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The Mothra Reviews (plus Rodan)

Rodan, Godzilla, and Mothra
Sorry, big guy, we're gonna focus on the other two today (image credit: Screenrant)

If there's one Toho monster who competes with Godzilla for worldwide fame and attention, it would have to be the peaceful warrior lepidopteran, Mothra. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Godzilla knows who Mothra is, but for the uninitiated, she is an island diety who usually takes the form of a giant, furry, colorful moth, though she can be pretty powerful even in her larval form. She has a love/hate relationship with mankind, a weird obsession with tiny twinned fairy women, and a tendency to act as a defender of the Earth itself, sometimes being a villain to humans and sometimes fighting alongside them against greater threats like King Ghidorah and, of course, Godzilla.

She first appeared in a solo film of her own, titled Mothra, before going on to be a staple of the Godzilla canon. In her initial appearance, she acts as a new metaphor for Ishiro Honda to explore and a new monster to wreak havoc on Tokyo. As the years went on and she metamorphosed into a kid-friendly defender of the Earth, though, she eventually became the subject of a new series of films geared towards children, known here in the United States as the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy. Interestingly, the core Mothra dies half-way through the first movie to be replaced by her male offspring, canonically known as Mothra Leo.

Today, to celebrate Mothra coming to the Legendary Monsterverse in this weekend's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I'm reviewing all four Mothra solo films, and at the end I'll throw in a bonus review of Rodan, too, because he never gets enough love.

MOTHRA (1961)
Mothra (1961)
MOTHRA (1961)
Mothra (1961)

THE JIST: During an expedition to Infant Island, a former nuclear testing site thought to be not only uninhabited but hopelessly irradiated, an unscrupulous entrepeneur becomes determined to kidnap the tiny twin beauties found there, despite the protestations of the Japanese scientists and the mysterious natives of the island. As he parades the twins on stage for profit, an ancient kaiju deity called Mothra goes on a rampage across Japan to retrieve them.

THE VERDICT: After several attempts to recapture the magic of Gojira with limited success, Toho finally manages to offer something new to the budding genre with Mothra. The set-up is very familiar, but even though nuclear testing is hinted at as part of the monster's origin, the film has much more to say about the destructive power of stubborn greed. It does this by changing up the antagonist. Rather than the monster being the villain, we are given a human, Nelson, who courts disaster by literally exploiting a piece of nature he doesn't understand. Mothra, though not yet the straight-up heroine she would later become, is portrayed as sympathetic, if not justified in her terrible actions. Our heroes, Chujo and Zen, are interesting, too. I particularly love how Zen, who is portrayed throughout as a competent but goofy reporter who would be little more than comic relief in a lesser film, is the one to unhesitantly step up when it comes time for somebody to risk his life to save an innocent baby on a teetering bridge. It reflects what I consider to be Mothra's greatest strength: it is a movie full of heart that is as entertaining with its scenes of city destruction as it is earnest in its attempts to make this a warm, human story.

Rebirth of Mothra (1996)
Rebirth of Mothra (1996)

THE JIST: A logging company uncovers a mysterious ancient seal in the side of a small mountain, and one of the workers takes it home as a gift to his daughter, Wakaba. Belvera, a tiny human known as an Elias, races to gain control of the seal by brainwashing Wakaba. After a battle with Wakaba's brother Taiki and Belvera's two sisters, Belvera escapes with the seal and uses it to awaken a terrible kaiju called Desgidorah from its mountain prison while her sisters call on Mothra to battle the monster. When Mothra falls, all hope seems lost, but then her egg hatches, and a new Mothra awakens.

THE VERDICT: This is, first and foremost, a kiddie kaiju flick, made for children. Judged as such, it's pretty good, with a lot of action sequences, good family drama centered on sibling relationships, and a fun, over-the-top villain in Belvera. It's silly, to be sure, but it does a respectable job with the monster battles and has a few imaginative set-ups you won't find in grown-up kaiju flicks, especially an early action sequence in which the three Elias sisters lay waste to Taiki and Wakaba's house as they fight for the seal. There are some good emotional beats--highlighted by the death of Mothra and her son's inevitable revenge match against Desgidorah--and the human characters are surprisingly relatable. That said, it drags in places, never really justifying its runtime, with even some of the battle sequences becoming overly long and tiresome. And while there are some good practical effects, the CG is mid-nineties terrible: not the worst of the era, but still able to elicit a few cringes. As long as you know what you're getting into, it's fine, but I wouldn't go out of my way to see it unless you have a kid who's interested in tokusatsu kaiju. (Side note: this was the last kaiju film produced by the legendary Tomoyuki Tanaka. It doesn't affect my review in any way, but I thought it should at least be mentioned.)

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-e. magill 5/30/2019

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