The awkwardly titled Naruto: Road to Ninja (Or actually, Road to Ninja: Naruto the Movie) is the ninth Naruto feature film. To be precise, it’s also the sixth Naruto: Shippuden feature film. If you are already lost, then you will have little chance of enjoying this film. There is a lot of continuity to sift through, and the film expects you to know much of it. If you are a fan, the film offers a solid little story that explores the growing angst within the titular character. But that story comes with a lot of other things that aren’t quite as good.
The movie begins with the young ninja of Konoha village defending their home from the Akatsuki, a rogue team of shinobi that are all supposed to be dead. They fend them off well enough, but it turns out that their opponents were merely the puppets of a much more sinister force. Soon after the attack, Naruto and Sakura are transported to an alternate reality, a mirror universe where everyone they know has an opposite personality. The two try to figure out how to get back, but the new reality offers them things that they've always dreamt of.
Newcomers to the series will probably find themselves completely lost, as the movie references a lot of backstory and character detail. The movie doesn’t even really explain the significance of the main villain of the story. Stripped from context, it all becomes a series of blank signifiers, the full effect of the reality-jumping plot losing a lot of the impact. Putting that aside, the movie has other problems. The main one is that one of its story threads is much more interesting than the other. Sakura’s story feels utterly inconsequential, her plight just not as pressing or as significant as the issues that Naruto is dealing with. Every time the movie shifts to follow her, it just stops dead.
This throws off the pacing quite a bit, and it adds unnecessary complications to the villain’s plan. The plan is convoluted enough as it is, but the addition of Sakura to this picture doesn’t help any. The animation is a little better than the TV series, but it falls well short of the standard set by other anime movies. There are a number of noticeably static frames in the movie, entire scenes that play out with no actual movement. It’s a cheap trick that really shouldn’t be in a major motion picture.
Having said all that, the movie isn’t actually terrible. It’s mostly an extended standalone episode of the TV show that provides a couple of nice little moments. Naruto’s character arc is pretty compelling, building on a well of emotions that doesn’t really need explaining. It also provides the movie with some of its most entertaining (if insane) visuals. There is a scene late in the movie that offers one of the most weirdly contextualized bits of parental advice I’ve ever seen, mixing motherly concern with a genuinely brutal image. It’s really odd, but it’s also weirdly novel.
Naruto: Road to Ninja is not a good point of entry for anyone not already familiar with the Naruto canon. For those already familiar, it offers a few nice thrills, but is ultimately unnecessary. The animation isn’t that much of an upgrade, and one of the two main character threads is just painful to sit through. For the faithful, the film is somewhat of a return to form; capturing much of what is odd and unique about the anime and the source material and translating it to a feature length form. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good movie, but there are a few joys to be found within.