Halo Legends Review
We take a look at this collection of eight short films, and see how they fit into the wider Halo mythology.
Fans of Halo can be split into two pretty vocal camps. The first believes that the fiction of Halo is one of the more compelling and engaging sci-fi stories of recent years, and they can detail any number of reasons why. The second camp of gamers thinks that’s ridiculous – they play Halo for frantic multiplayer action and the chance to shoot some impressive futuristic weaponry. Halo Legends isn’t going to do much for this latter bunch, or for the large number of folks who’ve never chosen to invest much in the Halo games in the first place. However, for the former crowd of lore hounds, novel readers, and gamers who bought the games to see what happened next to Master Chief and the gang, Halo Legends is a welcome treat.
Halo Legends is part of a growing tradition of animated feature-length anthology films, typified by 2003’s The Animatrix and 2008’s Batman: Gotham Knight. Pass an established property to a number of talented animation directors, and see what they can do when given free rein to tell a story in that universe. Like those films, Halo Legends has a fine pedigree of directors among its eight visionaries. The lineup includes some gorgeous CG work from Appleseed’s Shinji Aramaki, and the somewhat unusual choice of Dragonball’s Daisuke Nishio – who brings a decidedly humorous slant to the Haloverse.
The result is a sequence of eight short films of dramatically different tones and animation styles, all united by a devoted attention to the fiction. There’s also a nice selection of special features layered on top for good measure, for either the two-disc DVD or the Blu-ray version.
The first two films, “Origins I” and “Origins II”, both by Hideki Futumura, are little more than a galactic history lesson, as told by Cortana in the days after she and Master Chief are left floating alone through space after Halo 3. As she stares longingly at cryogenically frozen MC, we get a glimpse of her understanding of the profoundly wide scope of the past. Most notably, her narrative gives a clear glimpse of the Forerunners and their ancient civilization – a relative first for the Halo franchise. As she traces the subsequent millennia, the inevitability of war becomes the central focus of her musing – leaving a somber flavor behind to introduce the later shorts.
Hiroshi Yamazaki’s beautifully animated “The Duel” explores the distant past of the Covenant, and the origin of the ritual position of the Arbiter. Despite what feels like an over-humanization of the once-mysterious Elites, the film delivers some remarkable battles in a hazy, watercolor-esque art style. It’s the most adventurous of the eight in terms of visual style, and the gamble pays off.
“Homecoming,” directed by Koji Sawai, is the most emotionally engaging of Halo Legends' offerings. This fourth film on the disc delves into the background of the Spartan IIs. In particular, it confronts the moral issues behind these children who were kidnapped from their families to become the super-soldier saviors of humankind. Sawai’s story spans two time periods, and it’s the successful bridging of the two that gives the film its punch.
“Odd One Out” is aptly named. It’s the strangest fit of the eight shorts – both within the collection, and as a part of Halo fiction. Anime enthusiasts will immediately recognize the hand of Daisuke Nishio at work in the zany and goofy character moments mixed with absurd, exaggerated action. If you’ve ever wondered what Halo would look like as an episode of Dragonball Z, you’re in luck. Other folks may be a little put off by the apparent shoehorning of such dramatically different concepts. It’s an incongruous combination, to say the least.
"Odd One Out"
There’s no two ways about it: The sixth short, “Prototype” is an excuse to squeeze a mech battle into the Halo storyline. Some great action scenes ensue, backed up by an overwrought protagonist who probably needs a longer feature to be believable and cool. Nonetheless, Yasushi Muraki and Tomoki Kyoda’s jointly directed short grows increasingly exciting the more guns are on screen, and there’s certainly no shortage of those.
“The Babysitter” is a fun exploration of the complicated relationship between the Spartans and the ODSTs. In the words of Frank O’Connor from one of the film’s special features: “The ODSTs resent the Spartans. They think the Spartans are spoiled; that they get all the best equipment. And the beauty of that rivalry is that it’s completely one-sided – the Spartans don’t care about the ODSTs at all, really. They just care about the job at hand.” The short is a little too predictable, down to its final big “reveal,” to be as surprising as director Toshiyuki Kanno might have aimed for.
“The Package” rounds out Halo Legends, and is undoubtedly the most action-packed and approachable of the collection. With a standalone story starring Master Chief and several Spartan buddies in a frantic sequence of firefights and explosions, the short hits all the right buttons to feel like Halo – and the CG art style is the best fit for the universe. Extra points for the Covenant ship corridor fight – one of the coolest Halo scenes anywhere, in gaming, comics, or film.
The full collection of shorts, like any anthology, feels disjointed. There’s nothing in the way of an overriding narrative, but it’s that structure that has allowed for each director to explore his own unique vision. The distinctly Japanese anime conventions are about the only thing that tie the films together – many of the shorts reveal themes of sacrifice and honor that are common in Japanese filmmaking. It's these ideas that give Halo Legends its own shaky identity.
Both the Blu-ray and two-disc DVD set pack in a wealth of special features, adding another couple of hours of fun for Halo fans. An extensive “Making of” feature looks at each film’s crafting. “Halo – Game Evolved” – a 20-minute advertisement hailing the cultural impact of the franchise – is interesting, if a little self-serving. An audio commentary from the anthology’s director and producer, Frank O’Conner and Joseph Chou brings some added insight to the movie.
Spring for the Blu-ray and you’ll also get “Halo – The Story So Far.” It’s too bad this is only on the higher-end version. It’s the best of the special features, with a remarkably clear and concise summary of the overall Halo mythology, backed by music and scenes from the games and the films on the disc. The Blu-ray version version we watched also had a stunning mix of language options – six spoken language tracks, including English and Japanese, and a staggering 16 subtitle options that assure both you and your foreign exchange student should be pretty well set.
It’s cool to see Halo branching into the world of film. The long-sought-after Hollywood movie treatment remains in limbo, but the anime approach is a fine substitute in the meantime. If nothing else, Halo Legends further establishes the viability of expanded content within the universe. The choice of anime as a medium is a good one for the mythology – the sense of space opera and hard sci-fi elements find a comfortable home in the varied world of Japanese animation.
Halo Legends still doesn’t have the legs or reach to expand the existing fanbase; too much of the film requires a prerequisite knowledge about the franchise storyline to stand on its own. But for those who are familiar with that backdrop, Halo Legends delivers more than a few substantial contributions to the canon.