My Month in Movies (October 2021)

Hey! I’m doing this again!

Somehow, my October movie watching managed to surpass my September movie watching. So I figured a second edition of this “My Month in Movies” thing was in order. But I stress this again, don’t expect this to be a monthly thing. Only something I’ll do when I feel I’ve watched enough movies to warrant it, and if I have the interest. But I certainly had the interest this month!

I managed to watch twenty-five feature films throughout the month of Halloween, with the holiday itself inspiring me to watch a number of them as a means to get in the holiday spirit (I’m festive like that). And somehow, I still managed to find the time to rewatch the entirety of what is arguably the best television show of all time. I honestly don’t know how I managed to watch everything I did in October, but I guess a bit of insomnia freed up some of my usual sleep time, so that probably “helped.” Additionally, the only video games I put any time into during the month were Metroid Dread and Mario Party Superstars, the latter of which wasn’t released until the tail end of the month (but it was still released before Halloween, which is what Nintendo should have done with Luigi’s Mansion 3 a few years back. No, I still haven’t forgiven them for releasing Luigi’s Mansion 3 on the day of Halloween but constantly advertised it as being “just in time” for Halloween).

*Ahem!*

Anyway, my point being my free time this month was basically in watching, not playing. Which is another reason why I may skip writing another one of these next month (we’ll see). I’m so backlogged in my reviews and write-ups for video games, that I really should prioritize that aspect of my website for a while.

Why am I explaining all this to you? I have quite a few movies to talk about, so let’s get cracking at this.

Here is the full list of movies I watched in October 2021, in chronological order of when I watched them. Once again, movies I watched for the very first time are marked with asterisks.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze

The Maltese Falcon

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3

Spirited Away

Casablanca

Venom: Let There be Carnage*

The Addams Family 2 (2021)*

No Time to Die*

North by Northwest*

Dick Tracy*

The Adventures of Tintin

Jaws

Jaws 2*

Jaws 3(D)*

Jaws: The Revenge*

The Evil Dead*

Evil Dead 2*

Army of Darkness*

Dune (2021)*

Psycho

Rear Window

Howl’s Moving Castle

The Birds

Ghostbusters

In addition to all these movies, I also watched all 180 episodes of Seinfeld, as well as the 50-minute Disney+ special, The Muppets Haunted Mansion, which was cute (Gotta love The Muppets).

So quite the eclectic lineup, I must say. While in September my overall “flavor of the month” seemed to be action movies, for the obvious reasons in October it seemed to be various forms of horror and suspense. But if that’s too obvious, let’s say the flavor of the month was Alfred Hitchcock, seeing as I watched no less than four films by the great director. And yes, I started things off by watching the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy again. What of it?

After Ninja Turtles, I rewatched The Maltese Falcon for the first time in a few years. A classic Humphrey Bogart film, and the first to pair him up with actors Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, the latter of which made his acting debut in The Maltese Falcon as the villain, Kasper Gutman, AKA “The Fat Man.” The Maltese Falcon is often considered the first film noire, but that’s debated. Either way, it’s a great piece of classic cinema.

Then I had the terrific opportunity to once again (more specifically, thrice again) see my all time favorite movie, Spirited Away, on the big screen. With Spirited Away’s limited re-releases in 2016 through 2019, as well as these three viewings and when I first saw it in 2003, this brings my overall theatrical viewings of Spirited Away to 14! That’s the third most I’ve seen a movie in theaters (or fourth, depending on how you view a tie), and if these re-releases keep up (please do), it will climb it’s way to the top in no time. It would be fitting, seeing as it is my favorite film.

You know, I’ve made it no secret that Spirited Away is my favorite movie (along with My Neighbor Totoro), and yet I still procrastinate on making my lists of favorite films (whether by decade, genre, overall, what have you). And I feel like I’m not alone there. It seems like a lot of people can point out their absolute favorite of something, but then when it comes to making some kind of concrete list, there’s some pressure with making it for some reason. You’d think knowing your favorite would make everything else fall into place. I don’t know, that’s just an observation.

Next up was Casablanca, one of the most acclaimed and beloved films of all time, and another that starred Bogart and featured Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. It also features one of the most famous misquotes in movie history (“Play it again, Sam!” is never actually uttered. Though Bogart’s character does tell a character named Sam to play a song on a piano, the words are never in that specific order). Another great classic.

After that I saw some recent movies in theaters. I’ve already reviewed Venom: Let There be Carnage and The Addams Family 2, so you can go ahead and read those if you want. But I also saw the newest James Bond film, and the last to star Daniel Craig: No Time to Die.

I mostly enjoyed No Time to Die. It featured some exhilarating action scenes, and it was a fitting, melancholic sendoff to Daniel Craig’s James Bond. With that said, I don’t think it was as good as Casino Royale, Skyfall or Spectre (I actually still haven’t seen Quantum of Solace). Despite doing most of what it did well, I don’t think No Time to Die did them as well as those aforementioned movies. But one thing that was a huge downgrade from the past few Bond films was the villain. The past two films featured Javier Bardem and Chrisoph Waltz as the villains (the latter as James Bond’s big bad, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, no less). The former was physically imposing, the latter was mentally intimidating. So when No Time to Die wheels out Rami Malek as the bad guy, he kind of falls flat. He just doesn’t have a villainous presence like his predecessors, and his character’s motives are murky, at best. Not to mention his defining physical trait is that he has bad skin. A lot of Bond villains have some hook to their appearance: Blofeld is usually bald and has a nasty scar across his face; Oddjob has his hat; Jaws has, well, a big metal jaw. But No Time to Die’s villain, Lyutsifer Safin, has bad skin… Yeah, not quite the same.

What’s really disappointing is that No Time to Die brings back Christoph Waltz as Blofeld, but just for a single scene cameo. He should have just been the villain again, really. Especially since this was Craig’s last Bond film, it would have made all the more sense for Blofeld to be the final villain, given the character’s history in the franchise. By making Blofeld the villain of the previous film and then ending this current James Bond series with a new villain, it actually makes the whole scenario feel less important. Why doesn’t Hollywood have any faith in the idea of returning villains anymore?

I really should just review No Time to Die. Maybe some day I’ll rewatch all of the Craig Bond films and give them all a write-up.

North by Northwest was the first Hitchcock film I watched in October, and was the only one of the four I watched during the month that I watched for the very first time. Even if you’ve never seen North by Northwest, if you’re familiar with iconic movie moments, you’re probably familiar with this one.

The fact that I watched North by Northwest right after a James Bond film was coincidental, but fitting, seeing as it greatly influenced the spy thriller genre, most notably James Bond. The twist here being that the main character isn’t actually a spy, but gets mistaken for one. This is another great Hitchcock film, but one that I feel has one major flaw: the ending is waaay too abrupt.

I know, I’ve committed cinematic blasphemy once again. But the film has such a great build and execution to just about every moment beforehand, and then it literally wraps up seconds, seconds, after the final confrontation with the bad guys. If a modern movie did the same thing, all people would ever talk about would be the abrupt ending. With classic Hollywood it’s the opposite, and we skirt over something like that and only highlight the good. Granted, I would prefer people be more positive and have the outlook that the good outweighs and overpowers the bad, but it does seem like film buffs have a bit of a double standard with these things.

Otherwise North by Northwest is another winner in Hitchcock’s belt. The film’s writer even mentioned that he wanted to make sure he wrote “The Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films” (which admittedly seems a bit odd. You’d think Alfred Hitchcock would be the only person in the film’s production who could rightfully make that call, really).

Next we have Dick Tracy from 1990. What a wild ride this movie is. Although its story and characters are very simplistic, what really makes Dick Tracy stand out is its utter commitment to style. While modern comic book movies try to make the worlds of the comics look “grounded” and “more realistic,” Dick Tracy had the complete opposite mentality. It wanted to make reality look like a comic book! Talk about being ahead of its time!

There’s so much color and style in Dick Tracy, that its imagery really sticks in the mind afterwards. Not to mention its wild parade of villains, with pretty much all of them hiding under heaps of prosthetic makeup. You have guys with tiny faces, guys with no faces, and guys with prune faces!

Dick Tracy kind of reminds me a lot of The Rocketeer (1991), which I guess is fitting, seeing as both films were attempts by Disney to create their own Indiana Jones-esque franchise. The key difference between the two is that Rocketeer was released under Disney itself, while the (relatively) more mature Dick Tracy was released under Disney’s now-defunct Touchstone brand (which, despite popular misconception, was just a brand name Disney used for more mature movies, and not a separate studio). Both should be ranked among Disney’s best live-action films.

I also reviewed The Adventures of Tintin already. And Fun Fact: I posted that review on the tenth anniversary of the film’s original release in Belgium (which is appropriately where the film was released first). Again, I’m festive.

After that, I watched the Jaws movies. Or should I say I watched Jaws, a genuine classic of horror, suspense and action, and then proceeded to watch three fanfictions that somehow got turned into feature films?

Okay, so in all fairness, Jaws 2 isn’t so bad, it’s just that it really had no hope to live up to the original. Jaws 3 is pretty darn bad though, but it actually got off a little easy over time because Jaws: The Revenge is so bad that it became the one everyone talks about in hate and disgust to this day.

At any rate, I don’t think anyone would blame me that I’ve seen the original Jaws many times over the years, but only just now watched the sequels for the first time. The first Jaws is an all-time classic, and the film that made Steven Spielberg Steven Spielberg. It was the first-ever Summer blockbuster, and it still has to be one of the best.

Steven Spielberg’s films are rarely complex, but they’re so well done at everything they do that he makes them unforgettable. Jaws really is a simple horror movie at heart, but it’s surely one of the best ones. It really helps give the film some emotional weight that Spielberg made the three main characters into complex figures, and that each of the shark’s victims aren’t simply treated like mere “movie kills,” but are made appropriately tragic (two concepts that seem lost on most horror movies). And the shark (which is its name, not “Jaws” like the James Bond villain, just “The Shark”) is one of the great movie villains. A mostly unseen presence of terror and death, defined by its theme music.

Jaws really hasn’t aged a day. In fact, in some respects, it may resonate even stronger today in many ways. A deadly problem arises that could be resolved if a few simple rules are followed, but some selfish, greedy, stupid people blatantly ignore those rules and make the problem worse. Why does that sound so familiar?

It’s definitely worth mentioning that Spielberg had no hand in any of the Jaws sequels. Though to their credit, I suppose the Jaws sequels produced two of the most famous/parodied taglines in movie history. Surely you’ve heard some variation of “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” (Jaws 2) and “This time, it’s personal” (Jaws: The Revenge).

After Jaws I went into even more horror territory with the Evil Dead trilogy by Sam Raimi. The first Evil Dead is a straight-up horror movie. A low budget affair that sees the now iconic Ash Williams character (Bruce Campbell) survive a haunted cabin as his friends are possessed by demons one by one.

Evil Dead 2 is probably the best movie of the trilogy, and combines the horror with comedy. Interestingly, it’s as much a remake as it is a sequel, with its first ten or so minutes retelling the events of the first film while omitting most of the characters from the original (save for Ash and his girlfriend) and retconning the ending. And then many of the events of the first movie that involved the characters left out of the sequel are redone with different characters and situations in part 2. It’s an interesting take on a sequel, to say the least. I admit I have some mixed feelings about how it wipes away certain elements of its predecessor (effectively making the original movie a half-canon prologue), but Evil Dead 2 really does outdo the first film in basically every way otherwise. Plus, this is the one where Ash gets his chainsaw hand.

The third film of the trilogy, Army of Darkness, is relatively less acclaimed, but kind of brilliant in its own way. Although it’s still classified as a horror movie, it feels more like a total change of genre, doubling down on the cartoonish comedy of the second entry and placing the action in a swords and sorcery setting (okay, chainsaws and sorcery). That’s right, Ash goes back in time to medieval days and battles an army of skeletons. You have to respect a sequel that’s willing to be so different to what came before. It’s one of the most bonkers sequels ever.

We go back to modern releases with Dune, the latest cinematic interpretation of Frank Herbert’s influential sci-fi epic. Like No Time to Die, maybe I’ll write a full review of this in the near future, but I have to say I wasn’t won over by it. I feel like Dune is one of those things where you really, really have to love sci-fi to get into it. I don’t know, it feels like one of those sci-fi stories that’s more about the situation and politics of its world than it is about story and characters. I find it really difficult to get into that kind of thing. And when turned into a movie it kind of works against itself. It’s basically watching a movie where people are constantly explaining things, but you don’t really feel for any of it. The new Dune movie takes its sweet time with so many things, but little of it goes into making you care about who the characters are. And I found the constant presence of big name celebrities to be more distracting than anything (a guy takes off his mask to reveal, dun dun dun, it’s Javier Bardem!).

I will say, the film is a spectacle, sometimes an effective one. And I think Bootstrap Baron Harkonnen is a good bad guy. A big, floating fat guy. Now that’s a villain! More villains need to be big, floating fat guys.

Back to Hitchcock with Psycho and Rear Window.

Psycho is probably Hitchcock’s most widely known film, and one of my favorites. The first half is more of a suspenseful movie, as a young woman steals forty-thousand dollars and runs off to start a new life with her boyfriend, only for it to switch into a horror film once she stops at the Bates Motel on her way to reunite with said boyfriend. The switch occurs, of course, in the infamous shower scene, which has to be the most famous “movie kill” in any horror movie. It also has to be the biggest switcheroo of a movie plot, and Alfred Hitchcock went to great lengths to ensure theaters wouldn’t permit anyone into the movie after it had already started, as to avoid spoiling the surprise. Wouldn’t that be cool if such a thing could still happen today? A classic.

Rear Window is less horror, but more suspense. The Entire movie takes place in a single location, but you really forget about that fact when watching it because it’s so engrossing. Rear Window is, of course, the movie where James Stewart plays a photographer (L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries), who has a broken leg which is keeping him stuck in his apartment. So he takes on the hobby of peeping at his neighbors to pass the time (yikes!), but suddenly his pastime has some importance, as he realizes one of his neighbors has murdered their wife in the middle of the night. Another very effective thriller by Hitchcock.

Along with Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle was also given another limited re-release in theaters (though I only saw Howl once this time around). I’ve stated in the past that Howl’s Moving Castle is the only Miyazaki film that’s notably “weaker” than the rest of the great director’s works, but that really is a very relative complaint. Howl’s Moving Castle still is a magical, imaginative movie with memorable characters. I got very nostalgic watching Howl this time around, with memories of seeing it in theaters when it was first released in the US sixteen years ago (geez, how has it been that long? How?). The screening of Howl’s Moving Castle even featured a showing of On Your Mark, the only music video directed by Miyazaki.

Going back to Hitchcock yet again, I watched The Birds, probably the most famous post-Psycho Hitchcock film (unless I’m forgetting the ordering of his movies, which is possible because he directed a ton of them). Another great horror movie. You could even make the argument that The Birds is a zombie movie, even though there’s no actual zombies, just (quite living) birds. But the way the movie plays out certainly feels like a zombie movie.

The Birds tells the story of a young woman who, after an encounter with a man at a pet store, decides to purchase him some birds (it’s more complicated an encounter than it sounds, but we’ll save the details for another time). She buys a couple of lovebirds, and shortly after delivering them to the man’s family home in the middle of a fishing hamlet, all of the birds in the area – regardless of species – begin to attack people. The film has a nice slow burn, with about a full half hour going by before the first bird – a single seagull – attacks our heroine.

One of my favorite things about The Birds is its heavy use of uncertainty, which really adds to the horror element. There’s never a given reason why birds start violently attacking people. It’s implied to the audience (not the characters) the presence of the lovebirds is the cause. But that’s – quite wonderfully – an explanation that creates more questions than answers. Hitchcock didn’t want to give a detailed explanation for why the birds start going crazy, which I can’t imagine a movie like this would do these days. If there were a modern movie like this, it would no doubt have to explain away every last detail. But Hitchcock was wise enough to know that the uncertainty of it makes it all the scarier.

That uncertainty is also present in the birds’ attacks. In the film, birds just start gathering in large numbers, and will swarm and attack at seemingly random moments. To add even more uncertainty to the picture, The Birds doesn’t really have a traditional ending. It ends with the surviving characters quietly leaving town after another attack – with the lovebirds in tow(!!) – amidst a currently tame mass of birds.

I kind of like that The Birds doesn’t really have an ending. Some may say that’s hypocritical, given my complaints with North by Northwest’s ending. But the difference is I feel like the vague ending of The Birds fits with the kind of movie it is, whereas the ending to North by Northwest is so abrupt it feels out of place in a movie that otherwise takes its time.

Finally, the last movie I watched this month was Ghostbusters, the 1984 comedy that was one of the biggest hits of its decade, and still a comedy classic. It was followed by a disappointing sequel in 1989, and an even more disappointing and unnecessary reboot in 2016. Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a third film in the original series (finally) comes to theaters later this month. Here’s hoping that Afterlife ends up being the first worthy sequel to Ghostbusters (not counting the animated series The Real Ghostbusters or the 2009 Ghostbusters video game, both of which seem to have a mostly fond reception).

It’s kind of funny that Ghostbusters spawned such a big franchise, because it really wasn’t that kind of movie. It was a comedy starring SNL alumni that was based in Dan Akroyd’s interest in the paranormal. But the film was just so well made, from writing and dialogue to its special effects, and perhaps most importantly, it had an imaginative story that in turn captured the imaginations of audiences. Ghostbusters is one of those comedies that stops being “just” a comedy and is simply a great movie all around.

Also of note, Ghostbusters was the first “visual effects comedy.” Before Ghostbusters, comedies weren’t considered commercially viable enough for studios to spend the money required for big visual effects. In that regard, Ghostbusters opened the door for movies like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s just a shame that visual effects comedies are now basically extinct (can you think of a modern example of the sub-genre?).

Now I’m turning into a Ghostbusters history book. Point being, it’s a great movie, and one of my favorite comedies. But I guess I’ve rambled enough and we should be moving on. Let’s dish out some awards to the movies I watched in October!

Best Movie I Watched All Month: Spirited Away

Seeing as Spirited Away is my favorite movie, it’s guaranteed to be the best movie I watch in any month I watch it (if I watch it in the same month as My Neighbor Totoro, I guess it would be a tie between the two). With all due respect to the numerous great movies I watched this past month like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Psycho, Ghostbusters and Jaws, Spirited Away of course wins the crown. Chihiro’s odyssey to save her parents in a world of spirits and monsters is unforgettable from beginning to end.

One of the funny things about having favorites of anything (movies, video games, TV shows, songs, etc.) is that after a while, you tend to only think of the “whole” of your favorites, and take for granted the little details that helped make them your favorites to begin with. And when you experience your favorite things again, every now and again you’re reminded of those little things.

Spirited Away is a beautiful, touching film. But something these recent viewings reminded me of is its sense of humor. There are so many funny little touches to Spirited Away: The witch Yubaba using her magic to repair the damage done to her office, only to manually straighten a lampshade. A bowl of rice melts into goo due to the stench of a Stink Spirit. There’s the famous scene with the soot sprites carrying coal to a furnace. Chihiro notices one such sprite struggling to carry his lump of coal, and takes it upon herself to carry it for him (struggling herself in the process). Afterwards, all the soot sprites purposefully drop their coal in hopes Chihiro will do their work for them.

As an added bonus, the English dub features a small role for John Ratzenberger (remember that the Pixar guys helped in the dubbing of Miyazaki’s films), and the actor delivers some terrifically funny adlibs (that also don’t detract from the spirit of the movie, importantly).

Spirited Away is my favorite film, so I’ll continue to talk about it whenever I can. But because these recent viewings really made me appreciate Spirited Away’s many humorous moments all over again (and reminded me the part they played in me loving the movie to begin with), I figured I’d highlight those here. Spirited Away is widely (and rightly) acknowledged as one of the greatest and most influential animated films, but its sense of humor doesn’t get talked about as much as many of its other aspects. It should be talked about more, because along with everything else, Spirited Away is also a very funny film.

The best movie.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: Jaws: The Revenge

From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows…

Last month, I mentioned how Speed 2: Cruise Control is sometimes considered the worst sequel ever. While Speed 2 is a bad sequel, and sadly crushed any hopes for a Speed 3, it did have some merit. The same cannot be said of Jaws: The Revenge. Behold, the worst sequel of all time!

Well, I may have to double check that later. But considering how great the original Jaws was in relation to how truly, unspeakably awful Jaws: The Revenge is, it has to be the greatest drop in quality a movie series has seen. It just has to be. How could something be worse?

Sure, there were two other Jaws movies in between the first Jaws and The Revenge, but The Revenge is so bad it could have been 16 sequels worth of diminishing returns. The Revenge is an insult to Jaws 3, let alone Jaws 2, let alone the original!

Why is it so bad? Geez, where do I even begin? Wait, I know a good spot to begin: the fact that the shark in this movie is literally out for revenge on the Brody family for what happened to the sharks in the first two movies! Oh yeah, I say the first two movies because Jaws: The Revenge ignores the events of Jaws 3 and is its own third entry. So it’s basically Jaws 3-2.

Not only is the idea that a shark could actively seek revenge absolutely ludicrous, but it even contradicts a line of dialogue from Jaws 2. This is also the movie where the shark roars like a lion. The movie where the shark blows up after getting stabbed by the front of a ship. And I don’t mean its body pops and blood and guts fly everywhere, I mean the shark actually explodes into a fireball!

Okay, so the movie is insulting to the audience’s intelligence, but even if we try to look past the idiocy, it’s still a bad sequel all around: Chief Martin Brody is dead from the get-go, having died of a heart attack in between Jaws 2 and this movie. So Roy Scheider is sorely missed (by the audience, I’m sure Scheider was happy he wasn’t featured). I guess he wasn’t in Jaws 3 either, but at least that continuity didn’t kill Martin Brody off screen. Though I guess getting killed off screen is a better character fate than surviving one horror film only to get killed by the same/virtually the same villain in one of the sequels, which just undermines their victory in the first movie. I hate that!

So the widowed Ellen Brody is the main character here. Her younger son is engaged to be married, only to be killed by the revenge-seeking shark…at Christmastime, of course (let’s kick Ellen Brody while she’s down). So Ellen leaves Amity Island to stay in the Bahamas with her older son, where the shark naturally follows her in a matter of days. That is one fast as hell shark!

And did I mention that Ellen Brody seems to have a psychic connection with the shark, and is able to sense its presence when it’s near? She also has flashbacks to events from the first movie in which she wasn’t even there to witness them. Geez…

Do I have to keep talking about Jaws: The Revenge? Maybe one day I’ll review all of the Jaws movies. But damn, what a fall from grace.

The worst sequel.

Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Dick Tracy (Evil Dead 2/Army of Darkness are close runners-up, and let’s include North by Northwest out of obligation)

If we’re being technical here, then sure, North by Northwest was the “best movie” I saw for the first time this past month. But I really can’t get past that abrupt ending. So North by Northwest seems like the answer I’m supposed to say here, but not the one I pick.

Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness may have also taken the crown, but I’m undecided as to which one I actually prefer (Evil Dead 2 is probably the best of the trilogy from a pure filmmaking perspective, but I really like how Army of Darkness just changes genres and goes nuts). Since I’m undecided there, I guess I can go ahead and select Dick Tracy as the winner for now.

Okay, so maybe my pick here isn’t as definitive as last month’s, but it’s something.

Again, Dick Tracy isn’t anything complex, but it’s a very easy movie to appreciate, perhaps more so today than it was in 1990. This is a movie that is unapologetically faithful to its source material. If anyone in the audience is confused or weirded out by it, that’s their problem. That’s a beautiful mentality that I wish we saw more of in movies today, when comic book movies and fantasy and science fiction feel the constant need to compromise.

As mentioned earlier, Dick Tracy reminds me a lot of The Rocketeer, released by Disney a year later. But where The Rocketeer had one villain encased in prosthetic makeup, I think Dick Tracy has more actors wearing prosthetics than those not wearing them. What other movie would give Al Pacino a hunched back, a goblin nose, and a butt chin? Or give Dustin Hoffman crooked lips and have him speak in incoherent mumbles?

Dick Tracy’s use of bright colors and cartoony sets are a constant delight, and its sheer commitment to bring the look of a comic to life in the most literal sense is admirable. Some might say that Dick Tracy is an exercise in style over substance, but so are Quentin Tarantino movies, and people seem to like those just fine. Not every film has to be deep.

On the downside, Dick Tracy is (like last month’s The Fugitive) one of those rare movies that was a really big deal the year it came out, but then fell under the radar over time. That’s a shame, because it really is something to see. Let’s start talking about Dick Tracy again! But let’s all try to forget the NES video game adaptation…

Another issue is that Dick Tracy is one of those movies Disney seems embarrassed of today, and the film is unavailable on Disney+. Probably because you can see boobs in one scene of the movie. Disney is okay with Thanos murdering half the population of the universe, but showing boobs? That’s going too far!

It may not be as readily available as other Disney movies, but Dick Tracy is definitely worth seeing. Don’t expect a masterpiece, but expect something that looks unlike anything else, and is defiantly itself.

One more thing: Big Boy did it.

The Guilty Pleasure Award: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze

This crown really belongs to the 1990s TMNT trilogy as a whole, but I think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze is the one that best exemplifies “guilty pleasure.”

The first TMNT movie is probably the most genuinely liked of any TMNT movie. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 is probably the most hated (though I can certainly find joy in it, if even ironically). But the second entry is the one where things started to get goofy, what with the “traditional pre-fight donuts” and the annoying pizza delivery boy sidekick and that Vanilla Ice scene. Not to mention the titular “secret of the ooze” isn’t actually revealed in the finished film (in early drafts of the script, the film would have revealed David Warner’s character to have been an Utrom, the same alien species as Krang. So the “secret” would have been that the ooze was created by aliens. Good thing they cut that but kept Vanilla Ice).

It’s a silly movie, but one in which my enjoyment of it is genuine. The first two TMNT movies remain some of my earliest movie memories, and while the first film is the better movie, as a wee tyke I preferred the sequel because it had mutant bad guys for the Turtles to fight (perfectly sound reasoning for a young child). It’s a nostalgic treat for me. But a really powerful one where it doesn’t merely bring back fond memories, but watching the movie takes me right back to the feelings I had when watching it as a kid, as if no time has passed. It’s hard to explain.

Simply put, TMNTII: The Secret of the Ooze is dumb fun. And I love it.

Just don’t ask me how regular Shredder survived getting crushed by a garbage truck in the first movie, yet meets his ultimate demise in TMNTII when a bunch of planks of wood fall on him after he mutated into the Super Shredder. I’ve been pondering that one since I was a kid…

The Best Sitcom Ever Award: Seinfeld

As mentioned, October wasn’t all about the movies for me, as I watched the entirety of Seinfeld (again), the best sitcom of all time. One of the few shows I appreciate in the same way I do a great movie.

Seinfeld began airing in 1989 (the year I was born, no less). Interestingly, that’s the same year The Simpsons debuted, and unless you count the locally broadcast “season zero” of Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s the same year that show debuted as well. So 1989 was basically the most significant year ever for television comedy, but that milestone rarely gets brought up for some reason.

Seinfeld, the “show about nothing,” really was one of a kind. A show of a thousand catchphrases, that permeated through pop culture and created (or popularized) terms and phrases that people still use today (“Yadda yadda yadda, anyone?). Virtually every episode provides something memorable and quotable. And what other show continued to create iconic moments even in its late seasons (the infamous “Soup Nazi” episode was a product of season seven)?

An important element to Seinfeld’s enduring appeal is that it ended. When the show was at the zenith of its powers as the zeitgeist of all pop culture, Jerry Seinfeld and company decided to end the show on their terms, as to not overstay their welcome. I can’t think of another show that decided to end when it was still the show. In true George Costanza fashion, Seinfeld went out on a high note. If only The Simpsons had been so wise.

Sure, Seinfeld hit some bumps along the way (unpopular opinion, but Elaine really became insufferable in the later seasons), and the finale itself may not be so fondly remembered, but it wasn’t anything that damaged the reputation of the show (it wasn’t the Netflix seasons of Arrested Development, after all). Hey, with 180 episodes, it can’t all be perfect. There were bound to be some missteps. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The best sitcom.

And there we go. It’s done! Goodness gracious, I did not intend for this post to be this long at all. This My Month in Movies could eat the last My Month in Movies. If I decide to write any more of these down the road (emphasis on if), I certainly hope they don’t end up this long by default. I don’t know what happened here, I just started writing and then couldn’t stop.

There are a few movies I’d like to review soon: the fact that I still haven’t reviewed Luca and The Mitchell’s Vs. the Machines is dumbfounding for me. I should have reviewed them sooner. I would also like to review Ghostbusters: Afterlife once I’ve seen it. And I may review The Eternals, seeing as I’ve reviewed so many Marvel things already it feels like I’m obligated to do so by this point (though truth be told, I think I’m finally getting a bit Marvel’ed out… I blame Loki). Aside from those, and maybe a review for an older movie or two, I really want to start focusing this site on video games again for a while. Remember when this site used to be focused entirely on animated films and video games? I do. And I kind of miss it.

I have a whole stack of games that are ready and waiting for their reviews, I don’t know why I haven’t gotten to them yet. Maybe I just needed a break from writing about games and just needed to enjoy them for a while? Playing video games for fun… what a concept!

Anyway, I hope you had a fun read with this. It certainly was fun to write. It’s kind of nice to just write a bunch of quick things about a bunch of movies, as opposed to one big review for each individual movie. In a way, this felt like the “writing about movies” equivalent of WarioWare. Which reminds me, I still need to review the newest WarioWare. Dang it!

At the very least, I like to think I gave a sneak peak into my love of Spirited Away and Seinfeld, and gave you a place where Casablanca, Psycho and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all live in harmony. Now I’m off to review some video games.

Until next time… do something!

My First Trip to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Well, I had quite the satisfying week, I must say. I got to see my favorite film, Spirited Away, on the big screen again. Always wonderful. Seinfeld, arguably the best sitcom of all time, is now on Netflix so I’ve been watching the heck out of that. And to cap it all off, I visited the newly-opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

After several delays, the Academy Museum finally opened on September 30th, and I just couldn’t wait to make my way there. Especially since the museum’s first temporary exhibit is dedicated to the films of Hayao Miyazaki, my favorite filmmaker.

The Miyazaki exhibit was truly something else. I can’t share any photos, because they didn’t allow pictures to be taken in the Miyazaki exhibit (perfectly fair). Everything in the exhibit was so lovely and beautiful, I really had to keep reminding myself that pictures weren’t allowed. I was, however, allowed to take pictures of the wall outside of the exhibit. See?

Pardon my questionable camerawork. There was a line of people in the area so I went for the pictures I could take without getting anyone in the shot. And also I’m just not good at taking pictures.

The entire museum was great, featuring all kinds of costumes and props, and lots of history to delve into (they even had pages of the handwritten script for The Wizard of Oz). They had this cool room filled with walls of movie clips, with the clips changing genre or style every couple of minutes. They even have two movie theaters for special screenings (although I didn’t get to see anything this time). But it was the Miyazaki exhibit that truly stood out as magical.

It is such a shame the Miyazaki exhibit is only temporary (it will be there until June), as the museum will really lose something without it. But I think that’s probably due to Studio Ghibli wanting their contributions back in their native Japan. I guess I can’t argue with that. But if it turns out the exhibit’s temporary nature was a decision by the Academy Museum, they’d be out of their minds.

Seeing all of these original concept sketches and storyboards – drawn by Miyazaki himself of course – just took my breath away. They had various clips of his films being projected against the walls (both Japanese and English clips, which I appreciated. None of that “subtitle supremacy” nonsense). There were models and sculpted recreations of places from Miyazaki’s films. Different sections were dedicated to the themes and devices of the director’s filmography. They even had a desk once used by Miyazaki to draw those beautiful illustrations that serve as the starting points of each of his films.

A particular object in the exhibit that caught my eye was one of Miyazaki’s early sketches from My Neighbor Totoro. It was of the house featured in the film, done entirely in pencil, not colored in or anything. You could see wrinkles in the paper, and one of the corners had been torn off (not affecting the sketch itself, thankfully). Seeing that just really hit me. The fact that these wonderful movies, these masterpieces of animation, began with drawings like this, is just amazing. That this little, imperfect piece of paper featured this (very detailed) pencil sketch which, in turn, helped create something I have loved and cherished my whole life… It blew my mind. I mean, I know how animated films work, and specifically of Miyazaki’s unique process. But to see that original sketch (and all the others) drawn by Miyazaki himself, right there in front of my face, it just made it all so real for me. I can’t explain it.

The whole thing, the whole exhibit, really moved me. Again, the whole museum was great. It was interesting and informative. But that Miyazaki exhibit made everything else seem mundane by comparison (which I suppose is true of the movies themselves). From the moment I stepped inside, being greeted with the heavenly sound of “The Path of the Wind” from My Neighbor Totoro, to the moment I exited through the tunnel from Spirited Away, with the sounds of the Ogino family’s footsteps echoing against the walls (both of which brought me to tears, by the way), the entire Hayao Miyazaki exhibit had me feeling like I was in another world. I can’t wait to make my way back.

Truly magical.

Howl’s Moving Castle: Miyazaki’s Missed Opportunity

*Caution: This article contains spoilers for both the novel and film adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle*

Let’s get one thing straight: I love Howl’s Moving Castle, in its own way. I don’t think it’s a bad movie by any stretch, and in fact, I would argue that Hayao Miyazaki is one of the few film directors who doesn’t have a single bad movie under his belt (and probably the only one who’s directed a considerable number of films, having helmed eleven himself, with a twelfth on the way some time in the future). The only movie to come out of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli that I would say is an outright bad movie is Tales from Earthsea, which was directed by Hayao’s son, Goro.

Point being, before it sounds like the contrary, I like Howl’s Moving Castle, and have many fond feelings and memories towards it. But it is undoubtedly the most flawed of Miyazaki’s eleven features. A point that’s magnified by the fact that it was Miyazaki’s directorial follow-up to Spirited Away, which is a flawless masterpiece in animated storytelling. If you want to delve even deeper, Howl’s Moving Castle was really the only notable dip in quality in Miyazaki’s films. Again, that’s not to say it was a bad movie by any means, but when a movie follows up an unparalleled string of animated classics featuring The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke and, of course, Spirited Away, the shortcomings it does have are going to appear all the more prominent.

This is even more unfortunate because, having recently read the original novel of Howl’s Moving Castle (by Diana Wynne Jones) again, the book almost seems like it was tailor-made to be adapted into a Miyazaki film. It has the same strong character personalities, magical goings-on, whimsy and humor you find in a Studio Ghibli feature, albeit with a notably more British tone (which makes absolute sense, given that Jones was English). But even the British-ness of the novel could have been seen in a Miyazaki movie, considering that Studio Ghibli is one of the few anime studios that is willing to represent people and cultures outside of Japan itself.

While most of Miyazaki’s films are his own creations, Howl’s Moving Castle is in a minority of the director’s films which was based on an existing work (The Castle of Cagliostro was part of the existing Lupin III franchise, and Kiki’s Delivery Service was based on the novel by Eiko Kadono). Some anime fans (namely hipster podcasters) try to claim that Studio Ghibli doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to adapting other people’s work, though as evidenced by the fact that Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the studio’s most beloved features, and films like The Secret World of Arrietty and other Ghibli adaptations were among the most acclaimed films of their respective years, Ghibli certainly hasn’t had any persistent issues when adapting other people’s works. Even Howl’s Moving Castle has a large fanbase, and Diana Wynne Jones herself loved the movie (we once again go to Tales from Earthsea for the one instance where the original author wasn’t happy with Ghibli’s adaptation).

But Howl’s Moving Castle slipped-up more so than Miyazaki’s other adaptations. While he still very much made Lupin III and Kiki his own with his takes on the material, Howl’s Moving Castle seemed like it needed very few changes to become a Miyazaki feature: It’s main character is a strong young woman named Sophie, who is transformed into an old crone by an evil witch (with the spell also preventing her from telling people about the situation, so she can’t simply ask a wizard like Howl to remove the curse). Howl himself seemed impossibly easy to translate to Japanese audiences, his description in the book fits the anime pretty boy archetype so clearly you’d think the novel were adapted from the movie. He’s a vain, perfume-wearing, effeminate wizard who obsesses over his looks to impress the ladies. The tritagonist is Calcifer, a fire demon who created and powers Howl’s castle, but he and Howl are in a similar situation to Sophie, suffering from a magical plight and being unable to tell anyone about it.

In terms of looks, Howl is the most accurately depicted in the movie, while Calcifer has seen the most change. In the book, Calcifer’s physical description is a little more detailed, being a face made out of blue fire, with green fire for hair and eyebrows, purple fire for a mouth, and small orange flames for eyes. In contrast, the film’s version of Calcifer is simply a traditional orange and red fireball with big eyes and a mouth. I don’t mind this change at all though. The multi-colored flaming appearance described in the book is interesting (and we get something of a glimpse of it in the film in one scene where Calcifer is performing magic), but the simpler design of the movie makes for a more iconic character. And it’s always fun when a fantasy story’s most powerful character has such a simple appearance.

Sophie’s appearance (as a young woman) is changed slightly, with her hair being brown in the film, as opposed to red from the book. Again, this change is fine and doesn’t affect anything story-wise. What isn’t so fine, however, is the changes made to Sophie’s character. Miyazaki has always excelled at making strong heroines, which is what makes it so baffling that his depiction of Sophie is Miyazaki’s most uninteresting main character, when her description in the book seemed as though Jones was aware of Miyazaki’s work at the time, and purposefully wrote the character for Miyazaki to adapt.

While Miyazaki’s interpretations of Howl and Calcifer are accurate (Howl being a whiny coward, and Calcifer always grumbling about how a powerful fire demon like himself deserves better), Sophie’s character seems barely touched upon. Granted, in the book she’s transformed into a 90-year old woman in the second chapter, but in the film, we know even less about her before she gets cursed.

In the book, we learn that in the story’s fantasy country of Ingary (which goes unnamed in the movie), Sophie is the eldest of three sisters. But in Ingary the eldest child is “doomed” to a simple life of inheritance, while the younger members of a family are told to seek their own fortune in life. Thus Sophie feels doomed to work at her late father’s hat shop her whole life, without being allowed to break away on her own.

While that’s a major factor of Sophie’s character in the book, the film shortens Sophie’s plight as the eldest child to a passing reference (“It’s what father would have wanted. I’m the eldest, I don’t mind.”). But this ends up affecting Sophie’s story arc. By downplaying Sophie’s position in life, and the fate her culture has seemingly decided for her, it also downplays her growth as a character when she seeks out her own destiny while under her spell (a spell which literally brings to life her fears of growing old in the same place she’s always been).

Also in the film, Sophie only has one younger sister, but the concept of the eldest child being doomed to a life of mediocrity could still work, so that’s alright. A movie has to omit some characters to account for running time, and the sister who was left out of the movie is also the one who didn’t return for the book’s sequel, Castle in the Air (which funnily enough has nothing to do with Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky), so it’s not a major character omission.

The issue is that the film fails to properly show Sophie’s disappointment with her position in life. She looks sullen, but we never get the full extent of how trapped she feels in the film. So when she does become an old crone and shows some signs of change (“I seem to have become quite cunning in my old age!“), they don’t have the same effect as they do in the book.

With Howl and Calcifer being so beautifully realized, it magnifies how Sophie fails to connect as the driving force in the story. In fact, she rarely ever feels like its driving force in the movie, more like someone who happens to be witnessing its events (a concept which could make for a unique movie of its own, if that were the idea going in).

Compare this to Chihiro, the protagonist from Spirited Away. Within the film’s opening moments – which depicts her family’s drive to their new house – we learn who Chihiro is. We see that she’s a bit spoiled, more than a little apathetic, lazy, clumsy, and looking for reasons to complain. Within the span of a short family drive, we learn who this character is at the start of their journey, which makes the growth Chihiro sees throughout the film feel so profound. Sophie, sadly, doesn’t have that same effect. Whatever growth she has feels considerably less substantial.

Again, I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom in regards to Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s not like Miyazaki’s Sophie is unlikable, but for a filmmaker who’s known for making memorable heroines, Sophie is decidedly bland.

Miyazaki made some additional changes from the book, and while that may not sit well with purists, a movie making changes from its source material in some ways isn’t an inherently bad thing (in fact, Jones herself acknowledged ahead of time that she expected the movie to be different, because books and movies are different mediums).

These changes are mostly for the best in bringing Howl’s Moving Castle to the silver screen, as they trim down some sub-plots that may have worked in the book, but would have probably felt like detours in a two-hour movie. For example, in the book, Howl’s apprentice Michael is a little younger than Sophie (her actual age, not her transformed self), and there’s a sub-plot about him dating one of Sophie’s sisters (of course, with Sophie unable to reveal details that would expose her actual age, Michael is blissfully unaware of the relation). First of all, in the movie, the character has been renamed “Markl.” This was done out of necessity, given how the name Michael would be pronounced in Japanese. But the folks at Disney wisely kept the change for the film’s English version as well, which I very much appreciate, as Markl just sounds more like a wizard’s apprentice than a name as common as Michael.

Anyway, in the movie, Markl is just a young boy, which means the storyline with him and Sophie’s sister is dropped. Frankly, I like this change. I just think it suits this story better to have a kid accompanying Howl and Calcifer as the third member of the moving castle crew, as opposed to a young man.

A noteworthy-yet-inconsequential change from the book comes in regards to Howl himself. Despite the brunt of the story taking place in a fantasy world in the country of Ingary, the Howl from the book actually comes from the planet Earth. More specifically, he comes from Wales, with one of the four destinations of the magic portal of a door within the moving castle leading to his home in Wales.

In the book, we get to meet Howl’s sister, niece and nephew, and it gives us more insight into Howl’s history. It may seem like a major change for the movie to leave out this detail, but in all honesty, aside from adding a little something to Howl’s character, the concept of Howl hailing from Wales doesn’t really play into the main plot. It’s an interesting bit in the book, but it’s understandable why Miyazaki would leave it out.

Despite these changes, the earlier portions of the movie are actually pretty faithful to the book. The elderly Sophie becoming Howl’s cleaning lady. Calcifer’s meeting with Sophie leading to the two striking a deal to break each other’s curses (Calcifer, being a fire demon, is powerful enough to see through Sophie’s curse without needing explanation). Even the scene where Howl throws a tantrum over his hair color by summoning dark spirits and emitting green slime from his skin, all more or less play out as they did in the book.

Things play faithfully to the book at first, but then, the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle adds an element that ends up changing the second half almost entirely.

In the book, the land of Ingary is on the brink of war with a neighboring kingdom (Strangia, which also goes unnamed in the film), and Ingary’s prince – the king’s younger brother, Justin – has gone missing, which is a double problem because not only is he a missing prince, but he’s also the country’s best general. Additionally in the book, there is another wizard of comparable reputation to Howl named Suliman, though he too, has gone missing.

By the end of the book, we learn that the Witch of the Waste (the full title of the witch who cursed Sophie) is responsible for both missing persons, having magically rearranged their bodies – one’s head on the other’s body – and subsequently transformed both chimeras into other forms (one into a scarecrow, and the other into a dog who can briefly return to human form before turning into a different type of dog. Yeah, the book can get wonderfully weird). There’s also a character who appears briefly in a chapter or two named Mrs. Penstemmon, a royal wizard who trained Howl in magic, who ends up murdered by the Witch of the Waste.

These elements are changed from the book, and ultimately cumulate as the film’s most misguided element.

The war doesn’t take place during the events of the book, instead happening between the book and its sequel. It’s a looming threat, but it only gets a few passing references. In the movie, however, the war becomes the focal point of the whole thing.

In the movie, the war is happening because the prince of a neighboring kingdom has gone missing, and that kingdom blames the unnamed Ingary for the disappearance. In the film, the prince is still revealed as the true identity of the scarecrow (though in the movie, the prince wasn’t transformed by the Witch, and instead simply claims he stumbled upon the curse while traveling).

The change in the prince and his disappearance being the cause of the war aren’t too drastic of changes, but things get more complicated. In the film, the characters of wizard Suliman and Mrs. Penstemmon are merged into one character. This character uses the name of Suliman, but is an elderly woman, Howl’s former teacher, and wizard to the king, like Mrs. Penstemmon.

Miyazaki’s Suliman becomes the main antagonist of the film. As we find out, she has influenced the king into going into war, as a roundabout way of recruiting Howl back into her services as a soldier under the king. I actually like the film’s Suliman as a character, but her sudden ascension to the role of primary antagonist creates problems of its own.

The Witch of the Waste is the book’s villain. Simple as that. Well, the Witch and her own fire demon (who, unlike Calcifer, has the appearance of a human woman). In the film, Suliman briefly mentions that the Witch had a demon at some point, but that’s the only reference of it. In the film, the Witch falls for a trap laid by Suliman, and is robbed of her magical powers. She becomes an afterthought. And that’s an important change because it reflects the differences between the book and film as a whole.

From that point on, the film seldom resembles the book. Again, that in itself isn’t a bad thing (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of my favorite films, is vastly different than the book it’s based on, and is all the better for it). But the change ends up robbing the film of its magic and wonder.

As soon as the film’s version of Suliman is introduced and the Witch’s role in the story is demoted, the film becomes all about the war at hand. Howl reluctantly fights battles at night (despite never officially joining the king’s army), we see towns going up in flames from bombings, and we are repeatedly told over and over again about the horrors of war, and how unnecessary the war in the film is.

Now, any Miyazaki fan knows what the acclaimed director was going for with this change. Miyazaki is a noted pacifist, it was really only a matter a time before he made a movie whose main theme was an anti-war one, and he made no secret of his disdain for the Iraq War (he famously skipped the Oscar ceremony where Spirited Away won for Best Animated Feature out of protest). I certainly can’t blame Miyazaki for incorporating something he feels so strongly about into one of his movies. But there’s a time and place for things, and while the film’s 2004 release may have seemed like the time, Howl’s Moving Castle just wasn’t the place for such an anti-war theme.

It just makes the film feel disjointed. This is a fairy tale that’s supposed to be about a girl being transformed into an old hag, and how she ends up changing a self-centered wizard for the better. But then it pulls a 180 and becomes all about the travesties of war. Again, I don’t fault Miyazaki for making an anti-war movie (in fact I’m inclined to agree with him), but everything that makes Howl’s Moving Castle feel special is dashed by its sudden tonal shift. The film even seems to forget about its original premise, with Sophie inexplicably becoming young again by the end, before she even frees Howl and Calcifer from their contract. The story becomes so engrossed in the war aspect that the main plot fades into the background, before it’s abruptly resolved out of seemingly nowhere.

One of Miyazaki’s previous films, Porco Rosso, was set between both World Wars, and has a much subtler yet far more affective anti-war stance. And Miyazaki’s later film, The Wind Rises, a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi – an actual, real-life designer of warplanes during WWII – isn’t as focused on war as Howl’s Moving Castle, and that film had a much more appropriate opportunity to be. Yet it’s Howl’s Moving Castle, a wondrous fairy tale set in a fantasy world filled with eccentric character likes Calcifer and Howl himself, that Miyazaki saw fit to turn into his most overt ant-war picture. And it just doesn’t mesh.

Now, the book isn’t perfect, either. It’s a wonderful read, filled with unforgettable characters and humor (in fact, the book was my introduction to the idea of comical fantasy in literature outside of parody). But the book does keep too many loose plot threads up until the very last chapter, which resolves so much in such quick succession I wonder if Diana Wynne Jones had reached the eleventh hour of a deadline (it’s not that the events of the final chapter are bad, just that they should have been more spread out, but instead feel rushed. Basically it’s like the final episode of Samurai Jack). And the Witch’s aforementioned plot of making chimeras of people has a motivation that kind of comes out of nowhere, as she wants to use the different pieces of Suliman and Prince Justin (and plans on topping off her golem with Howl’s head) in order to create what she perceives as a “perfect being” and to appoint him the new king of Ingary, with herself as the queen. Up until the final chapter, the Witch of the Waste seems like a powerful and feared sorceress who doesn’t have any greater agenda, she just uses her power for petty vengeance on people she thinks have wronged her one way or another. So the reveal of the motivation for her plot feels kind of random.

Still, while it may have its flaws, the book at least feels like a concise vision. And Jones excels at explaining the elements of her fantasy world with little exposition, something which Miyazaki usually has down pat as well. But when adapting the book into a film, Miyazaki seemed heavily distracted by the outside world, and it ended up hampering his vision for the film.

Okay, I know I’m sounding incredibly negative here. I repeat that I think Howl’s Moving Castle is an enjoyable movie: it’s fun and imaginative, filled with stunning visuals and a fantastic musical score (courtesy, of course, by Joe Hisaishi, whose work alongside Miyazaki probably makes them the only director/composer duo more wonderful than Spielberg and John Williams). For those who love imaginative worlds, stories and characters, Howl’s Moving Castle provides a unique experience. The problem is that its imagination may be wondrous, but its execution is only adequate, whereas most of Miyazaki’s films tell stories that are as excellent as their ideations. Howl’s Moving Castle could have lived up to Miyazaki’s unrivaled resume of animated classics, had Miyazaki set his thoughts on war to the side and saved them for another day, and instead focused on Sophie and her story.

Now, it’s also no secret that Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle was originally going to be director Mamoru Hosada’s debut outing for the studio, before he dropped out and Miyazaki stepped out of retirement (again) to take the reigns. Some might argue about the “what if?” scenario had Hosoda directed the film instead. While Hosoda is one of the better anime directors of today, I don’t think he would have done a better job with Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve enjoyed Hosada’s films, but his movies have a more – for lack of a better word – “anime feel” about them, which I don’t think would have meshed with Howl’s Moving Castle, whereas Miyazaki’s films have a more ethereal fantasy aspect about them, which feels more in tune with literary fantasy like Howl’s Moving Castle (or even the works of Tolkien, of which Miyazaki is a big fan), and less like an “anime movie.”

But that’s why the shortcomings of Howl’s Moving Castle speak so loudly. Reading the novel again, the story of Howl’s Moving Castle may as well have been gift wrapped, topped with a bow, and hand delivered to Miyazaki. It just made so much sense. So for it to be Miyazaki’s weakest film by a wide margin is kind of disheartening.

I love Howl’s Moving Castle, in its own way. But it’s the one Miyazaki feature that, when reflected upon, I can’t help but imagine what could have been had he approached it with the same imaginative purity that made Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke such treasures. Oh, what if?

Ponyo Review

Ponyo (or Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, as it’s known in Japan) has always been Hayao Miyazaki’s most misunderstood feature. Though it received strong reviews from critics, fans of the famed Japanese animator often referred to it as Miyazaki’s “weakest film,” due to it being aimed at a younger audience (apparently these people forgot that Miyazaki made his name with films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service). It was even more bizarrely the only Miyazaki-directed feature not to receive a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards since that category’s introduction. Ten years later, and Ponyo is only now being more widely recognized for its merits. And while Ponyo may not be as synonymous with Miyazaki’s name in the same way Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro are, it is the strongest of the director’s trilogy of ‘post-Spirited Away’ features.

On paper, Ponyo may sound like Hayao Miyazaki’s most straightforward film: it tells the tale of a young boy named Sosuke, who finds a magical goldfish whom he names Ponyo (her ‘real name’ being Brunhilde). The two form a bond, with Ponyo defying her wizard father Fujimoto and transforming into a human girl to be with Sosuke.

A synopsis such as that might imply that Ponyo is simply a Japanese version of The Little Mermaid, but its execution makes it something more complex: Ponyo is described as a goldfish, but has a human-like face and a dress-like tail fin, and she becomes human after tasting Sosuke’s blood (by licking a cut on his finger to heal it) and tampering with one of her father’s magic wells. We also learn that, by becoming human, Ponyo breaks the laws of nature, and her transformation sends reality out of whack. The moon falls closer to Earth, leading the ocean to rise and satellites to fall from the skies, ancient fish come back to life, and tsunamis turn Sosuke’s world upside down. This all leads to a series of adventures between Ponyo, Sosuke, and Sosuke’s mother Lisa. All the while, Fujimoto – the closest thing the film has to an antagonist – tries to separate Ponyo from Sosuke to set things back to the way they were, while Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of the seas, more calmly tries to find a way to fix nature while not interfering with Ponyo and Sosuke’s relationship.

It is undoubtedly Miyazaki’s weirdest film, but it’s impossibly charming and sweet, and its imagination is seemingly infinite. While its immediate predecessor Howl’s Moving Castle’s weirdness often came at the expense of a consistently solid narrative, Ponyo’s story benefits from its surrealism and absurdities. Howl featured a strange tonal shift midway through, surrendering its fairy tale plot in favor of an anti-war narrative, ultimately feeling like two different, clashing stories. Meanwhile, Ponyo is a children’s adventure, and is running on “child logic.” As delightfully weird and surreal as Ponyo gets, it all feels like one cohesive whole with its imagination. The weirdness enhances the flow of the story, as opposed to clashing with it in the way Howl did.

It’s that childlike wonderment that is Ponyo’s biggest strength. It is impossible not to smile when watching the film. Like Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s a gentleness and sensitivity to Ponyo that’s unique to Miyazaki’s features. While many animated films feature one scene of hustle and bustle after another to hold the attention of younger audiences, Ponyo trusts that children are capable of following a less hectic plot and can appreciate a good story. And though Ponyo’s story is smaller than something like Princess Mononoke, it shares a similar scope to Miyazaki’s more dramatic works, making for an interesting combination of simplicity and complexity.

The characters here are among Miyazaki’s most memorable: Ponyo’s naivety makes her as humorous as she is cute, and Sosuke’s determination makes him an easy hero to root for. Lisa is head-strong and independent, and Fujimoto is an eccentric who looks suspiciously like David Bowie. They may not be Miyazaki’s most complex characters (though Fujimoto continues the rich Miyazaki archetype of a “villain who isn’t really a villain”), but they’re possibly his most charming sans Totoro.

Speaking of My Neighbor Totoro, that is the comparison people always seem to make with Ponyo and Miyazaki’s older catalogue, since both share a  more childlike narrative. And I suppose if there is one area in which Ponyo does fall relatively short, it’s that it doesn’t quite match up to its inevitable comparison. For all its charm and lovability (Ponyo equals Totoro in those departments) it doesn’t match its predecessor’s depth. The drama of Ponyo is almost exclusively fantasy, whereas Totoro’s dilemmas evoke a sense of relatability that is almost unheard of in fantasy films.

Still, if the big issue with Ponyo is simply that it isn’t quite as good as arguably Miyazaki’s most cherished film – which it shares elements with – I’d say that doesn’t exactly equate to a major flaw. If Ponyo served as a return to form for Miyazaki after the confused Howl’s Moving Castle, is it really much of a complaint if it isn’t quite Totoro or Spirited Away?

“Ponyo’s insatiable love of ham is a recurring dose of adorableness.”

While Ponyo may not match the depth of Miyazaki’s best work, it is among the acclaimed director’s most entertaining features. Its utter adorableness should have you smiling from ear to ear, and as mentioned, the weirdness adds a good dose of comedy to the equation, and packs on to the film’s charm. The story unfolds both beautifully and uniquely.

Disney was once again responsible for the dubbing, as they had been for most Miyazaki features to this point, and the dub of Ponyo is another winner, perhaps surprisingly so. While Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas – younger siblings of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers – may have seemed like gimmicky casting as Ponyo and Sosuke on Disney’s part (given the dub was released in 2009, when Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers were still a thing), their voices ended up fitting the characters nicely. Tina Fey served as the English voice of Lisa, while Liam Neeson voiced Fujimoto and Cate Blanchett voiced Ponyo’s mother Gran Mamare. Getting such actors not only showed how much care Disney put into the dubbing, but their performances have helped the dub age gracefully. Perhaps the only downside is that the adorable end-credits song has a pop-y remixed second verse, which seems really out of place.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films are known for their stunning animation, and Ponyo is certainly no exception. In fact, in many ways, it may be Miyazaki’s most visually ambitious film. There’s a fluidity of movement at play that is close to unrivaled in hand-drawn features. Also of note is that the film seems to occasionally simplify its art direction, while never sacrificing the hard work and effort that went into the animation itself. Ponyo subtly changes its style from time to time, and combined with its settings both on land and the world under the sea, as well as its penchant of characters rapidly changing shapes, Ponyo is an absolute marvel of visuals. Fittingly, it was probably the most impressive hand-drawn animation since Spirited Away.

Complimenting these visuals is one of the best musical scores of any Miyazaki feature. Per the norm for the director, Ponyo’s score was composed by Joe Hisaishi, who created one of his strongest soundtracks here. The music of Ponyo captures an ethereal quality similar to that of the visuals, which perfectly compliments the story at play. Ponyo, almost secretly, boasted one of the best musical scores of any animated film of its time.

Sadly, that “secret” quality seems to speak for Ponyo as a whole. Despite its many merits and acclaim, Ponyo never quite reached the same heights in legacy as many of the Miyazaki-directed films that preceded it. Only now, a decade after its initial release, is Ponyo starting to get its due. Admittedly, Miyazaki’s resume does feature some giants of the animation medium that are hard to live up to, but Ponyo always did live up to that legacy, albeit a bit differently than you’d expect. It may not have attempted the same thematic depth of some of the director’s films, but it was something of an avant garde for animation, presenting a narrative that seems comprised of one idea after another that could only exist in its medium. And it does it all while being as fun and adorable as it can be.

Ponyo has lived in the shadows of Miyazaki’s other films for far too long. While it may not be the director’s best work, it has always, in its own way, deserved to sit right alongside them.

 

9

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.

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

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 films. My Neighbor Totoro is the most gentle, sensitive and sweet film I’ve ever seen.

 

10

Spirited Away Review

Spirited Away

If ever there were a movie that could be described as indescribable, surely it’s Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece is a work of ineffable imagination. Its storytelling and inventiveness are as spectacular as they are unique.

When it was released in Japan in 2001, Spirited Away broke many records, and ranks as the highest grossing film in Japan’s history to this day. When Disney brought it stateside in 2002, it managed to finally get Miyazaki some worldwide recognition, not to mention an Oscar and many other accolades. Spirited Away has since become regarded as a classic of animated cinema, and its praise couldn’t be more deserved.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a ten-year old girl in the middle of moving to a new home with her mother and father. Chihiro is apathetic, somewhat spoiled, and bitter about her family’s move.

On their way to their new home, Chihiro’s father makes a wrong turn, and the family ends up at the entrance to a mysterious tunnel, which leads to what appears to be an abandoned theme park. The tunnel and park turn out to be a portal to another world. Not a portal in the traditional fantasy sense, as they show no inherent otherworldly attributes. But once night falls, Chihiro finds herself surrounded by ghosts and monsters, her parents – who were quick to consume the many delicacies found in one of the park’s restaurants – are transformed into pigs, and the tunnel that lead her to this world is now a distant speck across an ocean.

YubabaFrightened and confused, Chihiro manages to find a friend in a mysterious boy named Haku, who informs her that if she hopes to survive in this new world of gods and monsters and save her parents, she must find employment at a nearby bathhouse, which is ruled by the witch Yubaba. But working at the bathhouse won’t be so easy, as employment comes at the cost of surrendering one’s name to Yubaba. Should Chihiro (now dubbed “Sen” by the witch) completely forget her name, she will never return to the human world.

The bathhouse, perhaps the most alive location in all of cinema, is where most of the film takes place. It is a place where deities and specters visit for some relaxation and replenishment. The designs for these countless spirits are all richly imaginative, whether they get a decent amount of screen time or are simply background characters. The creatures of Spirited Away are so wondrous and weird they make the denizens of the Mos Eisley Cantina look mundane.

Such wonderfully designed creatures are the least of Spirited Away’s triumphs, however. There is a profoundness and depth within Spirited Away’s storytelling that ascends it to the highest level of artistry.

Each character Chihiro comes across has something of a story to tell, and nearly every scene works as an allegory with double and triple meanings, sometimes even more. There isn’t a moment in Spirited Away that doesn’t present audience with much more than what’s immediately on-screen.

Spirited AwayEvery character within the bathhouse is wonderfully realized: Haku becomes something of a guardian angel to Chihiro, but also has a loyalty to Yubaba that makes his motives ambiguous. Kamaji, an elderly man with six extendable arms who bears a resemblance to Dr. Robotnik, is a slave to his job as the bathhouse’s boiler man (he literally sleeps where he works). At first Kamaji appears bitter, but he is won over by Chihiro’s determination. Lin is a young woman who becomes something of Chihiro’s boss, confidant and mentor. Even Yubaba is more than just a villain. Although she’s capable of despicable deeds, Yubaba is also given human and relatable traits as the film progresses.

Spirited AwayPerhaps the most important of the lot is Noface, a mysterious apparition who is the embodiment of loneliness and despair. Noface – who is according to Miyazaki the film’s deuteragonist – has his own story that becomes as rich and detailed as Chihiro’s, and both characters’ stories intertwine beautifully.

It is of course Chihiro herself who’s at the heart of it all. She is a flawed character; clumsy, whiny, and apathetic. But it’s her flaws that make her character growth all the more powerful, and make her quite possibly the best leading heroine in any animated film.

One of Spirited Away’s greatest strengths is the way it manages to tell its story and bring its characters to life. Very little of what happens in Spirited Away is explicit. Chihiro’s journey is told with a subtle and ethereal grace that’s all its own. It tells only what needs to be told, and leaves the rest of its details to the viewer’s interpretation.

ChihiroYet, despite its artistic depth, Spirited Away is also a very fun movie. Hayao Miyazaki has claimed he specifically made the film for 10-year old girls, and yet it’s a film that can appeal to anyone. The characters win us over with their charming personalities and sympathetic qualities, and the film sprinkles in a good amount of humor and heart. It’s as entertaining as it is deep, and a real treat for audiences of any age.

Spirited AwayTo top it all off, Spirited Away boasts some of the most gorgeous animation ever seen. All of the character designs leave an impression. There’s a painstaking attention to detail in all of their actions and movements. Even the background characters are always doing something, with each one acting differently to the others. The backgrounds are consistently stunning throughout, with every last frame being a captivating work of art.

Spirited Away, like most of Miyazaki’s works, was scored by Joe Hisaishi, and its soundtrack remains one of his finest compositions. It is (quite appropriately) the most “Japanese” of all the scores of Miyazaki’s films, and many of its tracks are some of the most beautiful and soothing I’ve heard in a movie.

Rest assured that Disney once again did a fine job with the dubbing. Though this was one of Disney’s earlier efforts in dubbing a Miyazaki film, and thus there weren’t as many “big name” actors jumping at the chance to voice a character like there would be in later Miyazaki films, the quality of the dub is just as good as any of them.

Many actors who previously voiced Disney characters can be heard (such as David Ogden Stiers, a Disney veteran, voicing Kamaji, and Pixar’s “lucky charm” John Ratzenberger voicing one of the employees of the bathhouse, complete with his famous ad-libbed one-liners). Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden and the late Suzanne Pleshette voice Chihiro, Haku and Yubaba, respectively, and help give life to the characters (Plashette’s cackling vocals are a particular highlight). Simply put, you can’t go wrong watching Spirited Away in its original Japanese track or the English dub.

ChihiroSince its release, Spirited Away has had a profound impact on animated films the world over, with the likes of Pixar aiming to give their films a richer artistic depth in the years that followed, to name the most prominent example. And yet, despite how far animated films have come in the decade and a half since Spirited Away’s time, none of them have truly replicated its magic. No matter how many times I’ve watched it, I’m just as enchanted and enthralled as I’ve ever been by it. It’s an ineffable work that is entirely its own, and quite likely the most imaginative film ever made.

Its title couldn’t be more appropriate. After watching Spirited Away, you may feel like you’re very much in Chihiro’s shoes, and have been spirited away yourself.

 

10

Howl’s Moving Castle Review

Howl's Moving Castle

It’s a true testament to Hayao Miyazaki’s mastery of animated cinema that his 2004 film, Howl’s Moving Castle, is probably his weakest effort, and yet still stands head and shoulders over many other animated films. Though it loses its focus and the story can be flimsy at points, Howl’s Moving Castle is still a highly imaginative and beautifully animated treat.

Howl’s Moving Castle, loosely based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, had something of an interesting production. Originally set to be director Mamoru Hosoda’s debut film for Studio Ghibli, Hosoda dropped out of the project early on. Ghibli’s most iconic director, Hayao Miyazaki, decided to take up the reigns of the film and continue his filmmaking career, after having previously retired upon completion of Spirited Away.

It’s perhaps because of the rougher production, and the fact that it followed such an opus as Spirited Away, that Howl’s Moving Castle falls considerably short when compared to some of Miyazaki’s other works. But it still showcases the legendary director’s unique filmmaking and storytelling abilities.

Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a fantasy world of wizards and magic. A young woman named Sophie lives a simple life running the hat shop her late father left behind. But Sophie’s life changes forever upon a chance meeting with the wizard Howl. A rival of Howl’s, the blobby Witch of the Waste, harbors unrequited feelings for the young wizard, and grows jealous of Sophie. Thus the Witch of the Waste casts a spell on Sophie, aging her into a 90-year old woman and unable to tell anyone of her curse.

Howl's Moving CastleThe now-elderly Sophie travels to the Wastes to search for her younger sister (who is more understanding and level-headed than anyone else in Sophie’s life), but along the way, she encounters an enchanted, turnip-headed scarecrow, who leads her to Howl’s castle, a colossal machine made up of houses and scrap metal that walks on four metallic talons, and is a character in its own right.

The castle is not only home to Howl, but also to his apprentice, a young boy named Markl and, most importantly, a powerful fire demon called Calcifer, who powers the castle’s movement and can see through Sophie’s curse. Calcifer is under a curse of his own alongside Howl, and makes a bargain with Sophie that if she can find a way to break his curse, he’ll break hers in return.

Howl's Moving CastleThe setup is, for the most part, excellently done. The big drawback of the opening being that we probably don’t get a lot of time to know Sophie enough as a character before her transformation, but the rest of the story builds up nicely. However, later parts of the film begin to lose the story’s original focus, and the film seems to be at odds with the story of the original novel, and the story Miyazaki wants to tell (this perhaps could be the reason Miyazaki usually creates his own stories, instead of adapting others).

First and foremost, a sub-plot in the film involves a war that breaks out between the kingdom where the film takes place (known as “Ingari” in the novel) and a neighboring kingdom. If a war already sounds misplaced in an adventurous family film about a girl being turned into a hag, you’re right. The worst part is what starts as a sub-plot eventually takes over the film, and Sophie’s deal with Calcifer is largely forgotten in the middle of it.

Miyazaki has been outspoken about his pacifistic ways, so if he wanted to make an anti-war movie, then more power to him. The problem is that this wasn’t the film to do it with. Even his later film, The Wind Rises, which focuses on a historical figure in the times just before WWII, doesn’t deal with the subject as much. What starts off as a fantastic and whimsical journey of growth in Howl’s Moving Castle ends up feeling confused amid the devastation of war.

Howl's Moving CastleThe film’s other notable flaw is, sadly, Sophie herself. Hayao Miyazaki is famous for creating strong and memorable female characters, yet Sophie is something of the exception to that rule. Though her elderly self shows some strengths in small doses, she as a character ultimately feels like a mere moving piece in the story, as opposed to its driving force. Miyazaki was clearly more fascinated with Howl and Calcifer’s characters, and while they end up being memorable, Sophie, the supposed main character, doesn’t leave much of an impression.

This is in stark contrast to most of Miyazaki’s heroines. While Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Chihiro of Spirited Away and their kin carried their stories, Sophie just seems to be plodding along in the narrative.

Howl's Moving CastleWith that said, I don’t mean to sound too negative towards the film. Aside from Sophie, the characters are a fun parade of personalities: Howl is humorously effeminate and conceded, Calcifer is bitter about being reduced to performing chores for Howl, and even the despicable Witch of the Waste, with her blob-like neck and unfounded arrogance, leaves an impression.

The film also boasts some of the most exquisite animation of any Ghibli film and, by extension, any animated film. The character designs stand out with originality, their movements are fluid and complex, the backgrounds are richly detailed, and the film creates many memorable moments that could only be created through animation (one scene in which Howl transforms the inner rooms of the castle is a wonder to behold).

Howl's Moving CastleThe titular castle itself is one of animation’s great places. Its outward appearance makes it equal parts character and location, and its inner workings – with portals that lead to different parts of the kingdom – are pure imaginative delights. Calcifer perhaps catches the eye the most, being a perfect combination of the simple (he’s a fireball with eyes and a mouth) and the complex (he’s animated as believably as sentient fire ever could be).

Howl’s Moving Castle can also claim to have one of the most memorable soundtracks in the Ghibli library, with composer Joe Hisaishi pulling out all the stops with a score that echoes European influences and captures the magic of the film’s images.

It should also be stated that Howl’s Moving Castle is a great film to watch in either its native Japanese language track or its English dub. Like many of the Studio Ghibli films, Howl’s Moving Castle’s English-language version was provided by Disney. In this case, it was directed by Pixar’s Pete Docter (the filmmaker behind Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out), and includes voices from Emily Mortimer and the late Jean Simmons as young and old Sophie, respectively. Lauren Bacall provided the sinister vocals for the Witch of the Waste, and Christian Bale – who was cast largely due to his love of Miyazaki’s films – provides both mystique and lightheartedness to Howl’s voice. Once again, however, Calcifer probably steals the show with the voice of Billy Crystal, whose performance here rivals that of his Mike Wazowski from the Monsters, Inc series.

On the whole, Howl’s Moving Castle is a delight, with staggering imagination and enough heart and humor to live up to its gorgeous visuals. Its main character is sadly underdeveloped, and its storytelling can’t match Miyazaki’s other works, so for those accustomed to the director’s films it may feel a bit flat by comparison. But by its own merits, it is still a fun and unique cinematic experience that provides good entertainment and depth all these years later.

It may not be up to par with Miyazaki’s other films, but being a “minor work” amid such giants is hardly anything to be ashamed of.

 

7

Tales from Earthsea Review

*This review contains some spoilers for certain story elements found early in the film*

Tales from Earthsea

In 2006, the impossible happened when Studio Ghibli, creators of so many classic and mystifying animated films, made a bad movie. Granted, you’ll find plenty of worse animated features out there, but for such a movie to come from Studio Ghibli still seems unthinkable. Yet such is the case with Tales from Earthsea which, despite a few aesthetic highlights and a handful of memorable moments, ultimately stumbles with uneven storytelling and incoherent character growth.

It should be noted that Earthsea is not among the films of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki or is mentor Isao Takahata, but was the debut film of Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. It should also be noted that prior to Earthsea, Goro Miyazaki was an architect, and had no prior affiliation with the worlds of filmmaking or animation aside from his famous father. Perhaps Ghibli’s then-president Toshio Suzuki thought the senior Miyazaki’s filmmaking abilities were so great that they would surely pass down to his son, though Hayao Miyazaki himself was infamously against the idea of thrusting his son into the director’s chair of a feature film with no prior experience. It may have been best had Ghibli headed the legendary director’s concerns.

Tales from Earthsea is based on a series of fantasy novels by author Ursula Le Guin, a series which Hayao Miyazaki once attempted to adapt himself. It is perhaps that large task of adapting an entire series of novels into a singular film by the hands of an inexperienced director that ultimately lead to the film’s undoing. There are hints at a bigger world and histories in Tales from Earthsea, but the story it contains feels so small scale its pacing can come off as episodic,  a cheap means to drag it out and justify its would-be grand scale.

Tales from EarthseaThe story centers around three central figures: Arren, a young prince who has spells of psychopathy, Sparrowhawk, an old wizard who takes Arren as his apprentice, and Therru, a young woman with a scar burned on her face. Additionally, there’s Tenar, a woman who has taken Therru into her home and is an old friend of Sparrowhawk’s; and the film’s villain, Cob, an androgynous sorcerer who becomes one of the more terrifying Ghibli foes.

The problem here is that most of these characters don’t leave much of an impression, or are downright unlikeable. Sparrowhawk is entirely inoffensive, but perhaps the most archetypal character to appear in a Studio Ghibli film (he’s basically a wise wizard who wise wizard’s his way through the movie because wise wizard). Tenar had the potential to be one of the many strong Ghibli heroines, but never gets a chance to show any real uniqueness as a character. Cob gets a bit of a pass, since he’s supposed to be hatable, so he does his job for the narrative (even if he’s one of the less fleshed-out villains in the Ghibli catalogue, despite his creepiness and mildly sexual personality).

Tales from EarthseaTherru is probably the only real sympathetic character, having been abused and abandoned by her birth parents, she’s developed a sensitivity and kindness towards others that makes her more likable than the rest of the cast.

It is Arren who really breaks whatever emotion you might have otherwise been able to invest in the film, however. Within the first five minutes of the movie, this supposed “hero” murders his own father in cold blood, with no reason given other than he was “possessed by fear.” Perhaps if Arren were treated as a villain that happens to be at the center of the film, or a man seeking redemption for the irredeemable, it could work. But the story just expects the audience to sympathize with him despite murdering his kindly father without any shred of reason behind the heinous act. Arren succumbs to a few other psychotic episodes during the film, which make him come off as one of those needlessly evil and angst-y villains you’d find in an action-based television anime, which is as far removed from Ghibli characterization as you can get.

Anyway, to give a brief summary of how this all comes together: Arren flees his kingdom after his inexplicit crime, meets up with Sparrowhawk, who makes Arren his apprentice. And later they meet up with Tenar and Therru, and somehow they all get caught up in Cob’s quest for eternal life.

Tales from EarthseaAs I said, there are bits and pieces of a fantasy epic in here, but the overall execution of Tales from Earthsea is so underdeveloped that it misses the mark. Despite its overall blunders, however, there are a few good aspects going for Tales from Earthsea.

Most obviously, the film, like all of Studio Ghibli’s library, is beautifully animated. The character movements and attention to detail are astounding, as are the stunning backgrounds. The character designs are unfortunately the least inspired of any Ghibli movie (Arren essentially resembles Ashitaka, the hero of Princess Mononoke, but without the complexity and range of emotion), but the technical aspects of the animation are as great as ever. Tales from Earthsea also boasts a pretty good musical score that sometimes sounds as epic as the film itself should have been.

I also have to admit that the film’s final act, where the focus shifts more onto Therru, is actually well done for the most part. The final confrontation she and Arren have with Cob, while not one of the more original Ghibli endings, does what it needs to with a confidence that you wish could have been present in the journey that got us to that point.

Tales from Earthsea might be worth a look then, if even just to complete the Ghibli library of films. But it should say something about it that when Disney finally released the film stateside in 2010, they didn’t give it the same loving treatment they gave to the other Studio Ghibli films. Spirited Away, Ponyo, The Wind Rises, Arietty, even Howl’s Moving Castle, were lavishly touted by Disney upon their worldwide distribution, even with their limited releases. By contrast, Tales from Earthsea felt like it was released out of contractual obligation. Nothing more.

Studio Ghibli has provided audiences with many of the world’s finest animated features, which often boast such wondrous imagination they make us feel that anything is possible. The fact that Studio Ghibli managed to create a movie as muddled and uneven as Tales from Earthsea is proof that, indeed, anything is.

 

5