A little history is probably necessary before we begin.
It's no secret that I love giant monster movies. Nor, should I think, is it a secret that I have an affection for Gamera. What's not to love? He's a giant, tusked turtle that breathes fire and flies like a flying saucer. Don't try and logically figure out how he does that, or your head will explode.
Of course, most of my love of Gamera stems not from the original series of films made in the 60s and 70s (despite my deep love for Gamera vs. Barugon, aka War of the Monsters) but for the trilogy of films made in the 1990s by Visionary Director (take that Zack Snyder!) Shusuke Kaneko.
The reason is simple. The original Gamera was a blatant rip-off of Godzilla, but specifically aimed at children--in fact Gamera was always "The Friend To Children Everywhere". Why? i'm guessing because he was a turtle, and history has always shown us that kids love turtles. Plus this was before everybody realized that turtles were lovely carriers of salmonella and thus not the best thing for children to have as pets.
The original Gamera series were also seemingly made on budgets that probably wouldn't cover the catering on a Godzilla film and despit catering to children they were about as violent as a Sam Peckinpah film. It was not unusual to see Gamera spurting green blood from multiple wounds, nor to see a giant space bat sliced into sausage by a giant toad with a butcher knife for a head. Which takes us to the one saving grace of the series; the fact that its monsters were so bizarre that, once you'd seen a Gamera foe, you were unlikely to forget it. Take for instance, Gamera's very first foe, Barugon:
On face value he seems to be nothing more than an obvious rip-off of Toho's Baragon, but looking like the illegitimate love child of Anguirus and a Jackson's chameleon.
That's before he reveals that he shoots a freezing mist from his tongue and shoots a rainbow from his dorsal spines that destroys anything it touches. I'm not making that up. I also wonder why the gay rights movement hasn't adopted him as their mascot. I mean, I'd think if you could obliterate Fox News Headquarters with a rainbow, you might get same-sex marriage legalized in all 50 states and possibly approved by the Vatican.
Where Kaneko improved the series was basically by doing one of those "reboots" that Hollywood loves so much (but Japanese film studios love way more) and pretended that none of that bullshit ever happened. His Gamera was a badass defender of the Earth whose job might be to protect humanity--but that didn't stop him from squashing a few measly people if they got in his way. They also featured amazing special effects that made the Godzilla films of the same period look like camcorder footage of an elementary school play about giant monsters.
But Kaneko was content to stop at 3 films. Which was wise, as there wasn't a whole lot more that could have been done with his films, really. They were vast improvements over the originals, but they were rather formulaic. hat works fine for three films, but if there had been a fourth film where Gamera faces a strong opponent, gets beaten close to death, regains his strength, gets beaten near to death again, and suddenly pulls a staggeringly insane finishing blow out of his ass to destroy the bad monster...it probably would have been enough to sour people on the three preceding films.
Yes, that's right, his fist is made of fire! Suck on that, Chuck Norris!
That didn't stop somebody else from making a Gamera film a few years later, though. Gamera the Brave (2006) was seemingly made to fill the void left by Godzilla's latest "retirement". It was written by a woman, which is a nice change of pace...except that she wasn't a fan of giant monsters before being hired. And the film is meant to take Gamera back to his child-friendly roots.
Yet, in spite of all that, this film doesn't actually suck.
This time we have another reboot. I think. To be honest, one could read this the same way as The Incredible Hulk seemed to be a sequel that just kind of "retconned" the previous movie a little. I mean, at the end of Gamera 3: Revenge of Irys Gamera wandered off to fight a horde of Gyaos--a battle he couldn't possibly win--and here he is at the beginning of this film, fighting a horde of Gyaos. The suit even looks like the one from Gamera 3.
Of course, Gamera has two hands when he lost one in the previous film and Gamera 3 also took place in 1999, while this prologue must be taking place in the mid-to-late 1970s. Again, though, this could be simply a retcon as this Gamera owes rather more to the "Guardian of the Universe" Gamera from the 1990s than the prehistoric turtle of the original films. And considering that no origin for Gamera is ever actually established in this film, it's entirely possible that it is supposed to be a sort of/not quite sequel to Kaneko's trilogy.
In which case the filmmakers were both as brave as the titular monster and incredibly foolish, as that's one tough act to follow.
Anyways, the film opens with a young boy watching from his burning village as Gamera fights the Gyaos on an unpopulated island across the bay. Gamera is not doing so well, as the Gyaos are taking him to town and soon he's being mauled by his bat-lizard opponents. And let me just say that despute the generally high quality of the suit effects, the Gyaos hand puppets on display here make the rather silly ones in Gamera: Guardian of the Universe look the work of the late Stan Winston.
Even more off-putting is that we discover already that Gamera's distinctive "elephant with its testicles in a vice" screech has been replaced by that generic monster roar. The one that the titular ape used in the ill-advised 1976 King Kong and the infamous roaring shark in Jaws: The Revenge belted out. It was probably first used by the T-Rex in The Land Unknown, though:
It's one of my favorite monster roars because, like the Wilhelm Scream, it's just so damn much fun. But it's not Gamera's roar! It'd be like the next Godzilla movie starting with Godzilla opening his mouth and letting loose with the roar of the T-Rex from Jurassic Park! It just ain't right!
Anyways, Gamera sets himself to overload and causes an enormous explosion that destroys him, the Gyaos, and the entire island. Flash forward to 2006 where the kid who watched Gamera explode is now an adult with a kid of his own, named Toru. And naturally, since this is a Family Film, Toru's mother is dead. I admit to being surprised, though, by how Toru's first lines are a voice-over in which he flat-out says he doesn't believe his mother is in Heaven but is just a pile of ashes in a box under her grave stone. That's pretty heavy stuiff for what is nominally a kid's film.
The interaction between father and son is actually pretty good, but eventually it will devolve into Toru's father chasing him around and trying to keep him from getting killed by the giant monsters.
Anyways, on the ruins of the island where Gamera made his last stand, Toru eventually finds an egg that's sitting on top of a strange red stone. The egg immediately hatches into a (real) baby tortoise and, of course, the egg cracks like a bird's egg. Are we ever gonna get a movie made by people who understand that reptile eggs are leathery? Oh, and of course this baby tortoise, whom Toru names "Toto" after a nickname he was given by his dead mother, is supposed to be a baby Gamera. And, again, it's an actual live tortoise.
I still find this a bizarre decision. It'd be like making a Godzilla film that begins with a baby Godzilla portrayed by a baby alligator. Which, actually would be kind of awesome--but that's just because I think a Godzilla designed to look like an aligator would be awesome. It'd still be bizarre, though, and it's no less bizarre here in spite of how cute the tortoise is.
[And, of course, like most movies that use live animals there have been reports that somehow 2 separate turtles were killed in the making of this film. I don't buy it. Any scenes where a turtle could have been seriously injured were done using patently bogus stand-ins or awful CGI.]
Naturally, Toru tries to hide Toto from his father, although he shows him to his friends. Naturally much "cutesy" mischief follows as Toto learns to levitate and spit fireballs. Inevitably, though, Toru's cute teenage girl neighbor, Mai, witnesses Toto's flying act one day so of course she lets Toru in on the true identity of his new pet. Toru refuses to believe it because that might mean that toto will fight other monsters and die. But it's harder for him to deny it when Toto's size increases rapidly every day until he now has to be played by a rather woeful puppet.
While all this has been going on, we've been hearing reports of ships being sunk and sailors disappearing. We even see one hapless bastard get dragged under the water, Jaws-style, with a billowing cloud of blood taking his place. Eventually, Toto runs off and almost immediately afterward we are introduced to what's been eating people: the giant monster, Zedus!
I'm not quite sure what to think of Zedus. It's a good suit and the creature has a delightfully sadistic personality. Not long after we meet him, we see him delightedly chowing down on fleeing extras in a scene that's damned intense for a kid's movie. Which, of course puts it in good standing with the original Gamera films.
The trouble is that as monsters go, well, he's not terribly special. He's certainly not quite up to the standards of surreality of previous Gamera foes in both of the preceding series. In fact he looks like nothing so much as the Ultraman foe, Jirass, who was just a Godzilla suit with a frill glued onto it. In fact, the original romanization of Zedus's name was "Jidas". Coincidence? I think not.
Separated at birth?
His only defining attribute is that he has a long, sharp tongue that shoots out of his mouth--which he uses to impale Gamera multiple times, spraying green blood everywhere. (Again, kid's movie here.) And even that is just a less interesting reworking of Barugon's tongue! It makes you wonder why they didn't just reuse Barugon as he's a much more compelling foe. I can only assume it's because Toho had recently used Baragon in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack! and if Toho was willing to sue Subway for using a monster in its commercials that resembled Godzilla about as much as Spam resembles meat, then you better believe they'd sue a rival studio over trying to cash in on the popularity of one of their monsters.
Anyways, so a small Gamera shows up and fights zedus. Obviously, this is Toto. The small size of Gamera makes the battle a lot more compelling than it would otherwise be since Zedus is about five times as big as Gamera at this point. Naturally, he gives the turtle quite a wallop before finally catching a fireball in the mouth and retreating. Incidentally, that is fireball number 2 of a total three in the entire film.
The government swoops in and takes the wounded Gamera to a holding facility in Nagoya. Turns out that they know Gamera's a good guy and are trying to feed it energy to make it grow bigger and stronger. Energy like that which comes from the red stone that was with the egg. The red stone which Toru gave to Mai as a good luck charm to help her with her heart operation (a subplot which goes almost nowhere), which she is having in Nagoya. Where Zedus just arrived.
Naturally a mad scramble ensues where Toru and his friends try to find Mai to get the stone and Toru's father tries to find Toru to keep him from getting killed as (a slightly larger) Gamera and Zedus fight.
All well and good, until Mai realizes that Gamera needs the stone. Well, she's at a shelter on the other side of the city and recovering from her surgery when...[ugh]...a little girl walks up to her, asks if the stone is "For Toto?" and immediately takes it from Mai and runs off in the direction of Gamera! Along the way, the stone gets passed off from one kid to another--all of which do not know each other! I realize it's supposed to inspiring or touching, and maybe I'm just cynical, but all I get from it is that Japanese children belong to some sort of a hive mind.
In case I failed to get across the utter WTF-ery of the scene, here it is on YouTube:
Eventually, Toru gets the stone and Gamera gets lodged into one of the top floors of a tall building. Toru gets the stone to Gamera, but takes forever to make Gamera promise not to self-destruct so that Zedus has time to climb to the top of the building and knock Gamera back off. Toru just manages to feed the stone to Gamera and Gamera is able to save himself by taking flight.
And I wish I had a screencap of Zedus's face when he first sees Gamera fly. It's priceless.
The ending is pretty much exactly as would be expected. Well, except for Gamera ripping Zedus's frigging tongue right out of his mouth! Complete with blue blood spraying everywhere. Kid's movie, remember. But basically, Gamera kills Zedus by using a powered-up finishing move (that is, sadly, not nearly insane enough), the military decides it wants to capture Gamera for...some reason but the kids refuse to let them, Gamera flies off, and we are essentially promised a sequel that is never coming. (This movie pretty much bombed)
In the end I can't say I hated Gamera The Brave. It's certainly a lot better than most of the original Gamera films and I wouldn't mind owning it, but it falls way short of Kaneko's trilogy.
For one thing, the special effects aren't very good. Oh, the miniatures and suits are excellent. But all the CGI and greenscreens are terrible. And, sadly, they're used quite often. The music is also wildly inappropriate, except for one recurring them that sounds vaguely like an Irish folk tune (!) yet seems oddly to fit. And it takes a long time to get to the monster action and the comic relief scenes of Toto getting into mischief are most definitely not enough to keep us entertained while we wait.
Still, if you like giant monster movies and have a soft spot for Gamera like I do, I reccommend checking it out. There are worse ways to waste time.