The iconic Japanese superhero returns for a new adventure in Netflix’s family-friendly animation

Ultraman: Rising

Source: Netflix

‘Ultraman: Rising’

Dir: Shannon Tindle. US/Japan. 2024. 117mins

Protecting Japan from fearsome monsters is hard enough: in the appealing animated family film Ultraman: Rising, the titular hero must also contend with being an unlikely surrogate father to one demanding baby kaiju. This English-language charmer boasts vibrant visuals that mostly make up for a fairly pedestrian story about a selfish baseball superstar who begrudgingly accepts his responsibility to be the new Ultraman — and, soon after, the challenge of raising a tiny beast that the authorities want eliminated. 

The ongoing popularity of the franchise is likely to make this a popular streaming option 

Premiering at Annecy on June 12, Ultraman: Rising starts streaming on Netflix two days later. Balancing action with sentimental messages about loss, maturity and reconciliation, the film should be an ideal introduction for younger viewers to the iconic character who debuted 58 years ago on Japanese television. In 2019, Netflix released the Japanese-language anime series Ultraman, which ran for three seasons, and the ongoing popularity of the franchise is likely to make this a strong streaming option — especially for parents looking to entertain their children at home this summer. The colourful CG images provided by Industrial Light & Magic should also attract animation fans. 

Ken (voiced by Christopher Sean) is a baseball phenom playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers after he and his mother (Tamlyn Tomita) moved from Japan during his youth; Ken’s father (Gedde Watanabe) was Ultraman, and so devoted to his heroic duties that he neglected his family. But after his mother disappears under mysterious circumstances, and is presumed dead, Ken returns to Tokyo to play for a local team and, covertly, also assume his birthright as the new Ultraman – although he refuses to reach out to his ageing, estranged dad.

Artist and writer Shannon Tindle, a seven-time Annie nominee, makes his feature directorial debut, working with co-director John Aoshima to craft an all-ages adventure whose humour strains for hipness. When Ken starts learning the ropes of being Ultraman — while focused on winning a baseball championship, his ego alienating  coaches and teammates — Ultraman: Rising gives him an unexpected surprise. While fighting a kaiju, who dies during battle, Ken discovers that the beast has given birth to an adorable baby, which is targeted by the heavily-armed military unit known as the Kaiju Defense Force, led by the pitiless Dr. Onda (Keone Young). Ken lacks any paternal instincts, but he refuses to turn the innocent baby over to Onda and the pair go into hiding.

Predictably, this causes all kinds of semi-amusing complications as Ken, with the assistance of the supportive supercomputer Mina (also voiced by Tomita), struggles to raise this baby monster, which starts to grasp its own incredible powers. Tindle, who co-wrote the screenplay, clearly intends the plot to teach this self-centred young man to care about others and, eventually, mend fences with his own father. Ultraman: Rising lacks sophistication in its storytelling, but the film nevertheless achieves a quiet poignancy – especially once Ken reunites with his dad, whose reasons for devoting his time to being Ultraman will eventually become more understandable.

Without being hyper-violent — or leaning into the agreeable cheesiness of some live-action Ultraman pictures — Ultraman: Rising is pleasing to the eye with its evocative lighting and dynamic colour contrasts. The computer animation is unfussy, the action set pieces are energetic without feeling frenetic, and the film often pauses to savour the towering Ultraman with his glowing eyes. And although the dialogue too often settles for sarcastic one-liners and on-the-nose exposition — an obvious indication that the film is geared toward younger viewers — Tindle elicits touching voice performances. Ken’s journey toward selflessness is ably navigated by Sean, and Young brings to life the bloodthirsty Onda, who has secrets that partly explain his warmongering ways.

It’s cheering that Ultraman: Rising is ultimately a paean to coexistence. No matter the amount of fight scenes, the film argues that humans and kaiju — not to mention humans with different worldviews — must learn to live together, and the sincerity of that message gives the story its heart. An obligatory end-credits teaser hints at possible sequels, although this sweet but somewhat slight film may not be robust enough to excite viewers about the potential of future instalments. But then again, Ultraman: Rising does make a strong case that it is unwise to underestimate others — you never know when a spoiled ballplayer or a baby kaiju might surprise you with what they are capable of. 

Production company: Tsuburaya Productions, Netflix

Worldwide distribution: Netflix

Producers: Tom Knott, Lisa M. Poole

Co-director: John Aoshima

Screenplay: Shannon Tindle & Marc Haimes, based on the Ultraman franchise from Tsuburaya

Production design: Marcos Mateu-Mestre

Editing: Bret Marnell

Music: Scot Stafford

Main voice cast: Christopher Sean, Gedde Watanabe, Tamlyn Tomita, Keone Young, Julia Harriman