Princess Mononoke Review

Princess Mononoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Review

Nausicaa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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November is Animation Month!

Moana

While I still plan on reviewing a few video games in November, for the most part, I’m going to dedicate this month to catching up on my reviews for animated films. It seems like my animation reviews have taken a backseat for far too long now, so I figured prioritizing them for a month would be a nice way to get things back on track.

I figured November would be a good time to do this, because later this month, Disney’s Moana will be released. Seeing as Disney is the most popular animation studio in the world, the release of their latest animated film seemed like a good excuse to get this going.

I have a lineup of Disney animation reviews I want to get done before then, but I should also be writing on other animated films as well, notably Pixar and Studio Ghibli.

This also gives me an excuse to get back to writing some of those lists I had planned back in my “Pixar month” back in June (which sadly fell flat with very little to it).

Again, I’ll still be writing some video game stuff, but November will be mostly dedicated to animated films. Of course, this may change some of the plans I had for December (meaning my list of Best Games Ever may be delayed for the umpteenth time), but nothing’s set in stone just yet. So I guess I’ll keep you posted in that area.

For now, I hope you enjoy whatever I end up writing about animated films.

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

Castle in the Sky Review

Castle in the Sky

Castle in the Sky holds a very important role in the history of Japanese animation. Though it wasn’t the first film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, it was the first feature released under Studio Ghibli. Though the then-new studio was gambling with Castle in the Sky (an animated film not based on an existing comic was considered unpopular in Japan at the time), the film ended up being successful enough for Studio Ghibli to flourish for nearly three decades, thus setting in motion the most legendary catalogue of films in animation.

In many ways, Castle in the Sky is a much simpler film than other Miyazaki features. Whereas most of Miyazaki’s later works would be famous for their character depth and their more character-based stories, Castle in the Sky is a tried and true adventure film. But due to its staggering imagination, and the excellence of its execution, it easily ranks as one of the greatest adventure films of all time, animated or otherwise.

Castle in the SkyThough it was released in 1986 and was Studio Ghibli’s first feature, Castle in the Sky remains  a timelessly beautiful animated film. Though it can’t match the sheer visual splendor of Ghibli’s later movies, the memorable character designs, fluid movements, and attention to detail the studio is famous for are all still present. It’s a joy to look at from the very first frame.

The film takes place in a world of pure fantasy, with magic crystals, robots, and flying machines galore. The story sees a young boy named Pazu, a miner’s apprentice, meet a mysterious girl named Sheeta as she falls from the sky, wearing a glowing crystal on her necklace.

Pazu dreams of seeing the legendary flying castle of Laputa, long-believed to be a myth by all but his father, who took a single photograph of the castle before the world called him a liar (as Pazu cryptically states, “being called a liar is what killed him.”). Sheeta and her crystal hold secrets connected to Laputa, and together, the two orphans set out to find the legendary kingdom.

Castle in the SkyTheir quest won’t be easy, however, as a gang of notorious air pirates, lead by the elderly Dola and her sons, are after Sheeta and her crystal to find Laputa and its countless treasures. An even bigger threat looms in the form of the military, who are under the command of the mysterious Colonel Muska, who has even darker desires for finding Laputa.

From the get-go, Castle in the Sky is captivating entertainment. It’s a real testament to Miyazaki’s versatility as a director that he’s most famous for creating more calm features like My Neighbor Totoro, yet films like Castle in the Sky show that he can create action as well as any filmmaker. There’s not a single action scene in Castle in the Sky that disappoints.

The sheer imagination that Miyazaki crafted into the world of Castle in the Sky is a thing of beauty. It’s a combination of fantasy, science fiction and European inspirations that feels entirely unique. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that countless anime and video games have been inspired by the world found in Castle in the Sky.

Castle in the SkyThough the characters are simple when compared to many of Miyazaki’s later casts, they are just as memorable: Pazu and Sheeta are likable and cute, but more importantly, there’s a sense of believability to them that makes them more relatable and sympathetic than most characters in adventure films. Colonel Muska, though a far more blatantly evil villain than most Miyazaki antagonists, is one of the most effectively evil foes in animation. By the film’s third act, he’s genuinely terrifying. It’s Dola who probably leaves the biggest impression though, with her eccentric, hard-nosed personality and boisterous energy, she can be seen as the forerunner of Miyazaki’s unique archetype for elderly characters.

The English language version was provided by Disney, and like most of Disney’s dubs of the Ghibli films, it’s a top-notch translation. Admittedly, the English voices for Pazu and Sheeta (James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, respectively) sound a bit older than the characters should, but the voice work is still solid. On the stronger side of things, Cloris Leachman and Mark Hamill are perfectly cast as Dola and Muska, and rank as some of the best dubbed voices in a Japanese animation. Cloris Leachman fits into the role so well it almost seems like it was written for her, and Mark Hamill’s vocals have seldom been so sinister (he might even outdo his iconic take on the Joker here).

As is the case with all but one of Hayao Miyazaki’s features, the film was scored by Joe Hisaishi, and it is another magical soundtrack by Hisaishi that perfectly compliments the sense of wonder from the world Miyazaki created.

Castle in the SkyAll of the film’s elements come together beautifully. Although you could argue that many of its individual elements were bettered by some of the Ghibli films that would follow, as a whole Castle in the Sky remains one of the Studio’s finest works. It’s an immaculate adventure that would feel right at home in an Indiana Jones or Star Wars feature, and it combines that sense of adventure with the impeccable Ghibli spirit.

It’s exhilarating, magical and highly entertaining. And it was one hell of a start for Studio Ghibli.

 

9