Tag Archives: Disney

Spider-Man: Homecoming Review

I have to admit I was thoroughly lost during Spider-Man: Homecoming. Throughout the entire movie, I kept wondering how this Peter Parker kid became Spider-Man. I mean, what’s the backstory here? Why does he just have these powers? This is the kind of thing that begs for an origin story.

I am of course joking. Spider-Man’s origin story is such common knowledge that he, like Batman, doesn’t need another cinematic retelling at this point. 2002’s Spider-Man remains one of the best super hero origin story movies (along with, ironically enough, Batman Begins), and there really wasn’t a need for us to hear it again through the less-than stellar 2012 reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man. Besides, super hero films tend to be at their best once the origin story is behind them, with Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight remaining at the top of super hero storytelling, as they could focus more on the characters themselves and not have to worry about how their heroes earned their costumes and powers.

Spider-Man: Homecoming wisely does away with re-re-introducing us to Spider-Man’s origin story, with the details of being bitten by a radioactive spider only being mentioned in passing, and the death of his uncle Ben only being implied. So Spider-Man: Homecoming not only serves as another reboot to Marvel’s iconic web-slinger, but also, thankfully, works as something of a self-contained sequel to a narrative we are all beyond familiar with by this point.

This “proper reboot” of the franchise is only one of the newsworthy aspects of this new Spider-Man series, with the other big news being that this newest incarnation is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most prominent movie franchise not called Star Wars.

We met this newest Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, where he was part of Iron Man’s team who did battle with that of Captain America. But now we have Spidey’s first solo outing in the MCU, and it actually turns out to be one of the best entries in the mega franchise, due in no small part to the film taking cues from 2004’s Spider-Man 2 by creating fleshed-out, relatable characters in both its hero and villain.

Not only does Homecoming show us Spider-Man still trying to learn the ropes of being a super hero (and often stumbling), but it also dedicates a good deal of time to Peter Parker’s high school life, and the real-world problems and hassles therein.

Meanwhile, the film’s villain is the Vulture, whose secret identity is one Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). If the MCU has had one persistent problem – even in some of its better films – it’s that the villains have been largely forgettable, with only a select few standing out, and none of them really being anything more than a villain. What makes Toomes such a winning antagonist (along with Keaton’s excellent performance) is that, much like Peter Parker is depicted as a real kid, Toomes is a very relatable everyman. Tasked with cleaning up the damage that the Avengers leave behind (the film begins with Toomes’ crew beginning reconstruction on one of the set pieces of 2012’s The Avengers), Toomes and his men end up jobless as soon as the government decides to butt in. So Toomes, wanting to provide for his family and to keep his friends doing the same, goes rogue, and leads an underground operation that steals technology left in the wake of the Avengers, SHIELD, Hydra, and any other “super” organization, crafts their own weapons from it, and sells them on the black market.

The fact that Toomes is selling super-weapons to criminals obviously makes him the villain, but he’s also presented as a relatable figure who was wronged and simply wants to set things right. Unlike so many past villains in the MCU, Toomes actually has a strong motivation for his actions.

It’s because of how wonderfully realized both its hero and villain are that ascend Homecoming to being one of the better super hero movies of recent times, though unfortunately, it does suffer a bit from its supporting characters, which can be a bit of a mixed bag.

Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) provides some good comic relief, but some of his actions may not endear him to audiences (the trailers already reveal that he learns of Peter’s secret life as Spider-Man, and he almost outs his best friend’s secret at the first opportunity). Peter’s crush Liz (Laura Harrier) works well enough for the plot, but she doesn’t exactly get a whole lot of character development. They are forgivable though, since their characters have enough likable qualities about them. Less forgivable is the character of Michelle Jones (Zendaya) who, as you may guess by her initials, is to be the MCU’s equivalent of “MJ” Mary-Jane Watson.

Seeing as this is the second cinematic reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I perfectly understand the filmmakers trying to change up the characters a bit so we can see something we aren’t already overly familiar with. But the Michelle character is simply unlikable. Zendaya’s acting is fine, but what she has to work with doesn’t exactly make Michelle an appealing character. She’s obnoxious, pretentious, brags about not having any friends… She’s basically like a checklist of all the things older generations ridicule millennials for.

But the rest of the characters are all well and fine. This being the MCU, we of course have to have crossover characters involved, though Homecoming is wise to keep them to a minimum as to not take the focus away from the story at hand: Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) returns as Peter’s mentor. Meanwhile, Stark’s former driver and bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) returns to keep an eye on Peter while Iron Man is off with bigger things. And in perhaps some of the best uses of MCU cameos, Captain America (Chris Evans) is featured in public-service announcements in Peter’s high school.

I really enjoyed how Homecoming is a relatively smaller-scale Marvel movie. We’ve seen so many cities get leveled in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by this point, that I’m starting to get more tired of the mass destruction than anything. But Homecoming takes the time to humanize both Spider-Man and the Vulture, while also showing us how complicated the lives of Peter Parker and Adrian Toomes can be. The stakes aren’t to save the planet, or even a city. It’s just about a kid trying to be responsible and to do the right thing, and trying to stop a downtrodden, misguided man who’s caught up in doing wrong. And by this point, that’s pretty refreshing.

Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn’t reinvent the super hero genre, but it does take inspiration from the better films from the genre’s booming early years (most notably Spider-Man 2) to make a film that may not be the most grandiose of super hero outings, but one that succeeds in the two areas where it most counts: story and characters. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have great action set-pieces, because it delivers on just that as well. But for the first time in a while, I feel like the MCU has a hero worth rooting for not just because of a charismatic on-screen presence, but also for his relatability. Just as noteworthy, the same can be said for its villain.

 

8.5

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Cars 3 Review

Pixar’s resume has built such a prestige over the years, that the release of a new film from the studio is often cause for celebration. Though it was a little harder to get too excited for Cars 3. While 2006’s Cars was a good enough movie, it was far from Pixar’s best. Its 2011 sequel, Cars 2, broke Pixar’s then-undefeated streak of quality films, and was the first flat-out bad Pixar movie. But the Cars franchise remains Pixar’s biggest merchandise seller, so here we are with a third entry in the series.

I tend to favor the Andy Warhol outlook in believing that, just because something is made with commercial intentions, it doesn’t automatically disqualify it as art. And Cars 3 ended up being a good example of just that. While it certainly won’t be in discussions of Pixar’s finest achievements, Cars 3 manages to avoid the pitfalls of its immediate predecessor and delivers a heartfelt (if familiar) tale that justifies the series’ continuation.

First thing’s first, Cars 3, in many ways, seems like an apology to audiences for Cars 2. None of the original characters from the second film return (which is a little bit of a shame, as I actually enjoyed Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer’s characters, despite the film they were stuck in). Perhaps even more notably, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the comic foil of the first film who was the miscast star of the second, has a completely minimized role; only appearing in a small number of scenes and with few spoken lines of dialogue. The role of comic relief is mostly passed on to series mainstays Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) and Guido (Guido Quaroni), as well as newcomer Cruz Remirez (Cristela Alonzo), who serves as Lightning McQueen’s new trainer.

Speaking of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the red race car is back to where he belongs as the central character in the film. Taking place a good deal of time after the events of the second film, Lightning McQueen is now a veteran racer, and he’s beginning to be upstaged by younger, newer racers who are changing the game to such an extent that many of Lightning’s old friends and rivals on the racetrack are heading for retirement. One newcomer in particular, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), is proving to be a thorn in Lightning’s side.

During one such race, Lightning – desperate to beat Storm and prove he’s not ready to hang it up – overdoes himself and ends up in a terrible crash. Lightning fears he may end up like his mentor, Doc Hudson, and be forced into retirement without getting the chance to show what he has left. From there, Lightning’s sponsors sell their company to billionaire Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who plans to put Lightning through vigorous new training techniques to get him back on the winning side.

When it looks as though Lightning is too old to handle these new training methods, Sterling wishes to send Lightning into a quiet retirement, and continue his legacy through branding. Lightning, wanting to decide for himself when he’s done, makes a bet with Sterling. If Lightning can win one more big race, then he gets to continue to race for as long as he sees fit. But if Lightning doesn’t win, he will agree to retirement. Sterling assigns Cruz Ramirez to help train McQueen who – along with Luigi and Guido – are ready to do whatever they need to make sure Lightning continues racing.

It’s a simple enough premise, and echoes the 2006 original in a number of scenes (I suppose playing it safe to what worked just fine is better than whatever happened with Cars 2). But Cars 3 has enough heart to hold its own as a film.

The Doc Hudson character (voiced by Paul Newman in the original Cars) was the heart and soul of the first film. When Paul Newman passed away in between the first two films, the character was written out of the sequel. An understandable choice on the part of the filmmakers, but no doubt the absence of the first film’s best character was one of the many aspects that left the second film feeling so empty. Cars 3 finds a way to keep the character’s presence intact in a way that’s still respectful to Newman, with flashbacks involving both returning dialogue from the first film, as well as unused lines recorded by Newman. It also helps this threequel that Doc Hudson’s passing is actually used as a thematic point, and not just present in a throwaway line like in Cars 2.

The film as a whole has a nice message about growing older and continuing what you love, even if the world may suggest you’re passed your prime. And the presence of Doc Hudson brings back the heart the second film so sorely lacked. But it’s Cruz Ramirez who gives Cars 3 an identity separate from the first film, with her relationship and interactions with Lightning McQueen standing out as high points for the entire Cars series. And she even proves to be effective comic relief.

Cars 3 is also a beautifully animated film. Though it uses many of the same characters and assets as the other films in the series, Cars 3 looks sleeker and more eye-popping than ever. The racing and action scenes in particular, are quite stunning to behold.

If there’s any fault to be had with Cars 3, it’s simply that it is unambitious. Perhaps it has its reasons for playing things safe after Cars 2, but the similarities to the first film in Cars 3’s narrative are more than a few. And as unfair of a complaint as this may sound, the concept behind the Cars movies has always been far more creatively limited than Pixar’s other works. There’s only so much that can be done with talking cars both in terms of  their movements in animation and the stories they can tell. Cars 3 does the best with what it has, and is certainly a worthwhile rectification for the Cars series, but if one were to compare it with Pixar films such as Inside Out, The Incredibles or Wall-E, then Cars 3 falls drastically short.

With all that said, Cars 3 is a fun movie from start to finish. Its fast-paced action, coupled with its exquisite animation and charming characters (also including Doc Hudson’s former crew chief Smokey, voiced by Chris Cooper) make for a film that children can easily love, and one that may prove surprisingly entertaining for adults.

 

7.5

Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review

Disney has struck gold with their recent string of live-action remakes to their classic canon of animated features. Though their earlier efforts such as 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2014’s Maleficent weren’t very good, they still brought in enough box office revenue to ensure Disney would continue with their sub-genre of live-action remakes. 2015 saw Cinderella receive the same treatment, and though it wasn’t great, it was an improvement over the preceding features. It was with 2016’s The Jungle Book where the concept of Disney animations turned live-action really hit a home-run. The Jungle Book was not only a technical marvel, but it was an improvement over the animated original in terms of story and character development. So it seems Disney has now managed to make these live-action remakes worthy of their beloved animated counterparts by this point.

However, there was a large amount of skepticism in regards to what was to come after The Jungle Book, as Disney planned to remake Beauty and the Beast as their next live-action adaptation. This was a risky move for two big reasons.

The first is that, although Beauty and the Beast is twenty-six years old as of 2017, it’s still a much more recent feature than the other animated films Disney has chosen to remake so far, meaning it’s a much larger target for millennial cynicisms and dismissals.

The other reason is that Beauty and the Beast is quite likely the most acclaimed Disney animated feature in history. The other animated movies Disney remade were enjoyable to varying extents, but there was definitely room for improvement (even if the live-action remakes didn’t always achieve that). Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, is so charming, sweet and entertaining, it didn’t really need a remake. I would even say it was my favorite non-Pixar Disney animation up until Frozen was released twenty-two years later. Disney was taking a big gamble with this one.

I’m happy to say that I ultimately feel this new version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a highly enjoyable movie. Though it never reaches the same heights as the animated original, it’s a more than worthy retelling that does justice in reimagining the film so many of us have grown to love.

The story is nearly identical to the original. A young prince (Dan Stevens) is vain and selfish, and is punished for his ways by an enchantress, who places a spell on the prince that transforms him into a beast, and the staff of his castle become anthropomorphic objects. The only way for the prince to break the spell on himself and his staff is to learn to love another, and to earn their love in return.

Some years later, in a small village not-so-far removed from the castle, a young woman named Belle (Emma Watson) lives with her tinkerer father Maurice (Kevin Kline). Belle doesn’t fit in with the rest of the village, being a well-educated bookworm in a town filled with more simple-minded people, such as the brutish Gaston (Luke Evans) an accomplished hunter and the most respected man in town due to his good looks, who is obsessed with making Belle his wife (due solely for the fact that she’s the most beautiful woman in the village).

One day, Maurice gets lost in the forest on his way to the market, and ends up becoming the prisoner of the castle ruled by the prince-turned-Beast. Belle goes to rescue her father, and ends up taking his place as the Beast’s prisoner. From there, Belle befriends a number of the castle’s staff, such as Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) who has been transformed into a candlestick, Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), who has become a clock, and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), who has become a teapot. The castle’s staff believes Belle could be the one to break their curse, but winning the Beast’s affections is easier said than done.

So the story is lifted almost directly from the animated film. That’s probably for the best (why fix what isn’t broken?), but there are some slight changes to certain scenes in an attempt to add more to them or make them fit more into the ever-so-slightly different tone. Some of these changes are fine (Gaston is more immediately villainous here, as opposed to the comical buffoon who slowly degrades into a monster by the third act). Others, however, can feel a little bit like padding, with the most notable example being a largely out-of-place flashback to Belle’s childhood, which details the tragic events involving her mother, and why Maurice has raised her alone.

I don’t want to sound too hard on the scene, because in terms of emotion, it does a solid job, and actually adds a bit to this version’s take on Maurice’s character. But it also happens at kind of a random moment, and the method in which the film gets us there feels kind of shoehorned.

With that said, the film – as a whole – does retain much of the animated original’s charms. The iconic musical numbers such as Belle, Gaston, Be Our Guest, the titular Beauty and the Beast, and The Mob Song are all here, with most of the cast providing solid recreations of these classics (though with all due respect to Emma Thompson, the kindly vocals of Angela Lansbury just can’t be recreated). Emma Watson does sound a little auto-tuned (at least during her character’s self-titled musical number), which is a little distracting as she’s the main character, but the songs are so great it’s hard to be too critical.

There are also a few additional songs added in this version, and though they’re unlikely to become as immortal as the returning songs, they still make for some great musical sequences. The best of the new batch are probably Days in the Sun and Evermore, the latter of which rectifies one of the few questionable omissions from the original by giving the Beast his own solo number.

The film also follows in the footsteps of The Jungle Book by being an absolute marvel to look at. The CG used to create the Beast and his transformed staff is impressive, and the art direction, set designs and costumes do a great job at bringing the animated source material to life. It’s just a really pretty film to look at.

As enjoyable as the film is, Beauty and the Beast just can’t quite recapture the same magic and excellence of the animated film. Some of that is simply the differences in mediums, with certain elements just not being able to translate as perfectly as you’d wish they could.

For example, in the animated film, when Maurice first meets the talking candlesticks, clocks and teacups of the castle, he’s more curious and delighted by the occurrence than anything, and there’s something charming about that innocence. Sadly, that just wouldn’t translate into live-action, so when Maurice finds a talking teacup, he does what someone would do in real life, and out of fright, tries to get the hell out of there. It makes sense in this version, but obviously that’s a bit of the original’s charm that simply can’t be recaptured in a live-action setting and feel natural.

Another small example (strangely also involving Maurice), comes when we are first introduced to the tinkerer. In the animated version, Belle – after hearing the entire town sing about how she doesn’t fit in – asks her father if he thinks she’s “odd.” He replies – after emerging from under one of his contraptions wearing a goofy helmet and comically large goggles – “My daughter, odd? Where in the world would you get an idea like that?” In this version, Belle asks him the same question, and Maurice’s response remains identical, only this time with a much calmer voice, and he simply continues work on one of his inventions, without the ironic visual gag to go with it.

These kinds of things aren’t too big of deals, and are certainly no deal-breakers. But I do see them as simple reminders that the animated film was perfect as it was, and that there are some elements that simply work in animation, and lose a little something when brought to the realms of live-action.

With all that said, this Beauty and the Beast is a worthwhile retelling of the beloved animated film, which ultimately does a terrific job at bringing its source material into a new medium. All while providing a solid cast (also including Josh Gad as Gaston’s sycophantic lackey LeFou). Emma Watson certainly looks the part of a Disney princess, just as Luke Evans is a perfect match for the vain Gaston. Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen are highlights of the film through their banterings as Lumiere and Cogsworth. Throw in some wonderful music both new and old, and some shiny new visuals, and you have a worthy modernization of one of Disney’s most timeless films. Even if it didn’t necessarily require one.

 

8.0

Lady and the Tramp Review

Lady and the Tramp has to be one of the most iconic of Disney films. Though the 1955 feature may not be among the best features from the House of Mouse, it has enough charm to it to warrant its iconic status.

Lady and the Tramp tells the story of two dogs: Lady, a Cocker Spaniel who lives a ritzy life with an upper-middle-class family (whom she refers to as “Jim Dear” and “Darling,” after the pet names the couple call each other), and the Tramp, a stray mutt just trying to get by.

After Lady’s owners have a new baby, life begins to change for the pampered pup, as she begins to realize she’s getting less attention than she once did, though she loves her family, and the new baby. Lady’s life gets turned upside down, however, when Jim Dear and Darling take a trip, leaving Lady and the baby in the care of “Aunt Sarah,” a ghastly crone with a disdain for dogs.

Not only is Aunt Sarah trouble, but so are her two Siamese cats, who tear up the place and blame it on Lady. Aunt Sarah goes to a pet shop to get Lady a muzzle, which results in the family’s beloved dog running away. After getting lost, Lady becomes acquainted with the Tramp, who helps her get by in life without humans, and the two begin an adventurous romance. All the while, Lady hopes to find a way back home.

It’s simple stuff, but like most Disney movies, the animal characters are cute and easily win the audience over, and it’s a charming enough story to delight both children and adults. It’s true that Disney movies reached a whole new level of entertainment value during their “Renaissance” era of the 1990s, and its only been in recent years that the non-Pixar animated features from Disney have reached a greater level of sophistication in their storytelling. So Lady and the Tramp falls under the umbrella of simplicity that was Disney’s 1950’s output, but again, it has the right amount of charm to bring smiles to faces (especially if you’re a dog lover like myself, though this makes the dog pound scene twice as heartbreaking).

The film is well animated, as you would expect from Disney, though their are some notably choppy moments in editing. But the animals all have a fluidity to their movements, and like most Disney features, the animators gave them as much personality in their appearance as the actors did in their voices.

Lady and the Tramp is also notable for including some of the most iconic scenes in not only Disney’s library, but in all of American cinema. The famous spaghetti scene has been paid homage and parodied countless times through the decades, to the point that younger audiences may not realize that it originated here.

Lady and the Tramp is too simple to be ranked among the absolute best Disney animated features, but it’s filled with so many delightful little moments and cute animal characters that it hardly matters. It’s a sweet, innocently romantic movie that remains heartwarming even today.

 

7.5

My Neighbor Totoro Review

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro is pure magic. Though director Hayao Miyazaki’s trilogy of previous films were all terrific, it was with this 1988 feature that Hayao Miyazaki became the legend in animation that he is. My Neighbor Totoro is a film that’s as wonderful as it is unique, and an absolute joy for all ages.

While Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky were all epic adventures, Hayao Miyazaki decided to make something more subtle for his fourth feature.

My Neighbor TotoroMy Neighbor Totoro – originally conceived as a children’s book by Miyazaki over a decade before it became a reality on the silver screen – is not a film featuring action, suspense, or daring adventurers. Instead it’s a film all about the little moments in life, every day occurrences made magical. My Neighbor Totoro is all about childhood wonderment and imagination, and yet is also deeply grounded in real emotion. It’s a film that’s as beautiful as it is adorable.

My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of 10-year old Satsuki Kusakabe and her little sister Mei, two girls who are moving to the Japanese countryside with their father. Their move is meant to bring them closer to their sickly mother, who is in a hospital near the new home. Unbeknownst to the family, their new home is haunted.

My Neighbor TotoroNot haunted in any traditional sense of the word. There are no scary apparitions at work here. The house, it turns out, is invaded by Soot Sprites. These small, fuzzy creatures – who would later appear in Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away – simply produce dust in the old house. But an even bigger supernatural presence happens to live next door. Inside of a gigantic camphor tree that stands behind the girls’ new home live the Totoros.

These Totoros are gentle forest spirits who can easily be seen by children, but are more elusive to adults. The camphor tree is home to three such Totoros: a tiny, white one who can disappear. A slightly larger blue one who carries a magic bag full of acorns. And finally, the gigantic gray Totoro – the “King of the Forest” – who can make trees grow, produce gusts of wind by flying on a magic top, and rides around in a Catbus.

My Neighbor TotoroLittle Mei is the first to meet the magical Totoros, and her sister Satsuki is soon to follow. Together, the two sisters have several amazing encounters with the Totoros as they get accustomed to their new home and deal with their mother’s illness.

There really isn’t a more detailed plot than that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My Neighbor Totoro is not a film about a plot (it’s only real conflict doesn’t arrive until its third act). Instead, its story is all about its wonderfully realized characters and their daily occurrences: some mundane, some magical. Some happy, some sad.

My Neighbor TotoroSatsuki and Mei are quite likely the most realistically depicted characters in animation. Their personalities, mannerisms and interactions with each other and everyone around them capture an amazing sense of realism. They may be animated, but they’re depicted in such a way that makes them as believable and lifelike as any characters in cinema. Because of their believability, we are able to get all the more emotionally invested in the film. It’s easy to smile in the moments when the girls are playing, and it’s downright heartbreaking to see them argue or worry about their mother.

My Neighbor TotoroTheir father is similarly memorable. Though he doesn’t partake in the girls’ magical adventures (he’s a busy university professor, and adults aren’t aware of when Totoro is around) he is loving towards his daughters, and completely respectful of the tales they tell him. While any other movie might have adults openly doubt their children, or simply humor them, Professor Kusakabe firmly accepts and believes his daughters when they tell him about their adventures with Totoro or the Catbus. He may or may not fully understand what his girls are telling him about magical forest creatures, but he never once doubts them. The same goes for the girls’ mother, who is delighted to hear that the family’s new home also occupies spirits. While many animated features often feature a conflicting dynamic between parents and children, My Neighbor Totoro’s depiction of family comes across as refreshingly loving.

My Neighbor TotoroThe girls also encounter Kanta, a neighborhood boy who develops a crush on Satsuki, and his kindly grandmother, who watches over the girls while their dad is at work. These characters also have a strong sense of believability about them, and help add to the film’s realness.

Then we have the Totoros themselves, arguably Miyazaki’s greatest creations. They’re as mystifying as they are adorable. They are capable of utterly wondrous feats, yet are as simple and cuddly as a household pet. They are certainly cute enough to justify their standing as Studio Ghibli’s mascots, yet there’s also a reverent, spiritual quality about them, making for a completely unique combination.

In terms of animation, My Neighbor Totoro remains a captivatingly beautiful film. Though it may not have the same sleekness of Miyazaki’s later features, the backgrounds are as stunning as they’ve ever been, the character designs as unique as any of the great director’s features (and certainly the most adorable), and the film (once again) captures a striking realism with each of the character’s mannerisms.

As beautiful as the visuals are, the soundtrack seemingly pulls off the impossible and equals them. As is the case with every Miyazaki feature starting with Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro was composed by Joe Hisaishi, and it is possibly his finest work. Appropriately, the soundtrack to Totoro is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The film as a whole brilliantly captures the happy and the melancholic, and the soundtrack brings out these emotions all the more.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the few Miyazaki films to have been dubbed into English on two separate occasions. The first dub (released on home video in 1993 and no longer in print) was distributed by Fox, and is easily the best of the early dubs of Japanese animation. The second dub, distributed by the Miyazaki-mainstays at Disney, is more readily available, and features a more star-heavy cast (with sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning providing the voices of Satsuki and Mei). Perhaps because I grew up watching the original dub, that tends to be my go-to English version, though in many ways Disney’s effort is just as great. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

My Neighbor TotoroWhen it was first released in Japan, My Neighbor Totoro was a revelation, winning numerous awards – many of which were normally reserved for live-action features – and becoming one of the most cherished family films of all time. Though it never saw a wide theatrical release in the western world, its impact has been no different, becoming a beloved classic as much in the United States as it is in its native Japan. It’s acclaim couldn’t be more deserved.

My Neighbor TotoroMy Neighbor Totoro is a film entirely void of wickedness. There are no villains, and not even the tiniest shred of cynicism. But despite its consistent happiness, My Neighbor Totoro is anything but naive, as it never shies away from the existence of sadness and tragedy. It captures the feelings of childhood better than any film I’ve ever seen, and is relatable to both children and adults.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the greatest animated films of all time. It finds magic in the mundane, adventure in the average, and depth in the simplistic. And it does so with a sincerity and grace that seems unapproachable to other filmmakers. My Neighbor Totoro is the most gentle, sensitive and sweet film I’ve ever seen.

 

10

Princess Mononoke Review

Princess Mononoke

Few animated films have had the impact of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. When it was first released in Japan in 1997, it became the highest-grossing film in Japan’s history at the time (it later lost that title to Titanic and, ultimately, to Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away). It won a number of awards, many of which were normally reserved for live-action films, and became a landmark animated feature not only to its native Japan, but for the entire world.

An interesting note about Princess Mononoke is that it is a reimagining of Hayao Miyazaki’s own Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, with many narrative and thematic similarities. Though excellent Nausicaa may have been, Princess Mononoke polishes Miyazaki’s classic tale and gives it a fresh coat of paint with a different setting and even more fleshed-out characters.

While Nausicaa took place in a postapocalyptic future, Princess Mononoke sets the clock backwards to an alternate, ancient Japan. The hero here is Ashitaka, a prince of a long-forgotten tribe bearing a curse in his arm, a result of an encounter with a demon. It turns out that the demon was actually a boar god, and that his hatred and rage devolved him into the hideous demon. Ashitaka’s curse threatens to slowly take his life, so he leaves his village and journeys to the west from where the boar god originated, in hopes of finding a cure for his curse.

Princess MononokeAn even bigger plot unfolds, however, as Ashitaka’s journey places him in the midst of a war between the humans of Iron Town, and the animal gods of the forest. The forest is home to a benign deity, a Deer God, whose presence allows the other gods of the forest to thrive. The forest is also home to a tribe of wolf gods, who have adopted a young human woman, San (the titular “Princess Mononoke”) as their own. Iron Town is ruled over by Lady Eboshi, a strong and fearless woman who wishes to destroy the forest so that her people and industry can thrive. A third-party in the scuffle comes in the form of Jiko, a monk who is willing to ally with Eboshi in a quest to retrieve the head of the Deer God.

San has sworn to kill Eboshi, and the animals of the forest wish to destroy Iron Town and the human civilizations as much as Eboshi wishes to remove the forest. This is where Princess Mononoke becomes something special, because while the “man vs. nature” setup may actually be a rather tame storyline for a Miyazaki feature, the character depth and dimensions make it so much more than any other film in the genre.

While movies like Avatar have an almost cartoonishly black-and-white depiction of the struggle between man and nature (trees good, humans bad!), in Princess Mononoke, there is good and bad to be found everywhere.

Lady EboshiSan, for example, isn’t simply a nature-loving princess, but a proud warrior who wants to defend her home, while also becoming dangerously hellbent on revenge because of it. Lady Eboshi – arguably the heart and soul of the film’s depth – is probably the most moral character in the film. While so many environmentalist fables depict industry as a faceless evil, Eboshi is a kind, compassionate individual who rescues women from prostitution and personally cares for lepers. Miyazaki’s antagonists rarely exhibit blatantly evil attributes, and Eboshi is one of the great director’s best creations. Even Jiko, with his Wario-esque appearance and seemingly sinister motives, is just a man trying to find his way through life.

Ashitaka of course is at the center of it all, trying to maintain peace between the roaring factions. He may seem similarly simplistic to Nausicaa – at least when compared to the more complex characters around him – but like Nausicaa, he works for the narrative at hand.

Admittedly, the similarities to Nausicaa are more than a few. Not only do the plot and themes reflect those of Nausicaa in many respects, but even the characters and settings can be seen as reworkings of Miyazaki’s previous film.

Ashitaka fills Nausicaa’s role, while San plays the part of Prince Asbel. Lady Eboshi stands in for Princess Kushana, while Jiko works as a more cynical Kuratowa. You could even argue that Nausicaa’s Toxic Jungle has been swapped for the forest, with the boars and wolves filling the roles of Nausicaa’s giant insects. Even the Deer God’s transformation into the Nightwalker – a colossal, blob-like apparition that is one of the great visual spectacles of animated cinema – is something akin to the God Warrior of Nausicaa.

I must repeat that Princess Mononoke was created as a remake of Nausicaa, so it’s understandable that the similarities are there. Still, said similarities do arguably make Mononoke the least original Miyazaki film from a narrative perspective.

Princess MononokeWith that said, it should also be repeated that Miyazaki did a better job at fleshing out the characters here, which is no small feat, considering Nausicaa already boasted a rather complex cast. Likewise, the themes here are also further delved into (Mononoke is arguably more about the destructive nature of hatred and rage itself, than it is about man and nature fighting each other). So the similarities to Nausicaa are ultimately a minimal gripe.

Princess Mononoke also saw a solid dub hit Stateside in 1999. Though it may fall short of the later dubbing work for Ghibli films provided by Disney and Pixar, Princess Mononoke’s dub is still a great alternative to the original Japanese track, and features Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver and Billy Bob Thorton as Ashitaka, San, Eboshi and Jiko, respectively.

Another highlight to Princess Mononoke, like any Miyazaki film, is the animation itself. Princess Mononoke ranks as one of the most beautifully animated films ever made. At the time of its release, Mononoke was the most expensive animated film of all time, and it shows. There’s a painstaking attention to detail in every movement, and the environments are some of the most breathtakingly beautiful of any animated feature.

There’s a strong sense of variety in the character designs, and the beasts and demons are all sights to behold. Every Miyazaki film is a visual feast, but Mononoke raised the bar with a visual sheen that would then become the standard for Miyazaki’s subsequent films.

Then there’s the musical score, composed by Miyazaki mainstay Joe Hisaishi. While all of Hisaishi’s scores for Miyazaki’s films are strong enough that it’s hard to pick out a best of the bunch, Princess Mononoke’s score is certainly a strong contender for that title (though it falls slightly short of a couple others, in my personal opinion). It’s a simply captivating soundtrack.

Princess MononokeJust like every Hayao Miyazaki film (except, perhaps, Howl’s Moving Castle), the profoundly pleasing visual and audio qualities are only secondary to the story and characters of Princess Mononoke. While it may not have the originality of the director’s other works in terms of structure, the depth and complexity (not to mention the imagination) at hand are up there with any of his films.

Princess Mononoke remains a classic of animated cinema. Its memorable, detailed characters, stunning animation and soundtrack, and compelling story and action sequences make it an absolute landmark in the world of animation.

 

9.5

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Review

Nausicaa

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is one of the great landmarks of animated cinema, comparable in impact to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Toy Story. The second feature film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaa can be seen as the feature that laid the groundwork for Miyazaki’s style, and its production ultimately led to the creation of Studio Ghibli. It’s hard to understate Nausicaa’s impact on the world of animation.

It certainly wasn’t an easy road to get Nausicaa made, however. Hayao Miyazaki originally envisioned the idea for Nausicaa as a feature film, but back in the 80s, an anime film not based on an existing manga was something studios didn’t want to bother with. So Miyazaki decided to make Nausicaa into a manga. A manga which Miyazaki attempted to write in such a way that it couldn’t be translated into a film (possibly to prevent anyone else from getting a hold of his creation). But the manga – which would be published over the course of thirteen years – would lead to a feature film version of Nausicaa getting the greenlight, with Miyazaki in the director’s chair. The film would end up being released when the manga was only in its second year of publication, so suffice to say Miyazaki had quite the challenge in giving Nausicaa its transition to the silver screen.

Thankfully, Miyazaki managed to overcome these insurmountable hurdles. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind – while far from Miyazaki’s best work – exudes a level of quality and imagination that make it an animated classic.

NausicaaNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind takes place in a distant future. Almost all of civilization was destroyed over a thousand years before the events of the film, in an event known as the “Seven Days of Fire.” This post-apocalyptic world has unleashed toxic jungles with gargantuan insects – the mightiest of which being the Ohm – and produce fungi which spread the jungles’ poison across the world.

The few kingdoms that still exist struggle for power in the devastated world. The nations of Tolmekia and Pejite in particular try to gain the edge over the other. Tolmekia and Pejite believe they’ve found the solution to not only end their struggles with each other, but also the Ohm and the Toxic Jungle.

NausicaaPejite has unearthed a long-dormant “God Warrior,” one of the artificial beings that destroyed the world in the Seven Days of Fire. The Tolmekians seize the sleeping giant from Pejite for themselves, but an attack by giant insects leads the ship carrying the God Warrior to crash into the Valley of the Wind, a small kingdom of few citizens and whose ocean air helps protect them from the poisons of the Jungle.

The princess of the Valley of the Wind is the titular Nausicaa, a selfless champion of her people who set the stage for Miyazaki’s unique brand of heroines. When the Tolmekians – lead by their own princess Kushana and her head officer, Kuratowa – occupy the Valley of the Wind in order to further tend to the sleeping God Warrior, Nausicaa volunteers as a hostage to the Tolmekians to find a way to make peace between the roaring nations.

It’s a rather grand sci-fi/fantasy adventure that is equal parts entertaining and intriguing. The world Miyazaki created for Nausicaa is as original and distinct as any other he’s made. The creature designs for the insects are imaginative and grotesque, and the look of the Toxic Jungle itself is far more visually unique than its name may imply, and provides some breathtaking background environments. The machines in the film may be fantastic at a glance, but given the nature of the film’s world and its limited recourses, they also have a believable crudeness about them. This gives the machines a similarly “used” quality to those found in Star Wars (and much like Star Wars, many of the inventions’ uses are immediately apparent to the audience, with no need of unnecessary rants to how everything works a la Star Trek). Like the majority of Miyazaki’s works, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a beauty to behold in both visual beauty and in the imagination of its world.

Unfortunately, the animation itself isn’t quite up to par with many of Miyazaki’s other works, with many of the character designs looking similarly to each other, and limited movements from the characters in the background. Granted, given that Miyazaki and company were getting off the ground here, Nausicaa’s limitations are a bit forgivable. But in retrospect, after having watched Miyazaki’s later works, the limitations really stand out.

NausicaaThat’s a small price to pay, however, considering that the characters themselves leave quite the impression. Though Nausicaa is almost simplistically “perfect,” her undying selflessness works wonders in helping the audience become invested in the film’s rather bleak world. Lord Yupa is a master swordsman and something of Nausicaa’s surrogate grandfather, always ready to dispatch sagely wisdom. Asbel is a Pejite prince who becomes Nausicaa’s friend and confidant. And the villains began Miyazaki’s trend of complicated antagonists, with Kushana having relatable goals of her own, and Kuratowa being able to find humor and amusement in even the darkest moments.

NausicaaOnce again, Disney provided a solid dub for the film: Alison Lohman voices Nausicaa, Patrick Stewart dubs over Yupa’s mustache movements. Shia LaBeouf voices Asbel, while Uma Thurman and Chris Sarandon voice Kushana and Kuratowa. Each actor gives a strong vocal performance and captures the intended nature of the film.

The characters and the world they inhabit really help the film come alive, while the suspense and action sequences help it maintain a high level of entertainment throughout. On top of the narrative and visual strongpoints, Nausicaa also marks the first time that Joe Hisaishi scored a Miyazaki film, meaning that there’s a good deal of memorable music to be heard as well. Admittedly, the film’s limited production can sometimes be found in the soundtrack (Hisaishi worked mostly with a soundboard here, as opposed to a full orchestra), but the music still stands out as a unique and emotional score.

Nausicaa, despite its many merits, falls a bit short when compared to a number of Miyazaki’s works that came after it. Though this is probably more of a case of Miyazaki perfecting his craft, than it is a statement to any particular flaws with the film itself. Though it may be of note that Hayao Miyazaki himself was no fan of the finished product, and was disappointed enough in it that he eventually remade it under the guise of Princess Mononoke.

Perhaps this is simply an instance of a creator being overly critical of themselves, however. Aside from some relatively limited animation and an admittedly abrupt ending closing an otherwise stellar third act, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind has all the hallmarks of a Miyazaki classic. Without it, we may never have seen the Miyazaki classics that were to follow. And a world without Miyazaki movies? We’d be better off in the Toxic Jungle.

 

9.0