Although I’ve never really played any of the Halo video games, I’m a fan by proxy. I love the aesthetics of both the UNSC and the Covenant, the terrifying menace of the Flood, the inspiring soundtrack, the unique naming conventions, and the spirit of humans fighting against the odds.
So naturally I jumped for joy when I learned about Halo Legends, a series of short animated films from 343 Industries, a subsidiary of Microsoft that oversees the development of the Halo franchise. All the films were animated by different Japanese studio, all of whom gave the films quality like you wouldn’t believe.
So here now is a quick summary of each film (with the animation studio behind each installment) and the impact it left on me. I won’t discuss the animation of each film, but overall, I will say I wasn’t dissatisfied with any of the different styles. They’re half the reason for watching Legends and I just want to touch on the plot of the films themselves.
“The Babysitter” (Studio 40C)
The film details a covert operation by the UNSC, as an ODST squad is dropped onto a Covenant-held planet with the assignment of assassinating the Prophet in charge. However, things don’t sit well with Private O’Brien, who’s unhappy to learn that he’s been replaced as the sniper carrying out the hit on the Prophet–a job that’s instead given to Cal-141, one of the legendary SPARTAN-II soldiers. But the mission is rife with danger and O’Brien must work with his squad mates, including the newly-added SPARTAN, to survive, let alone succeed.
For the most part I enjoyed this film and I knew how things were going to go out, but the only thing I didn’t care for was O’Brien himself. For someone in an elite unit like the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, O’Brien seems to be exceptionally whiny and self-centered. Of course I knew that he was only that way so that he could finally be made to see how Cal-141 is human after all and that it all comes down to him putting aside pride and doing his duty. But knowing that didn’t make me like his character any better.
“The Duel” (Production I.G)
Within the Covenant, a dispute breaks out between an Arbiter and the Hierarchs over the truth behind the “Great Journey” esteemed by their religion. The Prophets are determined to silence him, but since he slays their minions with ease, they devise a new tactic: to strike at his beloved wife and force him into a duel of honor against his rival. However, before that happens, we’re treated to great battle sequences as one lone Sangheili goes up against hundreds of Jackals, Grunts, and Brutes with swordplay and martial arts that can only be described as “legendary.”
There are two things I enjoyed about this film. The first is that it’s a great piece of xenofiction, giving us a story entirely from the perspective of non-humans and without any human characters, yet managing to still be a good story. And the second part I loved is the tone of the story. Despite the laser swords, energy beams, and holograms, it feels like your classic tale of fighting for honor. Every scene is rich, both visually and thematically, making it powerful overall.
“The Package” (Casio Entertainment)
A team of Spartans are sent out on a covert mission to retrieve an invaluable package for the UNSC from within the heart of the Covenant’s Third Fleet of Glorious Consequence. Led by John-117 himself, the team has to pass through lethal decoys, a battery of deep-space laser blasts, and an endless swarm of enemy soldiers before they can reach the target and escape. Lives are risked (and sometimes lost), and in the end, the package proves to be none other than Catherine Halsey, a key scientist from the SPARTAN-II Program.
The only thing I have to nitpick at is the dialogue. There’s nothing really that new or interesting about it. Just typical action-adventure-rescue cliches. That said, the rest of the film is a beautiful CG animation, featuring over-the-top space battles and epic charges through enemy legions. I have found it great that the animators found a way to occasionally insert elements of gameplay into the flow of the action, such as the perspective from inside Master Chief’s helmet and the ammo count on the back of the assault rifle.
“Origins” (Studio 40C)
After the events of Halo 3, Cortana goes into an extended narration as she watches over John-117 inside his cyrotube. With her narration providing context, we see scenes of how the Flood arose and the ancient civilization of the Forerunners fell through an act of self-sacrifice, activating the Halos to wipe out sentient life throughout the universe. In the second half of the story, Cortana talks about the advancement of human history and its endless cycles of war and progress, which culminated in extensive space travel, new civil wars, and the chance to rally against the Covenant as a common enemy.
In the Forerunner section, I was floored. It’s really quite something to watch a literal flood of alien parasites and predators go up against Forerunners, whose technology and abilities are beyond comprehension but all look extremely cool. In the human race section, it was nice to get an overview of humanity’s best and worst moments as seen from the perspective of an AI who’s lived through war. At times it can seem a little preachy, but she really does hit home on the value of war that’s inherent to our nature and what it means to be a warrior.
“Homecoming” (Bee Train and Production I.G)
We follow the life of a SPARTAN-II soldier named Daisy-023 through two storylines, past and present. In the present, she’s leading a group of marines through a firefight on the planet Harvest, being pinned down by Covenant forces. However, inter-cut with their attempts to reach the extraction point is a series of flashbacks to Daisy’s life in the SPARTAN-II program. We see that she and a group of other trainees attempted to flee their would-be trainers and captors, trying to return to the families and worlds they had been abducted from. However, as Daisy learns, each child that was abducted for a SPARTAN training has been replaced with an identical flash-clone–one guaranteed to grow sick and die young, with no way of knowing that it’s not the original person. This truth stuns Daisy, leaving her with no choice but to return to her training, even though she will die years later on Harvest, trying to save her squad.
Daisy is an interesting character, being someone who was trained to be one of the most elite soldiers in existence and yet who has moments of sensitivity and doubt even in the midst of combat. Her past is tragic, especially given the fact that it serves to illustrate what all trainees in the SPARTAN-II Program must go through (and considering that she was lucky enough not to commit suicide upon finding her flash-clone, as one character near the end mentions). Not only do the flashbacks raise some interesting questions about the ethics of the program, but also a philosophical mention or two–such as, if Daisy had never been taken, would the marines on Harvest years later have had any chance of survival at all?
“Prototype” (Studio Bones)
A veteran soldier code-named Ghost has to atone for his failure in the past: his detachment with the men and women of his platoon, which got them all killed, leaving him alive and alone. In particular, it was the final words of one squad mate asking him to “Be human” that haunts him the most. Years later, Ghost is in charge of another unit, one guarding a UNSC weapons research facility with a special prototype under development. The Covenant discovers and attacks the facility, leaving the marines pinned down as they try to cover the evacuation. Ghost, however, decides to throw caution to the wind, and rather than let the engineers destroy the prototype, he takes it out into the middle of the battle for a last stand against the enemy–as well as his last chance at being human.
Thus far in the series of films, “Prototype” seems remarkably Japanese in style. It has large-eyed girls who espouse idealism and sensitivity between human beings. It has a giant mecha–the titular prototype–piloted by Ghost against a host of alien warriors. And it has that fairly common character archetype of the once-embittered man seeking atonement, even if it comes through fiery death. But beyond all that, there’s plenty of kick-ass action between Ghost’s mecha and the Covenant, and Ghost himself is an interesting protagonist, even if he seems a little hard to connect with at first.
“Odd One Out” (Toei Animation)
In a departure from the more serious stories, we get a purely comedic tale of the hapless SPARTAN 1337, who acts as if he were a hero like Master Chief, but obviously isn’t. After falling out of a Pelican and missing the rendezvous point, 1337 encounters a group of well-spoken prehistoric-looking kids–and their pet T-Rex. But trouble comes in the form of a massive ape creature bred by the Covenant to be the ultimate weapon, one made to hate Master Chief and all SPARTANs. Naturally this draws 1337 into the monster’s path, although the challenge is far more daunting than he’s willing to admit. It takes the help of an older brother and sister from the locals–and their “Mama”–to defeat the monster and get 1337 back to the rendezvous.
If not for the fact that it’s obviously set in the Halo universe, this film could easily be mistaken for another Toei Animation work: Dragon Ball Z. It’s all there: the energy blasts, the aura crackles, the idiot hero, the T-Rex, and the exploding mountains. But even so, the story is pretty good and the humor is fairly strong, although it took me a few moments to get the hang of its style (especially since I haven’t watched all that much of Dragon Ball or any other Toei series). I also have to give credit to the writers for giving the main character the designation “1337,” a shout-out to the dialect leetspeak.
Final Verdict: Animated Excellence
I know I said at the beginning that I wouldn’t get too deep into the animation for each film, and I’ve tried not to comment too much on it. It’s because each film’s animation is unique, but it also has to do with the fact that these films just have to be seen to be believed. The stories could not be as strong as they are if not for the way they’re styled, whether it’s giant mecha vs. aliens on a rubble-strewn battlefield or a tender moment between a Sangheili husband and wife.
Bibliography: Halo Legends. Directed by Frank O’Connor and Joseph Chau. Produced by Bonnie Ross and John Ledford. Distributed by 343 Industries, Warner Bros. Pictures, Studio 40C, Production I.G., Bee Train, Studio Bones, Casio Entertainment, and Toei Animation. February 16, 2010.