Category Archives: Animated Films

The Incredibles is the Best Super Hero Movie Franchise

Well, after fourteen years of waiting, Pixar’s The Incredibles FINALLY has a sequel, and a damn good one at that. Incredibles 2 has already broken box office records, and is on track to break several more. It couldn’t be more deserved, because not only was The Incredibles one of Pixar’s greatest achievements, but (if you ask me) the best super hero film of all time. And now, Incredibles 2 can also claim to be among Pixar’s best, as well as one of the best movie sequels ever (dare I say it has surpassed Toy Story 2 as Pixar’s best sequel?), and with its release, The Incredibles can now claim to be the greatest super hero movie franchise of all time.

I know what you’re thinking, “but what about the Marvel Cinematic Universe?” Well, it’s true that the decade-strong mega-franchise now boasts 19 films (with the 20th soon to hit theaters) that branch through several different tones and styles, which is no small feat. And the fact that Marvel has managed to pull off this complicated crossover is an achievement unto itself.

While I may enjoy most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the Iron Man sequels kinda sucked), I have to admit, even the ones I like begin to blur together. Yes, it seems no matter how different their heroes’ powers are, or whether their plots are more serious or comical, they all ultimately get lost in the shuffle. Again, that’s not to say that I dislike the MCU – far from it – but I find it hard to say I “love” most of the movies within it. I may acknowledge them as being good movies, and that they do what they do really well, but for the most part, the MCU as a whole is what feels like a big deal, as opposed to the individual films within it. The first Avengers movie was something special in that it brought the various Marvel heroes together, and the first Guardians of the Galaxy, along with the Captain America sequels were very well done. But even they kind of blur with the rest of the franchise.

It may be telling that the movie based on a Marvel comic that I still hold in the highest regard is Spider-Man 2 (2004), a film that predated the MCU by a full four years, because it felt like something special in itself. It was a vast improvement over its predecessor, and took the genre to new heights with added character depth and emotional storytelling (shame about that Spider-Man 3…). But the MCU, no matter how fun it gets, almost exclusively feels like it’s always giving a wink as to what’s ahead, instead of producing timeless classics in their own right.

The Incredibles, by contrast, always felt exceptional. Perfecting – and yet, defying – both its status as a super hero film and a mainstream animated feature, The Incredibles was built on layers of narrative depth and themes, and told its story in such a smart way that it was perfectly relatable and entertaining for both kids and adults. In short, it was quite possibly the perfect family film. Even in Pixar’s practically peerless pantheon, The Incredibles was (and is) a standout.

Fourteen years later, and The Incredibles finally has a sequel, one that’s so good that, if it doesn’t match the sheer excellence of the original, it comes damn close enough to not make it an issue. It is every bit the fitting continuation we could have hoped it would be. It feels special, without having to hype up some impending crossover with a dozen other movies in order to do so. It’s sharp script, impeccable set pieces, and strong character depth give it an identity that stands well above most super hero fair.

But things don’t end there, as I would argue that, despite being “kids movies” both Incredibles films are much more intelligent in both structure and thematics than what their live-action contemporaries offer, with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight being the only super hero film that can stack up against them in those regards (though it still falls short).

There’s a humanity to the Incredibles films – both of their depictions of every day life and conversation, and in their philosophies – that the Marvel films simply lack. Even The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2 don’t quite share that human quality that either of the Incredibles movies boast. They at once deliver big, blockbuster entertainment, family comedy and drama, and a sense of cinematic auteurism that make them feel like works of art that stand above anything produced by other super hero franchises.

Now, that’s not to say that I need every super hero movie to be a masterwork. That’s a tall order to fill for a film of any genre. But my point is that, although the MCU films have been mostly solid fun, their lack of producing any such film has prevented them from feeling distinct from one another. Yes, the Marvel movies are entertaining, but The Incredibles films – like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight – take the super hero genre to greater artistic heights, and do so better than the aforementioned films. So while the Marvel Cinematic Universe may keep cranking out hit after hit, in the end, they all just end up feeling like “another” Marvel movie. Very entertaining movies, mind you, but I’d be lying if I said the MCU films linger in my memory in the way that The Incredibles films do.

The Incredibles has provided a one-two punch, producing two of Pixar’s very best films. And that extensive (and painful) wait between the two has only made them feel that much more special. As fun as they are, all twenty MCU films don’t stack up to being as meaningful as just two Incredibles.

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Meet The Robinsons Review

Walt Disney Animation Studios may be the world’s most famous producer of animated features, but their history is one of peaks and plateaus. Though the post-Walt/pre-Renaissance era was their darkest age, Walt Disney Animation Studios entered another dry spell during the 2000s, which bridged the aforementioned Disney Renaissance of the 1990s and their modern resurgence of the 2010s that continues to this day. Outside of Lilo & Stitch, the Disney films of this period either had no staying power, or were downright terrible. Meet the Robinsons, Disney’s 2007 animated feature, can at least claim to fall under the former category. It was certainly a marked step-up from Disney’s previous animated feature (2005’s Chicken Little, more than likely Disney Animation’s all-time low point), and feels like a genuine effort on the studio’s part. Unfortunately, even with its charms, Meet the Robinsons falls well below what the studio is capable of.

Meet the Robinsons follows the story of an orphaned boy named Lewis (Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry), a boy genius and would-be inventor hoping to find a family. He manages to invent a ‘memory scanner,’ which can uncover lost memories, in hopes of finding his birth mother. He brings the machine to his school’s science fair, and that’s where things get complicated.

A teenage boy named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), who claims to be from the future, shows up to the fair to warn Lewis that a man in a bowler hat – aptly labelled the ‘Bowler Hat Guy’ (Steve Anderson, the film’s director) – has stolen a time machine and is running amok in Lewis’ time. Unbeknownst to Lewis, Bowler Hat Guy has sabotaged his machine, which then wreaks havoc at the fair.

Losing confidence at yet another failed invention (one that could help him find his family, no less), Lewis becomes frustrated and decides to give up inventing. Wilbur returns to cheer Lewis up and to encourage him to continue his inventing. But a disheartened Lewis wants to hear none of it, and doesn’t buy that Wilbur is from the future. To prove himself, Wilbur takes Lewis to his future home via his time machine (one of two built by his father), where he introduces Lewis to his expansive and often bizarre family (while hiding the fact that Lewis is from the past). All the while, they try to find a way to recover the other, stolen time machine to prevent the Bowler Hat Guy from messing with the space-time continuum.

It’s a pretty wacky plot, and like any film that deals with time travel and isn’t Back to the Future, there are certain elements that really don’t make much sense when you think about them (in Back to the Future, the characters’ presence in the past altered historical events, while in every other movie, it seems the tampering with history somehow results in the creation of the events of their original timeline, which wouldn’t make sense unless they had been altered before, but differently). But Meet the Robinsons doesn’t take its time travel element as seriously as a lot of other movies, so I suppose the fact that things don’t always add up doesn’t matter too much in the greater context of the story.

The sad thing about Meet the Robinsons is that it actually feels like Disney made a solid effort to try to get things back on track after years of misfires (which is a big step up from Chicken Little, where I can’t imagine what the filmmakers were thinking). So it is a shame that Meet the Robinsons ultimately comes off as disappointing.

Though the plot can be fun and heartwarming, it just takes too long to get going, with a first act that feels like it came off a conveyor belt. And not all of the humor hits the mark (one member of the Robinson family is married to his hand puppet, which elicits more questions about his mental health than it does laughs).

Meet the Robinsons can also be kind of weird at times, which on one hand feels a little ahead of its time (just look at the surreal animated series that aired on TV a few years later, like Adventure Time or Regular Show), but in execution it stumbles, and feels more like the filmmakers were acting out of desperation to get a few extra laughs out of audiences. The Robinsons have an octopus monster for a butler, they have singing frogs as pets; and two members of the family live like potted plants at the family’s front door, each insisting guests ring the doorbell on their side of the door. I’m all for weird, especially in animation, which feels right at home with the surreal and strange. But again, Meet the Robinsons weirdness feels more thrown together – perhaps to make up for a lack of comedy in the writing – than it does imaginative.

The animation itself also seems uninspired. Though it’s not ugly, the character designs and animation are far from impressive. Usually, Disney movies – at the very least – stand out visually. But Meet the Robinsons only ever looks average.

By this point this is all sounding negative, but the truth is that Meet the Robinsons is a film I wish I could like more. It’s far from a total loss, with some solid voice work, and a strong improvement in story quality in the third act, including a pretty touching ending.

Long story short, Meet the Robinsons feels like a genuine effort, and I can appreciate it for that effort. Perhaps even the young audience that serves as the film’s target demographic can have a lot of fun with it. But when you consider that this is a Disney animated film, a canon that boasts more than their share of timeless classics that both older and younger audiences can appreciate, Meet the Robinsons comes off as a pale imitation.

The next year would see the release of Bolt, which served as another step forward for Disney, but it wouldn’t be until two years after Robinsons when the animation giant would really get their mojo back with The Princess and the Frog, which started a winning streak that continues today. Meet the Robinsons is thus one of Disney’s more forgotten animated films, but it’s certainly a lot better than many of Disney’s output that came before it, and may even win over some audiences. I mean, any film that names its villain ‘Bowler Hat Guy’ definitely has something going for it.

 

5.5

Bee Movie Review

2007 was an interesting year for animated features. This was a year that saw Pixar’s biggest winning streak kick off in the form of Ratatouille (which followed up the good but not-up-to-studio-standard Cars), as well as international critical darlings like Persepolis and Paprika. It was also the year that saw Dreamworks’ Shrek franchise fall from grace. Somewhere along the way Dreamworks released another animated feature in 2007 in the form of Bee Movie, a film that – despite some solid efforts at humor – feels decidedly bland and average. So much so that it’s only real legacy is that its entire script became an internet meme a decade after release.

Interestingly, Bee Movie was something of a pet project of one Jerry Seinfeld, who helped write its screenplay, served as producer, and starred as the voice of our bee hero, Barry B. Benson. It is Seinfeld’s comedic knowledge that provides the film’s few highlights, but it’s a real shame that he didn’t weave the same level of originality and wit into the overall screenplay that he did to his iconic (and brilliant) TV series.

The film begins the same as every single CG animated film that thinks they know the Pixar formula (but doesn’t): Barry B. Benson doesn’t quite fit in with the other bees in the hive, wanting to experience life to its fullest instead of being relegated to a single job for the entirety of his life. Of course, following the rulebook of CG animated films to a tee, Barry decides to venture outside the hive for a change of pace, and breaks ‘bee law’ by talking to humans, and soon becomes infatuated with a human flourist named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger). A human/bee romance is as weird as it sounds, but at least Barry is given actual human traits and a personality, so it’s still less awkward than The Shape of Water.

Anyway, Barry soon learns that food companies are selling and distributing honey, without permission from bees! And so Barry sets out to sue the human race so that bees can have full control over their product.

It’s a pretty strange plot, and though I do commend it from swerving away from the impossibly cliched “social misfit follows his dreams” story of CG animated films, the whole first act feels kind of pointless since that setup ultimately goes nowhere in favor of the honey-based plot.

There are other issues with the plot as well, including Vanessa’s human boyfriend , Ken (Patrick Warburton), who is treated as a moronic, villainous buffoon who is jealous of Barry, though he actually has some pretty justifiable reasoning that doesn’t mesh with his one-dimensional portrayal. When we’re first introduced to the character, he points out that he’s deathly allergic to bees. So while the movie treats the character like he just has some unfair prejudice against bees, I think the prospect of ‘not dying by bee sting’ more than justifies his reluctance to Barry. Before he even knows Barry can talk and tries to squish him (out of fear of, y’know, potentially dying), he is stopped by Vanessa, who then asks “why does his [Barry’s] life have any less value than yours?”

I’ll tell you why, Vanessa. Because Ken is a human, and Barry is a bee.

Am I getting sidetracked and overthinking things? Maybe, but I do think that just because a movie is aimed at children doesn’t mean it should talk down to its audience by not thinking through its finer details.

Even with the gaps in logic and awkward romance, there are still other elements holding Bee Movie back. Its character designs not only look basic and uninspired, but the animation itself looked well behind its time, being more akin to a late-90s CG animation than something that was released the same year as Ratatouille. And if the first act is largely forgotten with its original setup, then the third act is just downright confused as to where it’s going, including a completely unnecessary action sequence in which Barry and Vanessa have to land a plane after the pilots get knocked out.

The saving grace to Bee Movie, however, are a few moments where Seinfeld’s comedic genius shines through. Sporadic though they may be, the moments that hit the right comedic notes do so with a wit that is to be expected of Seinfeld and company. There are a lot of missed shots as well (the early moments in particular have a heavy emphasis on bee-based puns), but it sticks the landing when it comes to a few moments of more mature humor at the expense of things like lawyers and less-than-tolerant older generations (“your parents would kill you if you were dating a wasp”). We also get a fun but small role by John Goodman as the voice of the lawyer representing the humans. Goodman has one of those voices that just sounds perfect in animation, to the point that his presence is always a highlight.

Bee Movie is far from the worst animated film I’ve seen. In fact, it’s far from the worst Dreamworks animated film I’ve seen. But for those few brief moments that are worth the laughs, the movie just feels far too bland to truly stand out. The fact that many of the folks who worked on Seinfeld’s television series helped bring this film to life only hurts it all the more, since you know they were capable of doing so much more with it. Instead, they decided an animated film wasn’t worth their extra effort, I suppose. That’s a shame, because Bee Movie might have been more than an internet meme otherwise.

 

5.0

Isle of Dogs Review

Wes Anderson has grown into one of the more prominent film directors of the 21st century. The quirky, off-beat humor of Wes Anderson’s films have given them a style of their own. Though some find Anderson’s style unnatural (the characters of his film’s often seem to know they’re movie characters), even the director’s biggest detractors seemed won over by his debut animated feature, 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Now, nearly a decade later, Anderson has followed up his witty animation debut with Isle of Dogs, a feature whose sharp visuals are matched by its originality.

Isle of dogs is set in a somewhat dystopian near future. In Japan, the country’s dogs have become inflicted with “dog-flu” and “snout fever,” which could potentially spread to humans. In the city of Megasaki, the conniving mayor Kobayashi decrees that every dog in the city be banished to Trash Island, despite claims from Prof. Watanabe that a cure for dog-flu is nearly complete. The first dog to be transferred to Trash Island is Spots, the guard dog of mayor Kobayashi’s orphaned ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin).

Six months later, Atari manages to pilot a small plane to Trash Island, desperate to find his dog. Unfortunately for Atari, his plane crashes on the island, lodging a piece of propeller into his head. Luckily, a gang of ragtag dogs – comprised of Chief (Bryan Cranston), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban) and Boss (Bill Murray) – find and resuscitate the boy, then proceed to join him on his quest to find Spots.

The plot is at once simple yet wildly original. The setup of a boy looking for his dog is certainly among the easiest to sympathize with, but the idea to set the adventure on a trash-covered wasteland is novel, as is the fact that most of the human dialogue is in Japanese (with only a few moments featuring translation) while all the dogs speak English.

It’s that offbeat originality, as well as the film’s deadpan humor and richly detailed animation that make Isle of Dogs one of 2018’s more standout features. This is an undeniably charming film, but perhaps not in the traditional sense of the word ‘charming.’ It may sound a little bit like a downer in concept, what with an entire city’s worth of abandoned dogs fending for themselves in a dystopian junkyard (early in the film, one dog bites off the ear of another in a scrap over some food), but Isle of Dogs is littered with characters whose humor and wit wins us over, and its story has an almost surprising amount of heart, without ever really feeling like it’s trying to wring tears from the audience’s eyes.

That’s before we even get to mentioning the fun little quirks that compliment the film’s personality. For example, it seems like Atari often understands what the dogs are saying, despite the fact that they speak different languages and are of different species. Little things like this, which gleefully avoid explanation when a simpler movie might feel the need to spoon-feed one to its audience, make Isle of Dogs one of those movies that wins you over for its sheer insistence to play by its own rules.

Stop-motion animation is often noted for the sheer arduousness of the process, to the point that even a few moments of it is considered a hefty feat. But Isle of Dogs – like Fantastic Mr. Fox before it – is one of those stop-motion treats where it comes to life seemingly effortlessly. It’s true that stop-motion can’t make things look as ‘perfect’ as CG animation, but that’s part of what plays into its charm. While computer animation is also a taxing accomplishment, the finished product can often disguise the hard work that went into it. But with stop-motion, the craftsmanship – blemishes and all – is on full display, leaving next to nothing to be taken for granted. Laika may get most credit these days for coming the closest to giving stop-motion the same smoothness as CG or hand-drawn animation, but Wes Anderson’s style may be among the most enjoyable to look at. Anderson’s stop-motion features often bask in duller hues and less fantastic character designs than most animated films, but they have an earthly charm to them, and they leave the personalities of the story and characters to provide all the color they need.

Time will tell how well Isle of Dogs stacks up to Fantastic Mr. Fox (if you ask me right now, I don’t think it’s quite as good), but it does follow the same winning formula…which in this case means going against many formulas and just being itself. Isle of Dogs is a funny and strangely heartwarming film that will probably leave you with a big, goofy grin on your face, and an even stronger appreciation for your pets.

 

8.5

The Boss Baby Review

Dreamworks has always been an interesting presence in the world of animation. Though they were once the only studio that could compete with Pixar in the realms of CG animation, they’ve never had the same level of quality control that Pixar has boasted. While Pixar has popped out winner after winner for most of their existence (with a few exceptions), Dreamworks seemingly gives every idea that passes through the studio the green light, leading to a miss or two for every hit. They’ve never really learned their lesson, and fittingly for 2017, a year that was largely inconsistent for movies as a whole, Dreamworks released one of their more shaky pictures in the form of The Boss Baby.

The gist of the story is that a young boy named Tim (Miles Bakshi) gets a new baby brother. But this baby isn’t any ordinary baby. With his finely-tailored suit and business savvy, Tim’s new little brother is the “Boss Baby” (Alec Baldwin). Tim quickly grows resentful of the new baby as he receives all of his parents’ attention.

Things get a little more complicated, however. It turns out, this Boss Baby is a member of Baby Corp., a giant conglomerate run entirely by babies in a sort of ‘before-life.’ Babies are losing popularity to puppies, and the company that Tim’s parents work for, Puppy Co., is planning on releasing a new breed of puppy, one that could put Baby Corp out of business. So the Boss Baby has been sent to Tim’s household (via taxi cab) to try to get info on this new puppy.

It’s a weird movie.

The concept behind the story – of a kid learning how to live with a new baby brother – simple as it is, is actually a decent one for a kids’ movie. And turning the baby into a corporate suit is a humorous twist on the idea (albeit one which is probably better suited for a short format, as opposed to an entire feature). But the small concept is stretched far too thin with the “babies vs. puppies” subplot (not to mention, who am I supposed to root for in that scenario?). And it only gets spread thinner as the movie goes on, with the introduction of an unnecessary villain midway through, and a plot that makes less sense the more you think about it.

Although the film’s marketing may have already had you rolling your eyes at the movie (those adverts really liked that “cookies are for closers” line), the fact that the movie ultimately falls apart is actually a bit of a shame. Because in its early moments, The Boss Baby shows some promise in both its story and humor.

For example, the early moments of the film tell us that Tim has a very active imagination, leaving the audience to think that the baby talking, wearing a suit, and being ‘born’ via taxi are all just Tim’s childhood imagination running wild with interpreting the situation around him. But as the film goes on and the whole corporate rivalry thing gets going, it becomes obvious that this isn’t the case. Not only does this remove a lot of the film’s early charm, but it also ends up raising a lot more questions about the plot than answers (does Puppy Co. actually manufacture dogs like a product? Why are the parents oblivious to the fact that their son arrived to them via taxi cab?) If the film were presented as being told through Tim’s imagination, such questions wouldn’t matter, and the sheer absurdity of it all would actually be made more charming. Instead, The Boss Baby will have you scratching your head asking “wait, so did that really happen to them?” numerous times. Just to hit the point home, there are a few moments where Tim’s imagination does take over, separate from the rest of the goings-on around him and the Boss Baby, confirming that, no matter how bonkers the movie gets, the characters are actually going through all of it.

I certainly don’t have any qualms with the idea of The Boss Baby being more inline with fantasy, but the way it’s structured is off-putting. It goes from possibly being about a kid’s interpretation of life with his new baby brother to something a bit more…wacky.

Along with feeling structurally confused and over-bloated, the movie also can’t help but aim for some obvious potty humor. Some of it works, but just as often you’ll be sighing that the movie didn’t even try to aim higher (we get it, babies poop. What else ya got?).

On the bright side of things, those aforementioned early moments have their charms, and when the humor strays from the obvious, it can be pretty funny (some of the film’s best gags involve Tim talking to his totally-not-Gandalf alarm clock…which goes back to how the movie is at its best when it’s in Tim’s imagination).

Another highlight is the animation, with The Boss Baby boasting some of Dreamworks’ most fluid character movements. And fittingly for a movie about babies, the character designs are cute and charming (those eyes!).

The Boss Baby isn’t a total dud, then. But its concept quickly stretches too thin, when a smaller scale story would have benefitted it greatly, and all too often it aims too low when just the little extra effort could have gone a long way.

Maybe for its target audience, it may provide a good hour and a half of entertainment. But for the older crowd who is becoming more and more accustomed to kids’ movies also appealing to them, The Boss Baby ends up being a missed opportunity.

 

5.0

RIP Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata, one of the world’s premiere animation filmmakers, has passed away at the age of 82.

Together with his protegé Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata served as co-founder of Studio Ghibli, which quickly became one of the world’s leading forces in animated cinema, inspiring other filmmakers across the world. Takahata personally directed five features for the studio, starting with Grave of the Fireflies, widely regarded as a masterpiece in the medium, and well known for being one of the most emotional impactful films ever made. From there, Takahata would direct Only Yesterday, a romantic drama that continued Ghibli’s trend of proving animated films can tell stories for any audience, not just children.

Takahata would later direct the ecological fairy tale Pom Poko, followed by the family comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. After Yamadas, Takahata would enter something of an unofficial retirement, which he would come out of for one final feature with 2013’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, which it really, really should have won).

Isao Takahata’s career didn’t start with Ghibli, however, as he had been making animated features and directing TV episodes since the 1960s, including Chie the Brat and Panda! Go Panda!. Once he and Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, Takahata personal produced Miyazaki’s earlier features.

Takahata’s films are well known for their emotional strengths, as well as for how distinct as each individual film is from the others. Like Miyazaki, Isao Takahata boasted a unique versatility in his handling of different materials, giving each one of his films an identity all their own. His films were (relatively) more “slice-of-life” than Miyazaki’s fantasies, but were no less magical. Isao Takahata’s films had a unique way of speaking to the child (and adult) in all of us.

The worlds of animation and cinema will never be the same without Isao Takahata, and already the world seems less magical. Rest in peace, Isao Takahata.

Spirited Away and Me

*The following is a gushing love note detailing the history leading up to the first time I ever saw Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which was fifteen years ago today, on March 31st 2003.*

Spirited Away was originally released in American theaters on September 20th 2002, but I wouldn’t see it until March the 31st of 2003. This is largely due to the nearly non-existent marketing Disney gave the film in its initial release. I remember during some random night in mid 2002 I saw a commercial for what looked like a Japanese animated film with the word Disney attached. It immediately sparked curiosity and interest from me, unfortunately it was also around 2:00 AM or something, so I was also tired and didn’t catch the name of the film in question.

I kept watching the same channel (if memory serves correctly it was Nick @ Nite) every night to try and catch the commercial again, but it never seemed to show up. I even tried to search Disney’s website for any info on it, but that proved to be something of a needle in a hay stack endeavor (especially considering I didn’t have a particular patience for the interwebs then). There seemed to be no info of it anywhere, and it was driving me nuts. “What was that Japanese Disney movie?!” I kept thinking to myself. All I can remember from the commercial was that there was a girl, what I thought was a sand-worm (really a dragon) and a castle (really a bathhouse… again, I was tired).

A few months past and I was at a hobby/game store at a local mall. And there I saw an anime magazine with the movie from that commercial on the cover. “Praise the sun!” I thought to myself (in not quite those words). But when I opened the magazine up, I barely got to see the article on the movie before I had to leave (why I didn’t just buy the dang magazine is still a mystery to me), but the few pictures I saw of it were beautiful. I think I finally saw the name “Spirited Away” here, but for reasons unknown I didn’t look it up with my newfound knowledge. I didn’t even know if the movie had already been released or if it was still on the horizon. I guess I was just happy that a smidgeon of my curiosity had been fulfilled.

Fast-forward another few months (now well into 2003), and Oscar season was rolling around. Back then, I didn’t know much about the Oscars each year until they aired on TV, so I didn’t know any of the nominees for anything. But I did know that the year prior they introduced a Best Animated Feature category, and thats all I cared about.

So when the Oscars were on and they were giving out Best Animated Feature as the first award on the show (which is kind of a backhanded compliment to animated films on the Academy’s part, but that’s a rant for another day), I was ecstatic. The nominees were Ice Age, Treasure Planet, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Lilo & Stitch…but then they announced Spirited Away!

From the brief clip they showed at the Oscars (where the witch Yubaba magically silences Chihiro by zipping her lip) it finally hit me that the animation in Spirited Away looked an awful lot like My Neighbor Totoro. Totoro has been a favorite of mine since I was really little, and if this Spirited Away were anything like it – even remotely – then dang it it deserved the award! At that moment I immediately decided Spirited Away should win… AND IT DID! (perhaps not my most professional moment, but I was just a teenager then, so sue me).

How amazing it was. I didn’t know a Japanese animated film could even have been nominated, and it actually won! Even then, I still didn’t know anything about the movie. But if it had anything to do with the people who made Totoro, then surely it was gold! I wasn’t even sure if it involved the same people as Totoro, but I knew it didn’t look like most anime, and that it had that unique “Totoro look” (as I probably wold have called it at the time). The similarities couldn’t just be a coincidence, right?

Well, the awesome news was that, due to the Oscar win, Spirited Away was getting a quick re-release in theaters across America (despite the fact that it was due for a release on VHS and DVD about two weeks later…Yes, VHSs were still a thing in 2003). Simply put, I had to see it. And although it was actually re-released around March 24th (if I remember correctly), it would be a week before I got the chance to finally see it.

And then, on March 31st 2003, I finally saw that ever-elusive movie. To say it lived up to the hype I had engraved into myself is as big of an understatement as there is. I never had a movie experience like it. Spirited Away was endlessly creative, had an impossibly unique narrative, and couldn’t be more beautiful (both in terms of visuals and storytelling). Hyperbole nothing, I simply adored the movie. It’s among my chief creative influences, and to this day, fifteen years later, it’s still just as captivating.

After seeing the film, I also noticed the films proper title (in America, anyway) was “Miyazakis Spirited Away.” Naturally, after (finally) seeing some commercials for the film, I looked up Spirited Away and this Miyazaki fellow on Disney’s advertised website. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the decade and a half since that day, which seems so long ago and not long ago all the same, I have become a big fan of Studio Ghibli and the films of Hayao Miyazaki. And this creative spark can be traced back to this day, March 31st, fifteen years ago. Spirited Away will spirit me away forever.