Deck Heads

The card game Yu-Gi-Oh! becomes a wild and crazy movie

Most boys seem to tumble down the assembly line with their main switch factory-preset to Aggression. Toys are for throwing, army men are for melting, and eventually grown males consider punching each other senseless, hurling deadly bombs or surreptitiously undermining one another to be completely reasonable forms of discourse. But prior to adulthood, during those few special years in between being imaginatively aggressive and becoming a bellicose imbecile, there's a brief spell involving both. This is the ideal window for appreciating Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie.

For those who prefer their unfathomable violence on CNN, here's the corporate backstory: Yu-Gi-Oh! is a battle-oriented card game for youths, somewhat like Magic: The Gathering (but less groovy) or the spinning-top game Beyblade (but with cooler creatures). Created by Kazuki Takahashi in 1996, the franchise began as a comic book but now enjoys global success as the game, a television series, video games, gaming conventions and slipper socks.

Our hero is Yugi (voiced by Dan Green), a "little high school pipsqueak" with big purple eyes and improbable hair more or less like something you'd have seen at a Siouxsie and the Banshees show circa '81. Because Yugi is small, he must compensate, and thus he's addicted to gaming with battle cards, particularly against his snide, grouchy rival Seito Kaiba (Eric Stuart). Apparently Yugi blasted Kaiba in the Battle City Finals during series two and three on television and in the process claimed a mysterious pyramidal doohickey called the Millennium Puzzle. Inside this thing lives Yugi's alter ego, the Pharaoh, an ancient Egyptian dude with a booming voice who basically plays Yugi's battle games for him. In fact, armed with three nearly invulnerable "Egyptian God Cards," summoning Obelisk the Tormentor and a couple of really mean-assed dragons, Yugi needs only to shout, "Yu-Gi-Oh!" (or "King of Games!") and he cannot be beaten.

Well, almost. This time, thanks to an extra-weird turn of events fact-checked by actual Egyptologist Nicole Douek, there's a terrifying force breaking free from deep within the catacombs beneath Cairo. His name is Anubis (Scottie Ray), the dog-headed god of death, and he's really angry that, in today's Hollywood, the Pharaoh gets to be the good guy while his nappy sarcophagus has been wrapped in chains for 5,000 years. The target of his rage: Yugi.

The creators of the series have done a remarkable job of keeping their movie entertaining -- for belligerent boys, yes, but even for adults who are not on drugs. The designs are sleek (that anime utopia-meets-megamall look), the effects are (literally) smashing, and the dialogue proves surprisingly amusing. Three random samples:

"Please, sir, we're close to postulating a winning stratagem!" (from a mullet-headed technician).

"You may have destroyed my Dark Clown, but you forgot about my Deck Virus trap card!" (from Kaiba during one of many battles, which effectively function as lengthy animated rulebooks for game play).

And perhaps best of all: "That's it -- no more white-wine spritzers before bedtime for me!"

That last line is uttered by Pegasus, a delightfully fey eccentric with gray curtains of hair who abides in a palatial wonderland after having created the battle-card game and thus profited enormously from it. Kaiba jets over what appears to be Bavaria in a metal ship shaped like a dragon to battle Pegasus and returns with vastly improved odds of finally defeating Yugi. This would be a bad thing, since Yugi is also the Pharaoh, who is the only force strong enough to stop Anubis (who literally calls everyone "foolish mortals") and his extremely annoying mummies from casting the whole world into darkness, or something.

Supporting characters prove amusing. Yugi's purple-eyed grandfather bustles about, stating what's blatantly obvious, while some girl named Tea (Amy Birnbaum) in a flapping microskirt keeps the lads wondering if those legs go all the way up. Meanwhile, Yugi's cohorts Joey and Tristan (Wayne Grayson and John Campbell) run around getting into trouble, their geometrically stunning hair and "Mook" accents providing the sort of giggles that would prove embarrassing if the kids' giggles weren't drowning them out.

The battles are pretty intense, though, as far as animated skirmishes go. The creatures fracture and fry each other, little harlequin hotties in go-go boots get sent "to the graveyard," and those nefarious tentacles from hardcore anime even appear, although, mercifully, they don't rape anybody. The worst you can expect is a killer headache from trying to make sense of the umpteenth ultimate-ultimate shining dragon reborn from beyond ultimate-ultimate eternity, or whatever.

Yes, Yu-Gi-Oh! is a weird ride, but it's also a very energetic and creative one, and parents who take their kids are unlikely to be bored and may even have their own imaginations reawakened by the sheer anything-goesness at hand. What remains to be seen is if -- as aggression continues to go co-ed -- this stuff cultivates crossover appeal for the little boys' increasingly pugnacious sisters. Now that is a Millennium Puzzle.