[Fantasia 2023] THE FIRST SLAM DUNK -- A Kinetically Animated, but Narratively Underwhelming Sports Picture
Review by Sean Boelman
The First Slam Dunk was one of the biggest films in its home country of Japan last year, earning a spot among the top-grossing Japanese movies of all time. Western audiences are getting their introduction to the movie at Fantasia before its upcoming U.S. release, but it seems unlikely to translate to do as well here as it did overseas.
The film follows a teenager who, after the passing of his older brother, sets out to achieve his brother’s dream of becoming a basketball star. Based on the popular Slam Dunk manga series, this is the type of uplifting underdog story that should be a crowd-pleaser, but it’s a bit overlong and shoddily paced to connect with many beyond the source material’s admirers and basketball lovers.
One of the movie’s big mistakes is not investing more in the team dynamic. We’re given a backstory for the protagonist, but none of the other characters, nor much about his friendship with any of them. As a result, viewers will end up cheering for the protagonist rather than the team as a whole, which is not the most effective approach when it comes to a sports movie like this.
The First Slam Dunk deserves major props for delivering some excellent basketball sequences, but there is a bit of a disparity between what we see and what we are supposed to believe. What we are watching is a high school basketball team. The film treats this competition in the same way one would more reasonably expect to see at a professional match — or even a college game — creates a need for suspension of disbelief.
Additionally, the fact that the movie is essentially one long basketball match (with flashbacks interspersed throughout to give it more of a story) makes it feel monotonous quickly. Granted, for viewers who are more into the sport of basketball, it may be able to hold their attention more easily, but non-fans won’t be able to get invested easily.
There are certainly some moments in which the film pulls on the right heart strings to create an effective emotional beat, but they are undermined by the narrative structure and editing. Although the point is clearly to use this emotional connection to get viewers more excited to root for the heroes, they completely disrupt the movie’s narrative momentum.
Still, the animation — particularly during the basketball sequences — is fantastic. The character design is emotive, the action is kinetic, and yet the frame never feels overly busy. There is one scene at the film’s climax that is absolutely breathtaking and arguably one of the best animated sequences of the year. There’s not a ton of detail in some of the backgrounds, but the foregrounds are so great that they command the viewer’s attention.
The First Slam Dunk boasts some unquestionably great animation, but the narrative definitely leaves something to be desired. Granted, as someone who is not particularly a fan of the sport of basketball, maybe it can just be chalked up to not being in the target audience — but it’s not quite effective.
The First Slam Dunk screened at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs from July 20 to August 9.