THE SCREENING ROOM
By Bill KallayVery few filmmakers illicit smiles of joy like Hayao Miyazaki can. Most of his films manage to cast a spell on audiences of both young and old. My daughter and I have watched a number of his films and have been enchanted by their warmth, charm, and wisdom. Miyazaki knows how to tell stories, and he knows how to tell them well.
Disney has released his latest, "Ponyo," on Blu-ray and DVD. The studio has also re-released a few of his older classics on DVD. These are "Castle in the Sky," My Neighbor Totoro," and "Kiki's Delivery Service." Strangely, Disney didn't release these on Blu-ray, which is a real shame because they'd look spectacular.
This is a special review of all four films.
"Ponyo" is a hard film to critique because it works on so many levels, yet doesn't satisfy like Miyazaki's other films have. Here is an innocent film about friendship that is charming and sweet, yet lacks some of the maturity that "Kiki's Delivery Service" has. But that might've been Miyazaki's point all along. Perhaps the film is squarely aimed at the younger set and the master storyteller isn't ashamed of that.
Because we loved Miyzaki's other films in our DVD collection, including the brilliant "Spirited Away," I took my daughter to see "Ponyo" in a theater. I absolutely fell in love with the film for the first half hour or so. My daughter loved it all the way through. What knocked me off-course was a tiny little element. It wasn't drastic enough to derail the whole film for me, but it was enough to tweak my opinion.
Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus) is adorable as a character. Wide eyed and innocent as a baby's smile, it's hard not to resist her charm. Like the "Little Mermaid" and her determination to break free of her father's undersea domain, you root for little Ponyo. But once the American dubbing kicked in with Cyrus' voicing, I was put off by Ponyo. It was like that little kid in the store, with a high pitched voice, who just won't stop begging for a toy. Enough already. I was reminded of seeing the 1983 film, "Ladyhawke," and being enchanted by the characters and story. But it all came to a near halt because of a loud and mismatched synth score.
I'm sure little Noah is good kid. Her sister Miley and father Billy Ray are now certainly famous. And Disney knows how to exploit one of its crown jewels of the moment, so why wouldn't they put in another Cyrus into a project? But honestly, the film became nearly unwatchable because of her voicing. Perhaps the script and American dubbers asked her to be somewhat obnoxious. I don't know. But all hope is not lost on the Americanized version, because Frankie Jonas nearly saves the film.
If you've stumbled across my review of "Jonas Brothers: The Concert Experience," you'll know I'm not a fan of their music. Sure, they seem like nice guys and can play instruments. But the screechy vocals just cut through me. So that whole Jonas family vibe just doesn't work for me. It's kind of like the Alec Baldwin syndrome. You get one Baldwin going, then you're stuck with the rest of clan whether you like or not. Once I heard that both a Cyrus and a Jonas were doing voices for the brilliant Miyazaki, my eyes rolled back. What the heck was John Lasseter thinking?
To my surprise, little Jonas is very credible in his acting and voicing in the film. In fact, he's very strong in the role of Sosuke, the little boy who discovers Ponyo. He's not squeaky like his older brother Kevin (I know these things because my daughter likes the Jonas Bros.) Frankie's voice is typical of a young boy with a sense of confidence. He could almost do the voice for Linus in a "Peanuts" special and I say that as a compliment. If he was noisy as Ponyo, the film would've been sunk despite Miyazaki's animation. But Frankie actually carries the film on his shoulders very well.
Miyazaki's direction and animation is flowing with vibrancy. Miyazaki uses pastel colors to create a bright environment that looks simply gorgeous. The score is also a plus on the film. So lyrical and lush, it's one of the few recent scores that actually stands on its own.
What I love about Miyazaki's work here and in some of his other films is his sense of simplicity. At least in "Ponyo," there aren't any heavy themes, stunning plot twists, or villains. In fact, there really isn't any villain in the film, unless one counts Ponyo's father, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson). The grand director lets the characters tell their stories and lets the narrative flow. Certainly, the film is somewhat slow it in its pacing, and there isn't a lot of action. But that's not what the film is about. It's about determination in doing what you want to do, but it's also about friendship. How many films, including modern children's films, let their characters marvel in the simple joys of friendship?
This is still a wonderful film on most of its own levels. I love the sequence, "Ponyo's Typhoon," in which Ponyo chases Lisa's car in the middle of a huge storm. On the whole, however, the film suffers from the choice of voice on Ponyo, as well as the general storyline being a bit too juvenile. The storyline isn't as universal as Miyazaki's other films, but I'm sure it does indeed work for tots.
The Blu-ray picture is good for reference material. It's sharp and filled with dark to vibrant colors. Watch the "Ponyo's Typhoon" sequence to gauge the color scheme that Miyazaki uses.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent. Miyazaki's films almost always sound tremendously rich. The score by Joe Hisaishi sounds like a Wagner opera in some ways, but it fits so neatly into the film. The score and sound effects are recorded very well. This is a fine disc to show off to your friends.
Oddly, Disney chose to disable the ability for the user to change audio tracks. So if you want to listen to the original Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, you have to go back to the main menu and to the set-up menu. I don't know Japanese, but after seeing the English dubbed version, I can say that the Japanese version seems to have more voice inflection. Either way, each soundtrack sounds excellent.
KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)
One of Miyazaki's best returns on DVD, but it's mainly the same DVD that came out years ago. The only real major difference is the original Japanese theme song is used during the opening titles.
The master animator has woven a story about a girl's passage into adulthood. Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) is a witch in training. Along with her trusty black cat, Jiji (Phil Hartman), she flies to a village by the sea and starts her own delivery service.
Before I'd seen this film, I had already seen "Spirited Away." That Oscar-winner swept me away with its brilliant story and animation, so "Kiki" seemed to be a lesser film to me. Yet after watching it again (and again...my daughter loves this film), I discovered it's a wonderfully told story. Miyazaki is keen on putting, ever so subtly, a message about discovering the world and life around you. Unlike the crudeness one finds in recent animated films, where the plot can't get away without some fart joke or pop culture reference, "Kiki" builds a fable on the simple things. Friendship. Love. Helping others. His message isn't beaten into an audience's head. Instead, he weaves it into the storyline without you realizing it.
American audiences have known witches as a old scary monsters. In Miyazaki's world, witches do good. He imagines a village that is both modern and old fashioned. The village is a fanciful European inspired place where I'd love to buy baked goods at Osono's (Tress MacNeille) shop. There are no real villains in "Kiki." What we get is a strong willed but insecure girl who's determined to make something of herself.
The American voice talent in the film is excellent. Dunst loses herself in the role of Kiki and makes her believable. Most recent animated films tend to loose me not only for their mundane stories and reliance on "star" voices. Not here. I found myself listening to the character of Kiki rather than thinking "that's Kirsten Dunst." The heartbreaker is listening to the late-Phil Hartman. What an amazing talent. His role as Jiji is so much fun. A bit snooty (like a real cat), moody and yet lovable, Hartman infuses the role with his charm. Such a shame he's gone.
The film stands as one of Miyazaki's best.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988)
The first time I'd ever heard of Miyazaki was during an episode of "At The Movies with Siskel & Ebert." Ebert was so taken by "My Neighbor Totoro," he eventually placed it in one of his "The Great Movies" books. This was surprising to me, because most of the Japanese anime I'd seen was either "Speed Racer" or little bits here and there on television. Anime just seemed too jerky, so cold. But Ebert was onto something with "Totoro."
I admit it took me until recently to see this film, and what a lovely surprise it is. It takes the simple story of two sisters who move to the countryside, while their mother is ill and in the hospital. They soon discover there are special creatures living in and around their house. The girls set out and discover who these creatures are.
For me, the film is a bit slow in its pacing, but once the girls finally meet Totoro and his strange yet wonderful friends, I was hooked. Miyazaki uses the magic of being a child and how some children go and make discoveries, whether they're imagined or real. Part of the magic of being a child is imagining how life could be, and imagining friends who are there when you need them most.
Totoro is a giant rabbit-like creature who loves to sleep in the forest, but once awakened, bounces to life with a big roar. He's the big stuffed animal you brought to life when you were little. He could comfort you when you were sad, carry you on his back and run up the side of trees, or fly around the countryside. His friends are multi-legged cat buses and tiny rabbit creatures who drop acorns everywhere. Who wouldn't want Totoro as their best friend?
"My Neighbor Totoro," like some of Miyazaki's other films, celebrates the charms of childhood. It also celebrates kids gaining confidence in themselves to be strong and responsible.
CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)
I couldn't quite get into this entry in the Miyazaki film library. The style isn't as magical as his later films, nor does it feel like a Miyazki film. It feels like almost any other anime movie I've seen in its style and execution. Not that it's bad, but it's not very engaging.
The story takes place in a mystical hybrid of turn-of-the-century fantasy machines and European landscapes. A girl named Sheeta (Anna Paquin) falls from the sky. An orphan boy, Pazu (James Van Der Beek) sees her and is soon on an adventure with her to find the floating castle in the sky, Laputa.
The elements of the film didn't quite catch me. I found Pazu to be a little over-the-top as a would-be hero. Van Der Beek is fine with the voicing, but I didn't care for him. I've always loved Cloris Leachman, who voices Dola, but Miyazaki almost always makes the grannies in his movies look so scary! Call me superficial, but I couldn't get past her looks.
There are some good elements in the film. I enjoyed the chase in the canyon on the railroad tracks. I found myself laughing at some of the elements other films have "borrowed" from "Castle in the Sky." The crystal that Sheeta wears is an idea used in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" (2001). In fact, a few ideas in this film show up in the Disney megamovie. The giant robots look amazingly close to "The Iron Giant" (1999), or I should say, Brad Bird's robot looks amazingly close to the robots in "Castle." No matter. Miyazaki still created some nice scenes. Just as a whole, the movie isn't on the higher level as many of his other ones are.
Special thanks to Click Communications
Photos: © BVHE. All rights reserved.