"I happened to meet a young mother who likened her children to having monsters and wild animals in the house," explains animation director Mamoru Hosoda. "I wondered, 'What if it wasn't just a metaphor? What if the character actually was raising wild animals in the house?'"
"Wolf Children," co-written and directed by Hosoda (who also made the 2006 science-fiction animated "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time"), is the result of that speculation.
Already a hit in Japan, "Wolf Children" is rather an odd story, told in a one-of-a-kind style that feels equal parts sentimental, somber and strange. While the visuals are colorful and at times lyrical, the dubbed English-language soundtrack can sound overly sweet and simplistic while the narrative takes some rather harsh turns.
As the title indicates, this is a story not about having children who are metaphorical wild animals but about the challenges of raising children who are literally half-wolf, half-human.
"It's a story about my mother, and it's true," insists the film's narrator. "Every word of it."
That would be Yuki (voiced in English by Lara Woodhull and Jad Saxton), the oldest child of Hana (Colleen Clinkenbeard), an indomitable young woman whose motto is "whenever things get tough, I give it my best smile and somehow get through."
Hana is a student at Tokyo University when a brooding young man in her lecture hall catches her eye. The gentleman turns out to have a lot to brood about: As voiced by David Matranga, he turns out to be an individual who can morph into a wolf at will. Hardly one of those old movie werewolves, this Wolf Man is a soulful sort who looks more like a Vogue model than Lon Chaney Jr.
These two fall immediately in love and soon enough have two children, Yuki and her younger brother, Ame (Alison Viktorin and Micah Solusod), both of whom inherit their father's transformational gifts. Here the story takes an unexpectedly bleak turn and Hana is left to raise her kids as a single parent.
Yuki and Ame cause all the same kinds of problems as regular kids, with bonuses. Their howling makes apartment living difficult, and when they get sick, Hana can't decide whether to go to a pediatrician or a vet. Really.
Determined to give her children the ability to choose which side of their nature to favor, Hana moves the family out to the middle of nowhere, where cranky local farmers are won over by her spirit and pitch in to help her out.
"Wolf Children" boasts lyrical visuals and an unusual story, both of which contrast with the film's hyper-colloquial English voice-over, characterized by phrases such as "I messed up a bunch," "Not a problem" and "As if."
It's also fascinating to see the usual tropes of parenting — the difficulty of letting go, the worry about whether your children will find their place in the world — transferred to a situation where your child's wolf nature is part of the discussion. That is a problem they don't have in Brentwood.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Town Center 5 in Encino