Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters might very well represent the largest shift in the Godzilla formula since 1964's Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and not just because Planet of the Monsters is the first animated Godzilla feature (there have been multiple animated Godzilla TV series produced in both Japan and the United States).* Though it's unlikely that the film could have afforded to explore this new world if it wasn't animated, so let's call it a wash.

Anyway, the film is the first Japanese daikaiju eiga I've ever seen to take the genre to its natural conclusion: if the world was really overrun by all of these skyscraper-sized creatures, as seen in an opening montage that provides brief cameos for Toho kaiju as iconic as Rodan and as obscure as Dogora, surely they would eventually use up the planet. And so we are told that in 2048, humankind abandoned Earth to the giant monsters, be they scientific oddities, prehistoric throwbacks, or inexplicable godlike beings, like the most giant and monstrous of them all, Godzilla. The remnants of our species pile onto the Atratrum, a colony spaceship, and begin the twenty-year trip to a planet which they hope will serve as the basis for a new human civilisation.

At this point, we must note that Planet of the Monsters began life as an animated series, not an animated movie, and it was mostly down to the success of 2016's Shin Godzilla that Toho elected to turn it into a theatrically-released feature (or a direct-to-Netflix feature, if you live anywhere outside of Japan). And Urobuchi Gen's script is pretty obviously just three episode scripts that were run end-to-end; Planet of the Monsters has a distinctly episodic structure, and about every thirty minutes, it changes gears slightly. So we have, at first, the "final days of the colonisation effort" part of the film, then the "debate over whether to return to Earth and what to do there" part, and then the "fight Godzilla on the ruins of the planet, when it turns out that it's actually 10,000 years later, because of relativity" part.

This is, on the one hand, very much just par for the course for these movies: more time spent watching human squabbling over strategy and the best way to deal with Godzilla than time spent watching Godzilla. On the other hand, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting changes things around substantially, and in a lot of ways, for the better. The world building in Planet of the Monsters is maybe its best feature; we're told a whole hell of a lot, but we're shown even more, and the sense of military discipline barely holding together the desperate remnants of humanity, with a strong generational divide animating most of humanity's present crisis, is an effective complication to the usual Godzilla narrative, even if this isn't exactly new stuff in and of itself. Animation proves to be an exemplary medium for this story, particularly the lovely hybrid animation form used here: the film is all 3-D CG models with cel-shading to simulate the flat textures of traditional 2-D animation (I gather this is the typical aesthetic used by Polygon Pictures, the animation studio Toho contracted to make the film; I gather also that Planet of the Monsters is the costliest and most polished project Polygon has worked on to date). It's not always a perfect marriage: human characters, in particular, move through robotically precise poses that feel significantly wrong in some very small, but impossible-to-ignore way. Regardless, the mixture of 3-D's level of spatial detail and 2-D's cleanliness and flatness makes for a striking visual world, one that can be beautiful and overwhelming in the yawning, primordial vistas of monster-ridden earth, or austere and beaten-up in the interiors of the Atratrum.

The downside to all of this is that a lot of this, while new for Godzilla, isn't new at all for sci-fi anime, and Planet of the Monsters has no shame at all about indulging in clichés, mostly involving its by-the-numbers characters. First among these, in all senses, is Sakaki Haruo (Miyano Mamoru), the hothead who is right about everything, but in a brash, unpleasant, even violent way. He's the only human who makes a particular impression at all (there's also a mysterious, wise humanoid alien, and literally not one single character I'd confidently be able to name or describe other than those two), and he's thoroughly uninteresting, going through exactly the steps we expect of him straight down the line. Godzilla movies do not, of course, tend to have very rich human characters or very rich human narratives; but Godzilla movies don't usually invest in their humans quite as thoroughly as Planet of the Monsters does. For the first fifty minutes, it doesn't even seem like a necessity that Godzilla will show up at all, assuming you missed the film's title..

Still, once the film returns to Earth, it's easy to forgive the cliché-saturated longueurs it took to get to that point. It's a visually marvelous setting, and the animated kaiju are impressive, especially Godzilla itself (though the monster's skin is weirdly textured in an unappealing way; it's the one thing in the movie that looks unabashedly like CGI). The final action setpiece, involving mechas and jets futilely attempting to destroy Godzilla and take back Earth, is something close to 20 straight minutes of some of the most exciting material this franchise has ever included, and it's here most of all that the removal of any physical limitations allowed by animation pays off most of all. The sense of Godzilla's size and invulnerability are more convincing than in virtually any other Godzilla film; possibly only the overly-maligned 2014 American Godzilla has done such a good job of implying the impossible cosmic scale of the beast.

This is an imbalanced film, certainly: there's more that's somewhat dull than actively exciting, and the best material is all bunched up at the very beginning and very end. Also, the film does not in the least way hide that it's the first in a trilogy of films: it ends on a cliffhanger, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And this makes it hard to judge it as a standalone project. As a proof-of-concept (can an animated Godzilla work on the level of "real" Godzilla, and not just a kids' cartoon?) it passes with flying colors. As a standalone film, it's somewhat mediocre; but its best moments, if there were a whole feature's worth of them, would easily place this in the very top tier of the 32 feature films starring the giant radioactive lizard. So I feel like I must punt on a final verdict. If the next two films are great, this will hopefully seem like an elegant piece of scene-setting. If they're lousy, this will seem like a huge missed opportunity that wasted too much time getting to the good stuff. I'm enough of a Godzilla junkie that any fix is worth it, and I'm stubbornly going to remain optimistic for the best-case scenario, but the fact remains that Planet of the Monsters is a bit hollow in its current form, and mostly it's only the film's ample promise, as exemplified by that final battle, that makes this feel like a satisfying entry in the series, not necessary the film itself.

*The 1998 American-made Godzilla is almost certainly the biggest deviation from franchise formula in Godzilla history, but for obvious and wholly defensible reasons, I have decided that it doesn't count.