Last year, Netflix brought us Gundam: Hathaway, a modern entry in the mecha franchise’s vaunted “Universal Century” timeline that, despite a weight of context upon it, served as an interesting entry into a decades-old saga. This year, we have another Gundam movie on the way—but it’s one that works best if you love the series already.
That’s because Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan’s Island is a curiously indulgent entry for Sunrise. For a franchise that’s been known just as much to expand and iterate on itself across myriad stories and timelines as it is to yearn nostalgically for the saga that started it all—Amuro Ray vs. Char Aznable, the Earth Federation vs. the Principality of Zeon, the white devil that is the RX-78-2 Gundam—Doan’s Island might just be one of its most indulgent entries in a long time. Directed by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, the original character designer for the 1979 Gundam anime, and the artist of its lavish manga adaptation as Gundam: The Origin, the movie is a nearly two-hour adaptation of the 15th episode of the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Set during the original series’ “One Year War,” the movie follows Amuro Ray and the crew of the White Base as they’re tasked with investigating a mysterious island in the Canaries, where reports of a lone enemy Mobile Suit has been eliminating Federation scouts. What Amuro finds after an encounter with the enemy Zaku mobile suit is a single Zeon deserter, the titular Cucuruz Doan, who has traded war for raising a group of orphaned children.
Derided at the time for its shoe-string budget animation flaws, the episode—also titled “Cucuruz Doan’s Island”—was disowned by Gundam’s creator, Yoshiyuki Tomino, and outside of Japan was legally unviewable until the show began streaming on Funimation in 2020. It’s a peculiar choice for a big screen adaptation, and yet also perhaps a sensible one: it offers the chance for Sunrise, and for Yasuhiko himself, to not just stoke the fires of nostalgia for the beloved original series, but to undo errors and flaws made over 40 years ago, and to give the story Gundam wanted to tell all those decades ago the polish it deserves. That means that, despite its blockbuster runtime, Doan’s Island is for all intents and purposes an episode of TV given the budget to stretch out to a theatrical runtime.
This works and hinders the film in equal measure. For starts, it is measured in its pace, as the mystery around the island, Doan’s intentions, and Amuro’s willingness to believe those intentions after he is incapacitated and left stranded without the Gundam are all set up over the first half. Things kick up into a grander gear than the original episode with the introduction of two Zeonic threats at the half-way mark—Doan’s old elite Zaku team, tasked with investigating the island as it is secretly a missile launching facility for Zeon’s forces on Earth—and from there it barrels along to a conclusion of mecha-on-mecha action and plenty of explosions, but it simultaneously feels like it’s somehow rushed along the way. Without the constraints of a TV animation budget it’s certainly a gorgeous film, but similarly without the constraints of TV storytelling Doan’s Island becomes more about vibes than it is tight plotting, and you’re just along for the ride.
That’s not to say Doan’s Island doesn’t try to use its runtime well in parts. The slow opening gives both the audience and Amuro time to endear to the rowdy, easily panicked group of orphans that Doan has taken in, to understand in part why they would eke out a hard life of trying to farm in the island’s volcanic soil and use its flimsy structures as impromptu water pump facilities to survive in secluded isolation, not far from the coast of the Federation’s luxuries in Las Palmas. Making both us and its protagonist care about these children as Doan does makes the action of the second half that much tenser (even if you know what’s going to happen, given this is an adaptation of an episode of a 43-year-old anime), and the rush of seeing not just Doan’s beat-up Zaku face off against his former allies, but the classic Gundam itself, is given the time and delight such an indulgence deserves.
But that still makes a movie that is a little too long and a little too indulgent for its own good, which is hard to recommend to newcomers in the way that last year’s Hathaway—even though it was layered under eons of context from the wider Gundam franchise, and itself is an adaptation of even more obscure, hard-to-access material—wasn’t. And that’s not because Doan’s Island leans on knowledge of the original Gundam to a fault, or because it throws events and terminology at you in such a way to obfuscate anyone but the diehard fans, but simply because without a wider understanding of the movie’s place in the original series’ story, it’s simply... fine. A little long, but still a fine time.
What makes Cucuruz Doan’s Island much more rewarding is coming into it already having experienced Amuro’s story across the original anime and beyond it in follow ups like Zeta Gundam and Char’s Counterattack. A Gundam diehard already knows the story of its adaptation, and knows that this is an Amuro that we are encountering still early in his own story, not quite the man he would become by the end of the original show. So seeing his reactions to a Zeon deserter, getting to understand the humanity of a man who, at some point, would’ve been an enemy to be blinked out in an instant as Amuro does without hesitation to his foes in the back half of film, are enriched by knowing just how fundamental the lessons the young man learns here are to understanding his whole journey. Seeing him face pilots far more experienced than he would be at this point, and overcome them, speaks to his eventual skill and his blossoming as one of the series’ fabled “Newtypes.”
Curucuz Doan’s Island isn’t the kind of fanservice that points at the Gundam, nudges you, and yells “look! It’s Gundam!” But it’s a fanservice that allows the people who already love its story to feel like that love will let them enrich and better appreciate this newly polished chapter of it. And it’s that which makes it worth seeing, even with all its pacing issues and its otherwise peculiar tale. If you’re a Gundam neophyte, there are certainly things to enjoy, but this is a movie for the fans of Gundam’s earliest years, for better or worse—and for them at least, it’s definitely going to be for the better.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan’s Island will release in both dubbed and subtitled formats in the UK on September 21 and 22, in the U.S. on September 27 and 28, and Canada on September 29 and October 1, and will also release for a special one-week run in Australia starting September 29.
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