Cucuruz Doan’s Island is one of those rare cases where we get a superior remake to something that wasn’t that good, to begin with. The film is based on one episode of Mobile Suit Gundam that was regarded as terrible by series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino. It was so bad that he didn’t want the American audience to see it, requesting it be removed from the North American English release. His central reason for this was that the animation was exceptionally awful.
Well, times change, the animation quality gets better and cheaper, and there’s plenty of room in anime for do-overs. On a surface level, this movie does improve on that one episode from 43 years ago with incredibly vibrant and detailed animation. But also serves as a solid example of everything that made Mobile Suit Gundam such a trailblazer in mecha anime.
The film wastes little time with a prologue to catch up with the audience beyond just stating in a text intro which episode is being redone. It just starts up with the One Year War during Universal Century 0079, where a mysterious island finds Federation mecha being slaughtered by some mysterious Zaku machine of Zeon. The recently victorious White Base crew is called in to investigate, mostly because the teenage prodigy pilot – Amuro Ray – is leading this war with the powerful Gundam mobile suit.
Amuro faces his toughest challenge yet when his Gundam is disabled during a battle on the island. When Amuro comes to, he awakens on the property of Cucuruz Doan, a stoic former soldier seeking to place his Zeon history behind him. He now favors a life of carrying the children of the island, shielding them from the One Year War as best as he can. Since Amuro’s Gundam is missing, he decides to make the best of a bad situation, caring for the children and handling farming duties for survival.
The film gives plenty of time to better define the mindsets of Amuro and Cucuruz, the two of them connecting in a way where they’ve both witnessed the horrors of war with unspoken revelations. It was also pretty cool to watch Amuro’s flashbacks of previous key events, from his father’s cold nature to commander Bright Noah smacking him across the face.
Speaking of Bright, there’s just enough for the other familiar characters to do in this story. The Zeon forces have great interest in Cucuruz as a fleeing soldier trying to keep everyone away from the island’s hidden Zeon base with weapons of mass destruction. The White Base crew is ordered by the Federation to retreat from the island but go against their superiors to save Amuro. It was quite a bit of fun to watch the entire White Base crew give the proverbial middle finger to the higher-ups, complete with Bright giving winks and the brash soldier Kai being all-too-eager to break the rules and risk a court marshall.
The biggest draw, and perhaps the most essential improvement for this redo, is the animation. It’s a boldly rich mixture of traditional and CGI, creating a detailed and lavish war. Mobile suits explode with spectacular plumes of purple while the ashy island of volcanic activity looks surprisingly vivid for its dark tones. Congrats are in order for the character and mecha designers who stick close to the original designs, merely giving the source material a nice gloss of new paint. The original Gundam model has never looked so intimidating and exciting as it does in this film.
And then there’s the soundtrack which is equal parts faithful. All the familiar songs from the classic show are present and given a new orchestral score. Gundam fans are really going to get a kick out of hearing these legendary tracks sounding more pristine than ever before. As a fan myself, there were goosebumps.
But what about non-fans? It may be hard to recommend such a specific Gundam remake but, surprisingly, this film stands well enough on its own. You don’t need to know too much about the original Gundam series to appreciate this story of a teenage soldier and an AWOL soldier connecting amid caring for kids. There are certainly some Easter eggs present for those who want to get a little continuity here and there. For the most part, however, there are not a lot of intricacies to this story that I feel confident enough to recommend for those coming in cold.
Cucuruz Doan’s Island turns what was once considered a blemish on Gundam and transforms it into one of the best Gundam movies. It taps into the aspects of anti-war while still staging a thrilling action-adventure loaded with mecha battles and emotional drive. Compared to the number of other anime films that attempt to redo aspects of a franchise, this is one of the better examples of giving a makeover to this decades-old anime while remaining true to what made the series work so well. It’s a Gundam fan’s dream come true.