"Even if it is that big, a moth's still a moth. How can it defeat such a terrible monster?"
"It's just an insect, but don't write it off."
1996's Rebirth of Mothra is a very hit-and-miss revamp of the one Toho series to rival Godzilla's international popularity. The first half hour is close to unwatchable, starting out as an ugly maggot of a film aimed at the smallest of children before transforming with the very welcome arrival of King Ghidorah to banish the human players to the sidelines for what must be the most prolonged monster battle in any Toho film. But to get there you have to put up with the Elias, the two tiny singing fairy girls on their mini-Mothra, trying to stop their evil sister Elvira from tormenting a couple of children as part of her plan to revive Ghidorah. This mainly involves extremely bad special effects of her flying on her miniature robot dragon and destroying their furniture while everyone screams a lot, although that could just be the sound of the studio's old special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya bewailing the drop in quality since his day. Even the obligatory Mothra song is given the kind of cheap music video graphics you thought went out in the 80s.
Just when you're more than ready to hit the eject button, the three-headed Ghidorah makes his entrance in an impressively fiery rebirth in the middle of a volcano before making short work of the ageing Mothra, and the filmmaking and effects suddenly take a drastic turn for the very much better. While Mothra always had a limited arsenal, the battle here is surprisingly well choreographed and vicious, with some striking imagery, not least the scene of the giant moth sinking below the waves before being reborn. Unfortunately the new design isn't as attractive, though it has a new trick or two added to its arsenal, most spectacularly the ability to turn itself into hundreds of tiny moths. Thankfully the irritating humans are almost completely sidelined for the last two thirds of the film, which adds to the impression that the opening was just dumb padding but does allow you to see more colourful monster mash-ups with only sporadic moments of the humans running away in the ensuing devastation. There are still some silly moments - not least the appearance of one supporting character in a wheelchair in an incinerated forest - but it's worth it for the prolonged finale.
Rebirth of Mothra II is never as bad as the first half hour of its predecessor but never as good as the prolonged monster mash in the last two thirds, and not just because it has a weaker monster. Dagahra is a sea monster created by an advanced ancient civilisation that sunk into the sea and was intended to eat the pollution in the oceans, but freed from the ocean surface it spawns hordes of toxic starfish, or rather Star of Davidfish, before heading to dry land for the traditional rampage. It's up to a little girl and two mischievous schoolboys to save the day with the help of Ghogo, which is pretty much a Furby with an antennae and urine that can heal serious injuries, and the Elias, the two tiny singing fairy girls. Together they go in search of a fabled treasure in a sunken city that will save the world, pursued by their evil sister Elvira (who just disappears from the last few reels without explanation) and a couple of bumbling slackers who've probably seen Home Alone too many times to a nicely designed pyramid that's part Mayan, part Death Star which rises from the sea. And, wouldn't you know it, they find that they've been carrying the greatest treasure along with them all the time. Which rather makes their trip a bit of a waste of time if you think about it, but since this is aimed firmly at little kids you're not expected to do any thinking.
While the humans are more firmly integrated into the plot this time, unfortunately they don't do much when they get to the pyramid and Mothra and Dagahra's occasionally intercut running battle isn't that interesting either. Despite sounding like a distant relative of Godzilla's hilarious smog-eating sparring partner Hedorah, Dagahra is not the most interesting of monsters, and Mothra's limited bag of tricks doesn't help. As if aware of the flying moth's limitations it is given the power to transform into AquaMothra, which looks like one of those plastic toy birds with flapping wings but at least allows it to carry out the final battle of Space Invaders inside Dagahra's stomach, which is at least a novelty. The effects are hugely variable, some impressively old school, some amateurish in a bad children's TV or video way, though it is interesting to see the traditional man-in-suit monster integrated into a real cityscape in some shots. It's the kind of film you safely let the kids watch, but the nearer they get to puberty the less they'll find to enjoy in it.
Columbia TriStar's Region 1 NTSC DVD offers both films in widescreen transfers on alternate sides of the same disc, but only in dubbed English versions with no extras. The third film in the trilogy remains unreleased in an English-friendly version, though neither of these exactly leaves you champing at the bit for its release. More two-and-a-half stars than three.