Five kids at a summer camp in rural Japan go searching for their missing pet rabbit and happen upon an injured dog. Klutzy daydreamer Natsuki (voiced by Tomoyo Kurosawa), her bright kid sister Amane (Honoka Ikezuki), dilligent Kyoshi (Shotaro Uzawa), bookish Koji (Takuto Yoshinaga) and dainty Noriko (Tamaki Matsumoto) nurse the pooch back to health, but are dumbstruck when it promptly thanks them in fluent English! It turns out Pochi (Keiji Fujiwara) is no ordinary dog. He is an alien botanist from Planet Bow on a mission to Earth to uncover an life-saving energy source called Zughaan. As a reward for their kindness, Pochi carries the children inside an anti-gravity bubble on an intergalactic journey to an alien colony on the moon. Unfortunately, in the midst of their sight-seeing tour, the Space Federation pass a law banning all passage between alien worlds and Earth. The children band together to try to find a way home, whilst eluding evil alien gangsters searching for Zughaan. For it turns out Natsuki knows more about this elusive elixir than she realises...
Hugely imaginative, this delightful anime adventure should beguile sci-fi fans of all ages. Of course, long-time devotees of Japanese animation may well find Welcome to the Space Show multiply derivative. Its rural starting point and key subplot concerning friction between two sisters evokes Hayao Miyazaki's masterly My Neighbour Totoro (1988), the midsection shares themes about children taking on adult responsibilities in common with Spirited Away (2001), while the later shift towards grandiose space opera mimics the interstellar sagas of Leiji Matsumoto, particularly Galaxy Express 999 (1979) as the kids ride aboard a space train in the form of an enormous bio-mechanical dragon. Even its benign, child-friendly vision of the galaxy as one big candy-coloured shopping arcade has precedent within such bubble economy fantasies as Creamy Mami (1983) and Superdimensional Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984).
Still, if you are going to steal, then you might as well steal from the best, plus Welcome to the Space Show exhibits a disarming knack for recycling familiar motifs into something invigorating and new. If its ambition occasionally overreaches, then that is no big crime in an age when family entertainment too often aims for the lowest common denominator. Kicking off with a riotous opening action scene handled by Masaaki Yuasa, director of the equally mind-boggling Mind Game (2004), the writer-director team of Koji Masunari and Hideyuki Kurata cram all kinds of crazy concepts and outlandish ideas into the lavish two hours plus running time. In the grand tradition of all-encompassing anime like Marine Express (1979) and Phoenix 2772 (1980) along with live action films that practice a similar ten-films-rolled-into one method, e.g. A Touch of Zen (1971), Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and A Chinese Tall Story (2005), the story does not progress so much as evolve, allowing its child heroes greater understanding of the universe at large. A space fantasia spun off from the kind of elementary school essay kids often write about what they did on their summer holidays.
The beginning is deceptively genteel, offset by moments of laugh-out-loud humour. Masunari and Kurata outfit their child heroes with vivid, likeable personalities and forego the kind of convoluted back-stories common in lesser family fare. The conflict between Natsuki and little Amane rings psychologically true. While the younger sibling initially resents what she sees has her elder's patronising new attitude, she comes to realise Natsuki is simply worried her much smarter little sister no longer needs her. Meanwhile, Pochi proves an intriguingly complex character. In a manner somewhat akin to the children's novels of Edith Nesbitt, e.g. Five Children and It, his well-meaning schemes frequently land the kids in worse trouble. Pochi proves to have far more personal problems than his young friends, being estranged from his family and former flame and hopelessly in debt to some unsavoury characters. Splendidly voiced by Keiji Fujiwara as a suave ladies man (he even hits on little Amane!), the space dog is a gambler and chancer, but also a genuinely dedicated scientist and borderline superhero who occasionally morphs into a glowing orange space ninja to battle alien fiends. Much to the delight of Natsuki, whose aspirations to become a real-life superhero someday provide an amusing subplot.
Once the children jet off into outer space, gorgeous animation presents the wonders of the universe on a truly grandiose scale. Stars, planets and fabulous alien cities prove as spectacular as anything George Lucas and the boys at ILM could imagine, populated by a dazzling array of eye-catchingly eccentric alien beings, both enormous and small. Whilst a super-computer analyzes Amane - eventually concluding the seven year old is an exceptionally enlightened being - the older kids marvel at space shopping malls stocked with amazing alien candy and toy stores full of incredible stuff. Most awe-inspiring of all is the titular "Space Show", a pirate broadcast from an unknown planet that beguiles the galactic populace with wildly psychedelic holograms hosted by a sexy canine chanteuse named Marie (Rei Igarashi), who happens to be Pochi's ex-girlfriend, and orchestrated by blob-like crimelord Neppo (Ryusei Nakao), who of course craves possession of the all-important Zughaan.
Drawing upon Alexandre Dumas' famous maxim from The Three Musketeers: "All for one and one for all", which appears on a banner adorning the children's classroom, the story conveys a very Japanese message of togetherness. Every character contributes something positive to the ensuing adventure as, to get themselves out of their predicament, all the kids get jobs. Natsuki becomes a sky-surfing courier. Amane helps out at a daycare centre (run by a giant cat) caring for alien babies twice her size (the most troublesome infant resembles a baby Godzilla in diapers!). Kyoshi and Noriko become office assistants, while Koji goes to a scrapyard where he is soon smitten with an adorable squid-girl named Ink (Mayu Iino) who boasts a pink prehensile hairdo and shares his love of books. Other helpful alien acquaintances who prove crucial to the plot include Goba (Banjou Ginga), a jolly giant purple groundhog who follows the Space Show on tour like the Grateful Dead, and the exotically named Tony (Nobuo Tobita) a translucent orange being with a fishbowl for a head, complete with tadpole swimming inside.
Everything changes when Natsuki inadvertently discovers the much sought after Zughaan is nothing more than common, everyday, wasabi! Which she happens to have in abundance on her wasabi crackers. A journey to planet Bow - where everyone looks like a dog and the setting resembles one of those Richard Scary books - brings the kids into contact with Pochi's kindly mum and dad, who happens to be a doctor treating exotic alien diseases. Life on planet Bow is like a week on a farm. The kids do chores, herd cattle and grow in maturity through learning to live in harmony with nature. Until Amane is kidnapped by a space tractor beam by the dastardly Neppo. Hitherto almost leisurely, the film suddenly erupts into slam-bang space opera action as Amane becomes the Space Show's star attraction, presented like Fay Wray in King Kong, as a sacrifice to the monstrous Behemoth. Events grow increasingly, frankly exhilaratingly bonkers as the children find the fate of the whole universe at stake involving an anti-gravity chase through a city of lights, the return of a lost planet called Pet Star, a mad scheme to create the perfect lifeform, and an evil ancient super-robot with a weird interest in Amane and her long-lost pet bunny. Natsuki gets to to be the karate-kicking superheroine she always wanted to be, including a sweetly amusing moment where she delights in her own hopeless catchphrase: "Don't ruin my summer vacation!" Equally funny is prissy little Noriko's moment of joy when she gets to punch out a significant villain ("I'm strong too!") and the ranting super-villain's sheer bewilderment that the two heroines are so caught up in their own tearful reconciliation they ignore his cosmic revelations.
As a narrative its simulatenously insane and inspired and likely enchant any elementary school kid with a head full of sci-fi dreams or those who remember what it was like to be one. Music by Yoshihiro Ike with the closing theme performed by Susan Boyle. Yes, that Susan Boyle.