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‘Ultraman: Rising’ Review: A Famous Japanese Franchise Gets a Heartwarming American Reboot

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For millions of Japanese viewers as well as countless fans across the globe, the Ultraman franchise, pitting a giant superhero against giant kaiju creatures of all shapes and breeds, has been a popular staple since it was first launched as a TV series in the 1960s.

But for this critic and likely many other viewers, especially in the U.S., the new English-language reboot, Ultraman: Rising, will be their first encounter with a character who’s been taking flight for over a half a century in live-action, animated and manga formats.

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Ultraman: Rising

The Bottom Line Ultra cute.

Release date: Friday, June 14
Cast: Christopher Sean, Gedde Watanabe, Tamyln Tomita, Keone Young, Julia Harriman
Director: Shannon Tindle
Screenwriters: Shannon Tindle, Marc Haimes, based on the “Ultraman” franchise from Tsuburaya
Rated PG, 1 hour 48 minutes

The experience is not unlike discovering Star Wars for the first time by watching the 2015 J.J. Abrams version, which doesn’t ring much of a bell if you haven’t seen the earlier ones. Still, the the team behind this endearing if familiar feature-length take does a good job at ushering us into a whole new world of heroes and villains, while trying to make the rehashed material feel meaningful.

Much of that material won’t seem new, especially for anyone who’s already seen a Godzilla flick, or one of the Pacific Rim movies, or Big Hero 6. But writer-director Shannon Tindle and co-writer Marc Haimes, who wrote the script for Kubo and the Two Strings, do their best to enhance it: Not only do they add a brand new subplot involving the baseball career of Kenji “Ken” Sato aka Ultraman (voiced by Christopher Sean), but they introduce a real emotional arc about the hero’s traumatic past, as well as an extremely cute fatherhood narrative where Ultraman is suddenly forced to raise an orphaned child.

That child, Emi (Julia Harriman), is no ordinary baby but a pint-sized kaiju dragon, which means she’s about the size of a garbage truck. Pink and cuddly, and with the ability to destroy a state-of-the-art mansion in one temper tantrum, Emi is picked up by Ultraman after a duel with Gigatron, one of many creatures the hero battles as a professional monster-fighter — a job he does while also holding down a career as a professional baller.

In fact, Ken is not only a talented baseball player, but one of the world’s greatest. At the start of the movie, he gets traded from the L.A. Dodgers to Japan’s Yomiuri Giants, triumphantly returning to the homeland he abandoned with his mother as a child. Back then, his father, Professor Sato (Gedde Watanabe), was the first Ultraman, and now it’s Ken’s turn to pick up the legacy, even if he’d much rather be lounging around his bodacious villa and scoring home runs.

If the Spider-Man motto is “with great power comes great responsibility,” the Ultraman motto, at least as the American reboot attempts to explain it, is about using “power to bring balance.” It’s a very Zen-like approach to the superhero métier that’s illustrated by Ken trying to juggle two taxing jobs while also raising the adorable but untamable Emi, who gets more and more unwieldy as he grows older, projectile vomiting and pooping with extreme kaiju force.

While the original Ultraman shows were memorable for their epic live-action battles between monster and man (well, a massive man powered by alien forces and supreme technology), Ultraman: Rising will likely touch viewers, especially ages 10 and under, for its story of a young man trying to be a good dad while also reconnecting with his own estranged father, in what ultimate becomes a parable about responsible parenting.

That doesn’t mean Tindle, who co-directed the film with John Aoshima (Maya and the Three, DuckTales), doesn’t deliver the goods when it comes to the genre’s requisite city fights, including an epic attack above the Tokyo Dome while Ken is standing at home plate. The filmmakers also offer up a decent new villain in the form of Dr. Onda (Keone Young), an evil scientist who heads up the KDF (Kaiju Defense Forces) and who was traumatized by his family’s death during a monster attack. Fatherhood, yet again.

For kids who have never seen any of the above-referenced movies or shows, Ultraman: Uprising may be something of a revelation, and the team behind the relaunch deserves credit for giving the half-century-old franchise a new stamp. For others, including those unfamiliar with Ultraman but who know the kaiju genre well enough, much here may seem redundant, even if it’s all given a touching twist.

Either way, the fight is likely to keep going as long as there are giant monsters roaming about and brave superheroes to stand up to them — and IP that can regenerate itself for decades to come.  

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