Category Archives: Movies

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.

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Ready Player One Review

In this day and age, pop culture has become self-aware. With the generation that grew up in the 1980s – the decade in which pop culture became culture – now shaping entertainment, it’s really no surprise that movies, video games, and even books are often blatant homages to the 1980s works that inspired them. It should really come as no surprise then, that one of the most popular books of this decade is Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, which largely takes place in a virtual reality universe where pop culture can conveniently be referenced at any and every turn. It seems like a match made in heaven then, that Ready Player One’s cinematic adaptation would be directed by Steven Spielberg, the man who arguably had the single biggest impact on popular culture during its golden age. And while Ready Player One may be the kind of movie you can poke a million holes into, when all is said and done, it does manage to capture that “feel good” Spielberg vibe.

The story takes place in a not-too-distant, somewhat dystopian future. In a time where “people simply want to escape their problems instead of fixing them,” the world takes refuge in a virtual world known as “The Oasis,” where people can live a second life as whatever they like, whether it be their own creation or replicating a figure from popular culture.

The Oasis began life as a video game by game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), but over time, became something of its own parallel universe, where its players live quite literal second lives within the game, without the limitations of reality holding them back. As the real world around everyone went to pot (it’s never explicitly mentioned how the world got in the state it’s in during the events of the film), people thrived within the Oasis, finding success, fame, fortune or simply living out their dreams within the game world. The Oasis seemingly took over all media, with movies, video games and all other forms of entertainment being found within the game (where such works can be experienced as they would be in our world via movie theater or home console, or they can be lived through by those playing within the Oasis).

Because of the Oasis’ influence on the world, Halliday’s company became the most lucrative in the world, and Halliday himself became something of a deity in the eyes of many. After Halliday passed away, his in-game Oasis avatar, Anorak the All-Knowing, revealed a new quest within the Oasis. If players can discover three secret keys by accomplishing secret tasks, they can find an “Easter egg” that will give them control over the Oasis and his company. The first such challenge is a seemingly unbeatable death race. Five years have gone by since Halliday’s passing, and no one has found a means to beat the race and achieve the first key, let alone the clues to the other challenges.

There are, of course, evildoers at work in the form of the IOI company (the second largest in the world), run by the conniving Nolan Serrento (Ben Mendelsohn). IOI run questionable operations within the Oasis in order to force others into their debt, effectively making them slaves to the company. Of course, IOI seeks to find Anorak’s Easter egg so that they can gain full control of the Oasis, expanding their empire exponentially.

The hero of the story is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a young adult from the slums of Ohio, and whose Oasis alter ego is the silver-haired Parzival. Watts wishes to find the Easter egg, as to improve his life beyond his wildest dreams. His quest for the egg is joined by Samantha Cook (Olivia Cooke), a rebel determined to stop IOI from gaining control of the Oasis. There’s also Watt’s in-game best friend Aech (Lena Waithe), who repairs weapons and vehicles in the Oasis; as well as Daito and Sho (Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao), who often help Aech get out of jams.

“You can be anything you want in the Oasis, and this is what you went with? Okay.”

It’s not exactly one of Spielberg’s smarter movies, but it does fit in nicely with his nearly unparalleled catalog of adventure-based, popcorn blockbusters. Simply put, Ready Player One is a fun movie. Its premise, while maybe a bit silly on paper, makes for exciting set-pieces, dazzling visual effects (though some of the CG characters may take some time to get used to), and a myriad of pop culture references both visual and verbal.

Now, there are some obvious flaws with the film. Namely, Ready Player One is the kind of movie whose internal logic you can nitpick for hours. For example, in searching for hints of the Easter egg, Parzival regularly visits the Halliday Library, a literal museum of Halliday’s life and memory, where people can actually watch moments of Halliday’s life play out. Despite seeming like the obvious place to look for clues in Halliday’s egg hunt, Parzival is the only person who ever seems to go there (it’s explained that with no one finding the first key after five years, people looked elsewhere for clues after the library failed to provide results. But am I really to expect that no one else is willing to look into a visual recreation of Halliday’s brain for clues?). Similarly, many of the results to these clues turn out to be things that don’t seem particularly difficult to figure out, and it’s hard to imagine so many years would go by with no one finding them when pretty much everyone in the world is playing the Oasis. And as any self-respecting gamer knows, an Easter egg is a hidden object or moment in a game that doesn’t actually provide any practical use. So the fact that Halliday’s Easter egg gives its finder the very practical use of control of his company doesn’t so much make it an Easter egg so much as a secret. But I digress.

In all seriousness, I hate to point out logical stretches in a movie like this. I feel too often these days people let trivial inconsistencies prevent them from enjoying movies, and I certainly don’t want to jump in that boat. The ‘fun factor’ of Ready Player One certainly isn’t damaged by a few “but wait” elements, but it does boast enough of them that even I have to stop and point them out.

Less forgivable, however, is the lack of attention given to the supporting characters. Aech gets a decent amount of screen time, but poor Sho and Daito feel largely forgotten for long stretches of the movie, to the point where you may wonder why there needed to be five heroes in the first place.

As strange as this may sound, the story may have benefitted if the stakes were a bit lower. Having an evil corporation seeking to enslave people, and having a rebellion (yes, they use the word ‘rebellion’) standing against them seems too contrived in a story like this. One scene in the movie sees Sorrento discussing all the advertisements IOI hopes to add to the Oasis when they find the egg. I almost feel like simply playing off that aspect of the bad guys would have benefitted the story. Just have them trying to gain control of the Oasis to turn a beloved game into a commercial. The hero could remain a poor kid trying to get a better life, but does this story really need the dystopian element?

Perhaps I’m just getting sidetracked to what I would have liked the story to be. The truth is the story that is here is still a lot of fun. The movie even expands on the book by widening its inclusion of pop culture to not only be limited by 1980s movie and video game nostalgia, but sees other decades and media (such as anime) sprinkled throughout as well. Yeah, we get to hear some awesome 80s tunes, but we also get to see Tracer from Overwatch heading into war alongside the Battletoads, and an entire planet dedicated to Minecraft.

“What? No Mei or Rainbow Mika?”

Okay, so Ready Player One may teeter on pandering with some of the references, but in a movie like this, that’s only aiming to be pure fun, is it really such a bad thing to simply want to see some of your favorite movie and game characters on the big screen? And in a bit of humility, Spielberg actively avoided from referencing his own works, even though he easily could have, given his influence on the 1980s (though somewhat touchingly, Spielberg pays plenty of homage to his protegé Robert Zemeckis, particularly Back to the Future). So maybe these references and cameos are a trap for people like me, but they’re fun and lack vanity, so I’m not really going to complain about falling for them hook, line and sinker.

Ready Player One is a flawed movie: the supporting cast is often forgotten, there are a bit too many sci-fi tropes at play with the bad guys, and the narrative has its rough edges. But the movie is a whole lot of fun, with some terrific action scenes and visual effects, and it only gets better as it plays out. By the end of it, I was happy I’d seen Ready Player One. I mean, you get to see The Iron Giant and a Gundam smackdown against Mecha-Godzilla! Doesn’t that just say it all?

 

7.5

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.

The Shape of Water Review

Guillermo del Toro has left quite the impact on the world of cinema. His alternating between Spanish-language fantasy films and more mainstream American features have allowed him to cover a wide range of genres, sprinkling in his uniquely vivid imagination throughout them. Though not all of his films are equally as enthralling, Guillermo del Toro has become one of the few fantasy filmmakers to manage to win over more traditionalist critics. His most recent film, The Shape of Water, even managed to become the second-ever fantasy film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Despite this acclaim, along with its terrific acting and a handful of inspired elements, The Shape of Water often stumbles due to its inability to make its central relationship resonate, and for its over-reliance on its clichéd, psychopathic antagonist.

Set during the midst of the Cold War, The Shape of Water centers around woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaner at a secret government laboratory. Though her inability to talk makes her something of an outcast, she has at least two friends in her closeted neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling commercial artist, and fellow cleaner Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who works as something of an interpreter for Elisa at the workplace.

One day, the government lab receives a mysterious creature from South America, captured by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The lab intends to study the amphibious creature under Strickland’s eye, in hopes that it can help them gain an edge over the Russians.

Elisa, curious about the creature, sneaks into its containment center to get a better understanding of it. She soon learns that the creature is capable of displaying reason and emotion (it quickly picks up on Elisa’s sign language), and also finds out that Strickland has been torturing the creature. Feeling a connection to the creature as a fellow outcast, Elisa soon forms a secret bond with it, one which blossoms into romance.

On paper, it sounds like something of a contemporary fairy tale. But sadly, the film only feels like ‘magic’ in small bursts. The idea of a mute woman falling in love with a fantasy monster sounds interesting in concept, but the grave flaw with this central relationship is that the creature isn’t given enough human qualities to make their romance have any real emotional weight.

As it is, taking an amphibious monster – even a humanoid one – and turning it into a romantic interest is already a hard sell. But The Shape of Water fails at making its creature feel like a worthy significant other for Elisa, as it comes across as more animal-like than anything. Yes, the creature can understand sign language, but that’s about as far as its human traits go. Even Giles refers to the creature as a “wild animal” after it devours a cat, and explains that they “can’t expect it to be anything more.” Sure, it’s sad to see the creature get electrocuted by Strickland, but that almost seems like a cheap ploy to get audiences to empathize with a creature that, otherwise, doesn’t boast many empathetic traits.

Sure, The Shape of Water tries its hand at a few other tricks to build sympathy for its monster (the creature even possesses healing powers, which seems like a requirement for all misunderstood monsters by this point). But the romance between Elisa and the creature never really clicks because it doesn’t so much feel like a love between two people – with one of those people just happening to be a fantasy monster – but between a human woman and a wild animal, which makes things feel more awkward than beautiful.

This is only magnified by the film’s inconsistent pace. The earlier half of the film moves so quickly that the romance between Elisa and the creature feels like it just kind of happens out of nowhere, while the second half seemingly comes to a dead stop, with the characters’ personalities and stories coming to a stand-still. This whiplash-like pacing of moving too quickly before stopping in its tracks makes the development of Elisa’s relationship with the creature feel non-existent.

The film’s other great narrative flaw is its over-emphasis on Strickland. Michael Shannon’s acting in the role is brilliant, but he really only has so much to work with. Not every villain has to be a three-dimensional human being, and sometimes the irredeemable psychopath villain can work. But it’s an archetype that’s so overplayed that it’s hard to make it standout, and while Shannon’s acting might make the role a bit more memorable than it would otherwise be, Strickland still comes off as like he’s just ticking the boxes on a checklist of the requirements for a despicable villain. The film makes an attempt to turn him into something of a commentary on the traditional American “man of the future” archetype (he has two children, a nice house, and a seemingly perfect wife to thinly guise his twisted nature), but even that’s a commentary that feels overly familiar. So even thematically, Strickland comes across as clichéd.

Despite its narrative shortcomings, The Shape of Water still has its merits. Again, it needs to be repeated that the acting is top-notch, and though the creature may not be able to win us over emotionally, it is a visual marvel, as are the set and costume designs. Perhaps the film’s best attribute is its musical score, which may linger in the memory more strongly than the film itself.

There are bits and pieces of greatness sprinkled here and there in The Shape of Water, but its core themes of love and feeling like an outcast from society just don’t resonate, its pace feels off, and it falls prey to the old movie trope of dedicating too much time to showing us how cruel its one-dimensional villain is.

I won’t say it’s a flat-out bad movie, but The Shape of Water is far from great, and one of Guillermo del Toro’s clunkier efforts. If it weren’t for the obvious Oscar-baiting elements the film provides, it would be a complete mystery as to how The Shape of Water managed to snag Best Picture while so many other fantasy films got the cold shoulder.

The Shape of Water may boast some merits that rise to the surface. But on the whole, it sinks.

 

5.0

The Video Game Movie Curse is Lifted (Sort of)!

Movies based on existing video games tend to suck. Sure, I might have some guilty pleasure in the occasional viewing of the Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter movie, but I would never tell you they’re good movies. At least those two examples had some excuse for their poor execution, however, seeing as they were among the first of their kind (in Mario’s case, the first), it’s understandable that studios would have trouble trying to translate the nature of a video game into the movie world.

Even now, however, when games have become more and more movie-like, filmmakers still can’t seem to get things right. And in fact, video game movies may be worse now than ever before (I said I take guilty pleasure in the cinematic versions of Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter, I can’t make that same claim for more recent entries). Granted, some (including myself) might argue that video games becoming more and more like movies makes actual movie adaptations of them entirely redundant, but at the very least it should allow them to be translated onto the silver screen with less appalling results than what we’ve been getting.

Well, it seems the video game movie curse has finally been lifted…if only partly.

I say only partly because, well, this strangely miraculous occurrence of a good video game movie comes in the form of a ten-minute short film. So while the short manages to successfully capture the essence of the game it’s based on, we still have to wait for a feature-length film based on a game to, well, not suck.

The short film in question is Papers, Please: The Short Film, based on the cult classic 2013 indie title, Papers, Please (one of my personal favorite indie titles, which I now feel I underrated in my original review).

Papers, Please was a game all about the immigration process, which may not sound like the most enticing video game concept, but managed to pull off its goals in spades. It managed to somehow be fun, while also being incredibly dramatic and forcing players to face serious ethical dilemmas in the role of a passport inspector in a war-torn nation.

The short film adaptation, released via YouTube in February of this year, manages to capture the game’s look and feel, as well as its unique sense of suspense and emotion (it probably doesn’t hurt that Lucas Pope, the creator/designer of Papers, Please, was one of the short’s writers).

Here is the short film for all of your viewing pleasure. Now let’s just hope that someone can make a video game feature film that so strongly embraces its source material while also providing a good movie in its own right.

Black Panther Review

Marvel has been on a roll in recent years. Okay, so I suppose one could say they’ve been on a roll since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man ten-years ago(!). Sure, there have still been a few stinkers here and there (even within said Cinematic Universe), but for the most part, the MCU – despite its seemingly constant stream of releases – has been pretty consistent. That’s been especially true of the past few years. As Marvel builds up to the first part of its crescendo with The Avengers: Infinity War, they’ve been releasing some exceptionally entertaining features, such as Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the franchise reviving Thor: Ragnarok. The latest of these releases is Black Panther, Marvel’s last film before Infinity War hits theaters. Black Panther manages to match Marvel’s recent winning streak and – with the possible exception of Homecoming – manages to surpass them in the story and character department.

Taking place shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther sees T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ready to take the throne of the African nation of Wakanda; after his father, the king, was killed during the events of Civil War. Wakanda is secretly a highly advanced nation due to its abundance of a substance known as Vibranium, which has allowed Wakanda to remain hidden from the rest of the world, posing as a third world country. Of course, Wakanda is also the most “Marvel” country that Marvel could have concocted, given that its king also serves as a super hero known as the Black Panther, given superhuman speed and strength from a “heart-shaped flower” during a ceremony, and wearing a Vibranium suit that adds to his abilities.

Like the best Marvel movies, Black Panther takes a premise that may sound silly on paper (super king!), and turns it into a genuinely good story due to its characters and storytelling. T’Challa proves to be one of Marvel’s more fleshed-out heroes, and is given more inner drama to deal with as the film goes on, which is a nice change of pace (not to mention Boseman’s acting helps elevate the character all the further). T’Challa is nicely countered by one of the MCU’s better villains in Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a vicious soldier who has allied himself with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a black market arms dealer who has been stealing Vibranium for decades. What sets Killmonger apart from the vast majority of MCU villains is an actual sense of motivation which – although not the first MCU foe to boast such an element (Have we already forgotten Vulture?) – gives him a sense of depth that this mega-franchise has often struggled with in regards to its baddies.

It’s the fleshed-out hero and villain, and the dynamic between the two that – like Spider-Man: Homecoming – helps elevate Black Panther to being a more character driven narrative than most of its super hero kin. The film also squeezes in some social and ethical commentary that comes into play between hero and foe (Killmonger has a very understandable chip on his shoulder in regards to Wakanda hoarding its technological advancements for itself in secret, when they could easily help the rest of the African continent, and the world, with it).

If there are any troubles to be had with the film’s plot, it’s that the very nature of Vibranium can come across as an overly convenient device all too often. With how frequently it seems Wakandan technology can just do anything, it can seem like an easy means to get the story from point A to point B without having to give things much thought. Vibranium can come across as more of a magic element than Dr. Strange’s actual magic at times.

Still, Black Panther has a lot going for it, including some memorable supporting characters (and performances) such as T’Challa’s semi-love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and his genius inventor younger sister Shuri (Letita Wright); not to mention an almost-surprisingly good musical score that fittingly blends African inspirations with traditional super hero/science-fiction sounds. Other highlights include the film’s state-of-the-art visual effects and highly entertaining action set pieces, both categories being at the top of their game within the MCU.

Black Panther ultimately proves to not only be an exceptional good time at the movies, but one of the best films within Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. It does still fall prey to some of the franchise’s convenient plot devices (seriously, what can’t Vibranium do?), but like Spider-Man: Homecoming, its emphasis on character arcs and development helps elevate it above most of Marvel’s (admittedly enjoyable) output.

It may not completely reinvent the super hero genre in the way films like Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight and The Incredibles did way back when. But in a time when the genre can feel oversaturated to the point that even its more hyped releases begin to blur with each other, Black Panther helps reinvigorate the super hero film through its solid execution, unique setting and aesthetics, and character depth.

8.5

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro Review

To quote Hayao Miyazaki’s later work, Howl’s Moving Castle: “They say the best blaze burns brightest when circumstances are at their worst.” The quote seems to ring true in many instances, with it being particularly poetic in regards to Miyazaki’s very first feature film, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.

The 1970s were something of the dark ages of animated cinema. Mainstream animation was floundering after the death of Walt Disney (increases in censorship laws certainly didn’t help things out). Meanwhile, the only alternatives were the desperate and dated ‘adult’ animated films of the time, such as those from Ralph Bakshi. As such, the 1970s animation scene was riddled with features that were either insultingly childish or cringingly adult-pandering (sex and drugs, hyuk!).

It’s fitting then, that in 1979, the last year of that dark decade, an animated feature was released that would change the animation world for the better from that point on. The film in question was Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Based on the popular manga/anime series, Castle of Cagliostro is still seen as the pinnacle of the Lupin III franchise even today. More importantly, it was the feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki, who would go on to have the single most prolific career in the history of animation. And in turn it also lead to the eventual creation of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and, by extension, Studio Ghibli. Castle of Cagliostro even inspired the western movie scene; seemingly reinvigorating the Disney animators (who often paid the film blatant homage in their own movies) and inspiring many of the key minds who would later form Pixar Animation Studios.

To put it bluntly, it’s hard to overstate just how much of a milestone achievement Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro was. Perhaps the best news is that – although it showcases some obvious limitations as Miyazaki’s first feature – it remains a timeless classic, one of the best in the action-adventure genre.

The story here is that master thief Lupin III and his accomplice Jigen have successfully pulled off their biggest heist at a national casino. Shortly after their getaway, however, Lupin discovers that their newfound riches are counterfeit, being among the legendary “Goat bills,” a counterfeit operation that has been increasing its influence on the world’s economies for centuries.

Lupin and Jigen track the operation to the small country of Cagliostro, where the malicious Count of Cagliostro has taken charge after the nation’s rightful rulers perished in a fire. The Count of Cagliostro is of course behind the counterfeit operation, and is also planning a forced marriage to the nation’s rightful heir, a young woman named Clarisse. Lupin then sets his sights on exposing the Count, sending his calling card to the Count in order to summon inspector Koichi Zenigata – Lupin’s longtime pursuer – to the location, to try and set a plan in motion to expose the Count’s schemes. Additionally, Lupin becomes enamored with Clarisse, and the romantic idea of saving her from the dreadful Count Cagliostro.

It’s a simple action-adventure setup, but its execution makes for one of the best films of its kind, with a consistently fun pace and many memorable set pieces. The film opens with a fantastic car chase (while still taking time to pause for a quiet moment – in true Miyazaki fashion – when Lupin and Jigen need to change a tire), and things only pick up when the gentlemen thieves make their way to the titular castle, where booby traps, ninjas and mysteries abound.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro is also one of those delightful animated films that takes full advantage of the medium to express its vision. In the aforementioned opening car chase, Lupin drives his automobile up a vertical surface to get to higher ground, effectively breaking the laws of physics. Later, Lupin manages to leap from one of the castle’s turrets to another, performing a superhuman feat of agility. Of course, no one in this movie is a super hero or wizard of any kind, so these aren’t directly feats of fantastic powers. Lupin III is simply an animated franchise, and so fantastic occurrences such as these are allowed to happen when need be. And there’s something charming about that.

Of course, being part of a franchise, the series’ key figures all come into play. Along with Lupin, Jigen and Zenigata, Lupin’s samurai-themed cohort Goemon also shows up (albeit sparingly), and the sexy lady-thief Fujiko is on her own undercover mission in the castle. Some fans of the overall franchise lament that some tweaks have been made to the characters’ personalities (most notably Lupin himself, whom Miyazaki depicts as a gentlemen thief, in stark contrast to the character’s often lewd, womanizing behavior, which is only referenced in the film as being a part of Lupin’s past as a “dumb rookie”). But truthfully, the changes work for the story being told here, and I personally prefer “gentlemen Lupin.” The fact that much of the character’s motivation in the film is to live out some romanticized adventure adds to the film’s charms. Besides, when a franchise lasts long enough to branch out into different continuities, such character changes happen all the time. This just happens to be Miyazaki’s personal interpretation of the characters, and it’s an interpretation that works.

There are, unfortunately, a handful of aesthetic elements that show the film’s age. While the main cast of characters are more fluidly animated than anything else at the time, and the environments are – as is the norm in Miyazaki features – truly captivating, the background characters can be a little on the stiff side. And while the music is still catchy and serves its purpose, this is the only Miyazaki-directed film not to be scored by Joe Hisaishi, and when compared to the scores of Miyazaki’s later features, it falls a little short.

Admittedly, those are only quibbles, and they’re only really present for those who may be familiar with Miyazaki’s later work. Seeing as Castle of Cagliostro was the legendary director’s first feature, and before he was one of the leading forces behind his own studio, it’s understandable that the film would have some noticeable limitations. Even with those limitations though, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro has held up better than any other animated feature from its decade, and by quite a large margin.

Yes, Miyazaki would later perfect his craft (the subsequent Castle in the Sky is perhaps an even better adventure film, and features more of the director’s lavish imagination; while My Neighbor Totoro would mark Miyazaki’s shift in focus from simpler entertainment to deeper artistry). But there’s no mistaking that Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro lives up to its hefty reputation and influence. There’s never a dull moment, with the film often being as sweet and funny as it is action-packed and exciting. The film is even cited as being a precursor to the beloved action-adventure movies of the 1980s, including Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro began Miyazaki’s unparalleled streak of animated classics, and helped cement the director’s indelible style (the characters here seem to be a bridge between the traditional Lupin III look and what would later be Miyazaki’s own character designs). Just as impressive as its influence is how much fun Castle of Cagliostro remains even today. It’s still one of the most entertaining action-adventure films out there. Animated or otherwise.

 

9.5