This review contains spoilers.
I've mentioned before that if you don't want to slog through 26-50 episodes of a TV series, watch the movie version. Well, here you can watch the movie first, get an idea of the show, and if you enjoyed it, watch the TV series and OVA. Why? The prologue leading up to the title frame is an excellent primer to the franchise. There was something similar in the first episode of the show, but on a much smaller budget. The prologue in the film takes place (probably) between the two seasons of the show, featuring the cool and yet ahistorical alliance between the Allies and Germany, er, Karlsland. After showing the joint armies and navies getting shredded by the Neuroi, a fantastic introductory sequence describing the "history" of the world and culminating in a typical battle with the "counterattack" theme soaring in the background... This is Strike Witches.
Well, all right, that's not the be-all and end-all of the show. Strike Witches is a "mecha-musume" show, sure, but it's mainly a fantasy character drama loosely based on 20th century history. Yoshika Miyafuji reprises her role as a young woman from Yokosuka called upon to save Europe, but there's this teensy little problem: she lost her Witch powers.
I kinda like the solution the production came up with: Shizuka, a straight-laced, by-the-book "soldier" Witch who knows the military regs backwards and forwards, and of course idolizes Yoshika, thinking she's this soldier hero. I suppose the New Girl (TM) here is an archetype of the "history nerds" in the audience. Like the other two "proper" soldiers in season 1 (Perinne and Gertrud), Shizuka is dismayed when Yoshika repeatedly and incorrigibly flaunts military protocol, and because of the idol worship angle, she is understandably crushed when Yoshika defies a direct order from a commanding officer. It's a simple conflict, it's been done before, but it was done very well and really rounded out Shizuka as a foil to Yoshika.
Meanwhile, the European Witches (plus Charlotte), while scattered throughout different airbases, have been busy. There's a new Neuroi on the loose, and not only is it one helluva dogfighter, it seems to slip past reconnaisance patrols. While still not as interesting as the Neuroi "Witch" from season 1, I thought that it was a good way to show how far the 501st have come as a family of sorts and as a fighting force. At the same time, I thought the new Neuroi superpower was a clever one; World War II was a time when militaries rapidly advanced and depended upon technology, and what better way to throw a wrench into a mechanized army than to jam their radios?
There's one bone I do have to pick with the show, and that's Eila and Sanya's scene. At first I thought it was a cute little interlude involving the two Witches that tended to be background characters from the beginning. A few years later and having watched Brave Witches, I now realize that the primary reason for that scene was to introduce the 502nd JFW visually and set the stage for their spinoff series. I think Eila/Sanya could've been better utilized here (I've never seen/heard a particularly good reason for moving them to the 502nd temporarily, they weren't involved in the major battle of that theater), and it made the impression upon me that the 502nd rides the 501st's coattails rather than standing upon their own strengths. I realize that's not entirely fair-- if the actresses of Brave Witches were cast at that point and each of them had a speaking line, it would've made the spinoff a bit more approachable for me; however, I doubt that anyone other than Nipa and Sasha were cast when the film's dialogue was recorded-- that panning shot of (most of) the rest of the 502nd was probably a polished character design sketch at this point. I don't know, that scene felt like the entire Brave Witches series: so much potential, and yet an opportunity missed.
The way Yoshika was brought back to the 501st is sappy, overly dramatic, predictably cliche, and yet oddly satisfying-- any fan of the series would've wanted her back in the sky even if it meant breaking a few laws of physics and norms of reality. The reason Mio gave probably should've been sent back for a rewrite, though. The final fight scene is solely to set up the 501st flying in formation to the tune of their fanfare music.
Other highlights and wrap up:
- A decent nod to the real Battle of the Bulge; I thought tossing in General Eisenhower was a cool touch. Too bad MacArthur, Halsey, or Yamamoto will likely never be seen in this franchise. Patton might make an appearance if they keep this up. Montgomery... who cares, he's a jerk.
- As always, a solid character drama, though it did feel like a really long episode of the TV show rather than a proper motion picture.
- Perinne has to be the best-developed character by the time of the film. In the beginning she was one-dimensional yuri fodder, always picking fights with Yoshika-- it was, frankly, a waste of Miyukichi's talents. In the film her character has embraced everything that infuriated her in the TV series, down to the medicinal herbs she was disappointed to find; instead of someone desperately trying to find peace around her, she has realized peace within herself. In the end, she's still a Mio fangirl, so that's funny too.
- The soundtrack got an orchestral makeover (like Girls und Panzer a couple of years later). The new tracks are... all right. The memorable tracks from the TV show are positioned perfectly.