trilogy was not the best latter-day tribute that Mothra could have received, but on balance, it was at least reasonably harmless and playful.