A review series requested by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for multiple contributions to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

In October, 2013, just a smidgen more than one year after the two-part recap movie hit Japanese theaters, along came the first new material in the movie trilogy: Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Rebellion, which apparently began when writer Urobuchi Gen wanted to write a second season but found he couldn't think up enough material to make it that long and retain its internal credibility. Would that more writers would allow their material to find its natural length!

It's reflected in the final project, which for all its shortcomings, some of which are extravagant, doesn't feel at all like a cash-in sequel. Ironically, it is just that, at least a little bit: Urobuchi has indicated that he had a different ending in mind, but the money men wanted a sequel hook. And that's exactly what they got, though to my thinking it's a sequel hook that so thoroughly de-centers the entire narrative of the series in such a profoundly unappealing way, it's almost solely responsible for making the idea of a second sequel (which has no apparent intentions of materialising) kind of an undesirable notion.

The whole film is immensely baffling, though, not just the ending. Rebellion is hard to pin down as a sequel: it is, beyond question, a continuation of the narrative of the original series/the two movies, but it doesn't feel at all like they combine to form a single, smooth arc. This is more like a parenthesis, or an asterisk. It's intimately dependent on the original storyline to give it context and explain every aspect of its world and characters, but it strikes me as something that would be much more satisfying to take it as a self-contained standalone narrative, ideally without any knowledge of Puella Magi Madoka Magica at all.

It's audacious, you have to give it that. As a story, Rebellion starts off as a mystery, essentially, with its entire first quarter dedicated exclusively to the question, "what the hell is going on"? The audacious part is that nobody in the movie is asking that question: it's generated entirely in the mind of the viewer. Anyway, what the hell is going on is that our four magic girls from Mitakihara are happily defending the town from nightmares: that being Madoka, of course, along with Sayaka, Mami, and Kyoko, who didn't appear all together at any point in the original, didn't get along very well in most of the combinations where they did get along, and weren't having such blandly innocuous adventures. They are stopping nightmares, I repeat: as in, they are literally the guardians of good dreams. So much for saving the world from all-powerful witches. Eventually, Homura transfers to school and joins them, and helps them complete some kind of nightmare-binding ritual that involves a giant cake. The viewer who has sat through the increasingly grim, anti-heroic series is bound to watch all of this with the sense that eventually, the other shoe has to drop, and of course it does; but the first time that the movie even acknowledges the concept of a shoe is almost exactly at the half-hour mark (in a 116-minute film), and it's still not until some while later that anybody really tries to do something about it.

There's no real way that the film can reasonably expect us to spend that whole time innocently thinking everything is as bright and squeaky-clean as it seems; even if we didn't watch the series and know exactly what should be going on (and if we didn't watch the series, Rebellion plans to just laugh and laugh at our ignorance), the opening credits and accompanying musical montage have obligingly oriented themselves exclusively around images that show Homura contrasted with the other girls spatially, in color design, in movement (that is, her lack thereof). "This girl has secrets that are mysterious and also threaten to pull out the rug from this playful, garish magic girl adventure" says the credits in unmistakable language to anybody who has the first clue about reading images.

So here's one of the film's two big problems: it has no idea how to start. There's no subterfuge, since any possible viewer is simply waiting for the reveal that this fun genre exercise is a sham; and yet the film waits and draws things out and slowly develops as though we need to have a sense of creeping dread placed upon us, as though we don't have creeping dread from within the first few seconds, or at least the first time we see that bastardly Kyubey, who in this reality is a harmless cat-bunny who cutely says "kyu" every time the camera shifts to him. The first thirty minutes do not find us asking, "what's going on?"; the first five minutes raise that question, and the next 25 are instead dedicated to the most more urgent, "is this movie going to ever actually start?"

And the second big problem is the ending. I won't spoil it. There's a point where the characters have worked out all their problems, and this part, at least, is perfectly in line with the series: it becomes a tragedy about loving too much, too hard, and too selfishly, about trying to make life perfect for the people you want to protect the most, and in so doing rob them of the ability to have agency. From the 40-minute mark, and for almost another hour, Rebellion is exactly the Puella Magi Madoka Magica sequel that PMMM didn't know it wanted; I will not say "needed", since it does take some kind of arbitrary bullshit to get the backstory set up in the first place. Particularly the decision that Homura's perfectly-shaped character resolution from Eternal was no such thing, and about fifteen seconds after we stopped watching her, she unlearned everything that the whole movie taught her. But setting that aside, Rebellion is character-driven and emotionally difficult in utterly splendid ways, and having muscled through the beginning, I was all set to love it.

But the ending is really just dire - needless, unearned cynicism, operating under the principle that love invariably turns to possessiveness and obsession, and that good people can be snookered by bad people 100% of the time. It's tiresome adolescent nihilism and quite beneath the dignity of the characters and the writing that crafted that marvelous three-episode ending arc in the first place. Perhaps a sequel would fix it - probably we'll never find out.

All that being summed up, we have here a movie that is truly wonderful for half of its running time, a little tedious for about its first quarter, and a lot tendentious for its last. That's not a terrific batting average (though many and many a film has a worse one), so here's why, after all that, I was still blown away by Rebellion: it is drop-dead gorgeous. This is quite easily among the best-looking animated films of the 2010, and however much more it cost than its predecessors, it was a bargain. From the first time the magic girls fight a nightmare, it's clear that Rebellion has some heightened visual ideas up its sleeve: Gekidan INU Curry's design for the nightmare realm is based on cloth patches and soft textures, which is striking at first and then damned ingenious when you realise that they're evoking quilts and bedding - that is, the fabric of the nightmare space suggests where nightmares are found, just as the ripped paper of the witch labyrinths evoke scrapbooks, since as we eventually learn, they're constructed out of memories.

That's just the launching point for a film that does all of its storytelling through the design of its physical spaces and the way its characters move through them, as much as through the words they say. Cataloguing every last ingenious visual idea in Rebellion would be unwieldy, tedious, and much too long, but I'll run through some highlights. One is the way the film borrows abstract geometric spaces to silently imply the deterioration on the far edges of what turns out to be an imagined landscape, long before the characters figure out that it's so. There is also the increasing tendency of the townspeople to shift into flat paper-like figures with simplified sketches for faces, which not only repeats the notion that this unreal space can only produce so much detail, but also foreshadows what's going on for viewers who can recall what paper animation connoted earlier in the series. At one point, the aggressive simplicity of this figures has become so pronounced that one shivering character, animated on twos, is being gripped by an enemy that switches from a blank smiling face to a snarling, be-fanged grim without any intermediate frames at all, using the mechanical structure of the animation medium itself to provide horror.

Yes, that's the word. "Horror". It's not clear at first, but by the time Homura and Kyoko end up in the non-Euclidean hellscape of the Mitakihara suburbs, Rebellion has clearly committed to that mode. And everything that proceeds from that is great, through the big final battle sequence that's a grab-bag of horror images (one particularly striking moment: a shell of a face, with eyes straggling to keep up with the rest of the head, moves into frame, and is abruptly replaced by a skull), and even into the last scene, a bucolic sequence in which little dreadful things keep moving in on the edges.

I admire the effort, at least. Rebellion strikes me as an essentially unfulfilling concept that has been executed in the most exciting and artistically accomplished way. I don't know what to do with that - if it were just boring or clichΓ©d, I'd be all about this, but it's so actively distasteful near the end. It's captivating, anyway, and it's as thrilling in its aesthetic as any Japanese animation I have myself seen. Which has to count for more than something like a dispiriting, tacked-on ending, right?

Reviews in this series
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Beginnings (Shinbo, 2012)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Eternal (Shinbo, 2012)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Rebellion (Miyamoto, 2013)