Early in the dazzling anime feature Madoka Magica, the first of a trilogy based on a popular Japanese TV series, bubbly schoolgirl Madoka Kaname encounters mysterious transfer student Homura Akemi in eighth-grade homeroom, a setting all too phantasmagoric in the most normal of times. We follow the teen heroines through a subconscious-tweaking otherworld of witch hunts, self-sacrifice, cosmic duty, and moral quandaries. The ominous Homura embodies the film's secret heart and demands of Madoka, "Do you treasure the life you currently live?" Just like that, the film lays out the existential quandary faced by Alice, Dorothy, and countless other adolescent heroines. The story's baroque but absorbing twists take this epic into startling new territory, though. Are our fondest wishes dangerous to our loved ones, as well as our undoing? If you have an extraordinary talent, is it ever a terrible, even selfish, impulse to use it? Several knowing winks brighten the dialogue—one girl jokingly accuses another of "acting like an anime character"—and the storytelling, if maybe a little heavy on exposition, achieves a melancholy worthy of Pinocchio. There's sumptuous production design, in particular several elevated perspectives of urban landscapes and large-scale architecture, curiously crowd-free, against which the girls and spirits battle. Sarah Fisch
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