Style over substance is a common way of saying a movie uses visuals to distract the audience from a poorly written story or lousy filmmaking.
In animation, that conversation becomes intertwined with the debate of 3D versus 2D animation, wherein 3D animation is seen as choosing style over the substance of 2D. More often than not, 3D animation is seen as a shortcut or lazy attempt to achieve grandiose visuals when it cannot achieve the same result with 2D animation.
But certain movies show how style can be the whole point of the experience, even serving as substance. That's the case with Hiroyuki Imaishi's first film with Studio Trigger, now streaming on HBO Max. Let’s cue the music and get in a giant robot because we're talking Promare.
In the world of Promare, a part of the population has developed mutant powers. Called the “Burnish,” they can manipulate flames, which led to the Great World Blaze, a worldwide catastrophe that killed half the global population. A firefighter force called Burning Rescue works to put out the fires created by a group of radical Burnish calling themselves the Mad Burnish.
The anime film plays off the X-Men dynamic of a group of superpowered people being persecuted despite representing humanity's next evolutionary step. Despite its exhilarating action sequences and overall upbeat tone, Promare also explores serious themes of oppression and prejudice in the most unsubtle ways imaginable.
The Burnish wear a pink triangle as a symbol, which is also what the Nazis used to identify gay men at concentration camps. At the same time, the militarization of police is a big part of the plot, culminating in police raids heavily reminiscent of ICE raids.
Promare employs a blend of 2D and CG-3D animation that seamlessly blends the world of cartoony flesh with the world of giant metal robots. The CGI is used to produce intricate camera work or complex mechanical constructions that otherwise could not be replicated in 2D, resulting in sweeping and dynamic action scenes rivaling any modern blockbuster.
This is complemented by a unique and eye-popping visual style that resembles pop art. Vibrant, neon and pastel colors bring the world of the film to life in a way only animation can achieve, especially when it comes to the flames. In animation, fire can be one of the hardest things to pull off. Still, Promare finds a workaround by turning the Burnish fire into astonishing bright geometric patterns in pastel colors that bring to mind that scene in Avatar: The Last Airbender where Zuko and Aang discover the beauty of fire bending.
Like most of Imaishi's work, Promare is a fantastic throwback to Saturday Morning Cartoons (or Super Robot action series of the late '70s and late '80s), filling every moment in the film with utter joy. It has an increasingly ludicrous plot and boneheaded, shirtless heroes with big hearts and not an ounce of common sense. There is no nuance of deeper meaning, but Promare does feature big explosions and an even bigger heart that it wears on its sleeve.
What starts as an X-Men analogy quickly explodes into a balls-to-the-wall adventure where everyone has cool one-liners, and dudes use the power of friendship and their inner fire to reach the stars. Even the Deux ex Machina is a robot literally named Deus X Machina. While anime has a dicey history of queer representation, the entire runtime of Promare is lit in bisexual light.
Adding to the feelings of over-the-top action and joy is the grandiose soundtrack by Hiroyuki Sawano. Their use of the "Sawano Drop" and epic insert songs make every plot development feel like a Shyamalan plot twist. Every fight scene feels like the "Avengers assemble" moment in Avengers: Endgame, making the movie feel like a catchy, almost operatic music video with much better visuals.
By the time the main theme song plays over the ending scene, tears are shed, fists bump the air, and cheers erupt because this is a movie that knows how to play into theatrics and radiate pure emotion. Promare employs the best of traditional 2D and cutting-edge CG-3D animation to deliver a non-stop roller coaster of joy — showing that sometimes style can also be substance.
Promare is now streaming on HBO Max.