Princess Mononoke (1997) Review

Note: I meant to publish this article months ago and just found out today that I hadn’t… oops

So as a writing crutch I’ve been comparing the other Studio Ghibli films to the epic fantasies that they so iconically do. Being one Ghibli’s most notable and praised films, Princess Mononoke is the epitome of that epic fantasy. It’s a crowning jewel of animation and visual storytelling and it deserves it’s place as one of the best animated films of all time, if not one of the best films of all time. It’s not as light-hearted as most other Ghibli films, but what it lacks in charm it makes up for in tense engaging drama.

While defending his village from a Boar God turned Demon, Ashitaka gets burned by the creatures touch and is now cursed to die unless he finds a way to remove the mark. Following the boars trail leads him to a small village producing two things: Iron and rifles. It’s their guns that killed the boar and turned him into a demon, and it’s their cutting of the forest that’s causing the wolf clan, including the wolf-adopted human San, to attack them. While Ashitaka fights to maintain peace and find a cure, the leader of the village Lady Eboshi strives to obtain the head of the Great Forest Spirit that nurtures and protects the forest and its creatures.

Princess Mononoke is in many ways a retread of Miyazaki’s previous environmental masterpiece: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It has a lot of the same themes and makes a lot of the same ideological arguments, but Mononoke does it far better, if only because it has stronger characters to give such heavy-handed messages. What he created in Mononoke, and I can’t emphasize this enough, is a powerful story. There are scenes in here that after they conclude you will realize you spent not blinking. He’s tapped into something that can’t be describe, that magic of storytelling. I truly wish that there weren’t so many other great American films that same year so this could have won best picture.

Mononoke is chock full of unique and intriguing concepts. Right off the bat I was fascinated by the predicament the hero is in. A lethal infection that also gives him inhuman strength, but grows as his hate and anger grows. It would be the perfect superhero origin. From the way the women in the village act, to the interactions and relationships between the creatures of the woods as well as the idea of legendary larger versions of the beasts we know today and the day-to-night changes of the Great Forest Spirit. These interesting concepts are worth the trade for me from the more simple and charming Ghibli film, because they serve as the fuel for the more dramatic world that’s established. It’s a true testament to the adapted script that it was able to convey these ideas seamlessly to a western audience.

Mononoke is a far more serious film, with a story developed for four years by Miyazaki. While other Ghibli films can be hard to invest in if you aren’t immediately engaged by the material, I would argue it’s hard NOT to get invested in the movie at all. Mononoke delves into a few very basic human conflicts that we’ve been struggling with since the dawn of man, and unlike Nausicaa presents them in a slightly more unbiased light. Instead of Nature over Man, the movie prefers Coexistence, but they still give you no answers as to how this is supposed to be achieved, they just intertwine it into the plot. Anyway, the story of Mononoke is well developed and without a ton of cliches, leaving you genuinely uncertain of where it’s going until it actually gets there.

The art design here is absolutely amazing, let alone the animation. The animation here is, in my opinion, the peak of Ghibli’s capabilities as it is their last cell animation work, as well as the most ambitious of theirs to animate. The backgrounds, creatures, battles, everything is more impressive to me then the arguably better animated, but more subdued Spirited Away or Howls Moving Castle. Back to the designs though, I don’t know if there’s background in Japanese culture, but even if there isn’t I’m still amazed at the unity and yet individuality to all the designs. The characters all have distinct and detailed looks to them, with visual aspects I’ve rarely, if ever, seen. I think San’s design is half the reason people like her so much, despite the fact that Ashitaka is arguably the hero of the film. Ghibli has a habit of not only making things beautiful, but also things incredibly gross and the possessed boars are the the most memorizing and disgusting things to look at outside of a gore scene in a horror film.

Assuming you get the Miramax release of this, the dub is absolutely amazing. I’m not going to go over all the actors, but I will assure you that the dub gets the characters across well, with no hiccups that other dubs may have. It was left in the hands of Neil Gaiman, who has a great respect for folklore and mythology, which is why not only is the adapted script so good, but the dub as a whole. It’s truly one of the best dubs out there so don’t feel bad if you don’t want to see it in Japanese, because you aren’t missing anything. Due to the gore and mature storytelling, this really isn’t a movie for kids, so please wait for teenage years to show this one. It does have important themes that I want kids to learn about, but I highly doubt a kid could sit through it.

Princess Mononoke, in all of it’s beauty and mystery took me for a ride quite unlike anything before. I truly felt immersed in the world I was watching and the characters were all worthy companions on the journey to the end. It’s easy on the eyes, ears, and mind as most Ghibli films are, if not more so. I only wish there were more films out there like this one. This is not only mandatory anime watching, but it’s a movie you need to see before you die. End of story.

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Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) Review

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As much as I love gory horror films like Friday the 13th or more highbrow films like The Artist, I’ve come to appreciate small quiet films, like the ones Studio Ghibli puts out, just as much. Now before any question of my manhood comes in let me state that 1. Kiki’s Delivery Service is an adorable film and 2. I absolutely love Kiki’s Delivery Service. There thought ought to cover me right? Nah in all seriousness, Kiki’s is an excellent and cute movie that really acts as a pallet cleanser for the rougher works out these days.

Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) is a young witch who, upon reaching the age of 13, leaves home to find a new town and start her year of witch training. With her cat familiar, Gigi (Phil Hartman), she settles into a large oceanside city and is taken in by a kind baker. Utilizing her ability to fly on a broomstick, she starts a delivery service and thus her struggles begin as she tries to understand how to balance out being a normal girl and following her witch training (while still keeping up her deliveries).

On a personal note let me say that I used to see trailers for the original release of this movie all the time on Disney VHSs and DVDs. I was always fascinated by the animation and the catchy (but shitty) pop song they played, but the concept never seemed that intriguing to me, nor was it at Hollywood Video so I never got around to watching it. So finally seeing this movie was really interesting as it was an experiment in challenging long held expectations. While we’re on the subject, that original VHS/DVD release is different then the one currently out on DVD/Blu-Ray. The old recording is reused, with the same great performances from Kirsten Dunst and especially Phil Hartman, but a lot of the excessive lines that Hartman had are taken out and the original sound effects and music are put back in. The dub you find nowadays is rather close to the original japanese and quite good, so check it out.

Now Kiki’s is another remarkably simple film from Ghibli, more so then the others. It’s a rather plotless journey of a girl as she learns to adjust in the city. If the first twenty minutes don’t grab you then the rest of it won’t, because all in all it’s paced rather slowly. It takes its time to address a lot of the issues that Kiki faces and while for some of the audience it will be really interesting and/or identifiable, others may find it boring. It doesn’t have the visual splendour of other Ghibli works because there’s not much to animate, but what there is is rather nice. It’s just a cute, simple film and I know I’ve said that but that’s because thats what it is. It’s simplicity is what makes it so refreshing and it really hit some interesting notes for me. The characters all rather simple too, but not in a bad way. With the exception of Kiki or Gigi we don’t get much from each character, but they’re far from cliche and we can definitely tell that there’s more to all of them. If I had to make a complaint it would be that every girl besides Kiki seems to be an asshole, but thats kind of the point.

Kiki’s Delivery Service may be too slow for kids, but it’s perfect for the nostalgic adult or the cinephile looking for a pallet cleanser. It probably could have stood to have more going on in it, but it sacrifices quantity for quality and rightfully so. It’s in many ways the antithesis of Howl’s Moving Castle, an overly ambitious film I still enjoy. Kiki’s is probably the most Western of all of Ghibli’s movies, with it’s witch-centric premise. It’s very easy to get into the world and characters of Kiki’s Delivery Service as the themes of growing up and finding acceptance are very universal. All in all it’s worth at least one watch even from the most tough and stubborn of moviegoers.

The trailer here is the aforementioned one from the old release. Holy Nostalgia Batman!

Porco Rosso (1992) Review

Besides telling tales of epic fantasy, Studio Ghibli can also be… a little silly and there’s no sillier movie of theirs then Porco Rosso. It’s the tale of a seaplane fighter pilot who quits the Italian army and becomes a bounty hunter after he mysteriously gets the head of a pig. Now living out his days in isolation, Porco Rosso is forced to get his plane repaired in Milan after getting shot down by American rival Curtis. There he meets Fio, a smart and talented engineer who teams up with him for his final battle with Curtis. Without going into detail you can tell that this is a rather silly movie, but its silliness isn’t what makes it great. Rather it’s the balance between silliness and seriousness that truly make it stand out.

Porco Rosso is a brilliantly funny movie, with witty dialogue and a complete exploitation of its very silly concept. Part of that is the Disney dub, which westernizes plenty of the jokes for the purpose of… well making them jokes. None of the changes betray the spirit and tone of the original and they’re welcome indeed. The cast does a great job, with Michael Keaton at the helm as Porco and a score of Disney stock actors to support him. The only really bad performance is Cary Elwes as the Texan Curtis, as his accent is absolutely awful. BUT I’m positive that this is played for laughs to make Curtis more of a caricature, because I’ve heard Cary Elwes do a half-bad American accent.

The characters aren’t as engaging and intriguing to me as the cast of Howl’s Moving Castle, but they are all surprisingly strong characters (at least on the protagonists side). Porco is one of those rare loveable assholes, who actually has an intriguing and complex background. Fio is just a great strong female character, but she isn’t afraid to show a little weakness and for me this sells her as a character. Gina, the hotel owner, is another great female character, as she strikes that balance between wanting a man without relying on men. On the flip-side, the antagonists are as one-dimensional as you can get, but it works because they’re played for laughs for most of the movie. I’d much rather watch well developed leads bouncing off of jokey villains then have the whole lot of them be half-developed. Thats not to say they’re cliche, as they still manage to be unique and engaging to watch.

Now for being as silly as it is, Porco Rosso isn’t afraid to get serious at times and it’s hard not to given it’s post-war setting. It’s the mark of a truly great kids film when the movie isn’t afraid to get serious, and Porco Rosso has that in spades. For example, we see plenty of people die (in the form of planes going down) and it’s clear that Miyazaki is putting a message of anti-fascism in the movie (not that there are many people who like fascism). Put somewhat simply, the dramatic serves as a good foil and break from the comedy and they feed off one other, creating a healthy symbiotic relationship. This is a pretty obvious statement that applies to most movies, but Porco Rosso pulls off that balance quite well.

I’m not sure why Porco Rosso isn’t more popular then it is, probably because it was in that dead zone of releases between Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, but it really deserves more attention then it gets. It’s score is amazing (I paid attention this time), the animation is frigging gorgeous, especially for 1992, and its a brilliantly funny movie. On top of that, it’s a movie that can appeal to boys, girls, kids and adults. It’s a very very simple movie, and I didn’t take many notes while watching it, but it has everything that a great family movie, or any movie for that matter needs and I will be adding it to my collection as soon as possible.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) Review

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Studio Ghibli is no doubt the “Feel good” studio. Almost all of their films are awe-inspiring fantasies or small stories that remind you of the good things in life and give a warm feeling inside. Now this is nothing new of me to say or for anyone to say for that matter, but it bears repeating because even with one of their most controversial works, Howl’s Moving Castle, I still get that Ghibli charm I just can’t get anywhere else.

Howl’s Moving Castle is the fantastical tale of hatter Sophie who after being saved by the mysterious wizard Howl gets cursed by his nemesis The Witch of the Wastes. The spell manifests itself by aging her tremendously and she decides to travel to Howl’s moving castle to see if she can get turned back. There she meets an annoying fire demon, a child apprentice and, of course, the mysterious and childish Howl. Sophie and Howl soon develop a romance, but their love seems in jeopardy as the country’s war escalates further and Howls involvement and demise seem inevitable.

Howl’s Moving Castle‘s quality is contested by fans because while it’s a good movie… it’s really not as good as other Ghibli works. At least thats my theory, and there’s evidence to back it up. Howl’s has strong characters, animation, and sound, far above most animated features, but it’s convoluted story weighs it down for people and prevents it from hitting that Ghibli standard.

I absolutely love the characters in Howl’s. It takes a while for you to get invested in them, but once they start acting as a family you can’t help but feel attached to them and really appreciate not only the individuals, but the cast as a whole. Even Billy Crystal’s Calcifer the fire demon, who’s pretty annoying for a good chunk of the movie has a hint of charm to him at the end of the movie. The aging dog that enters in the second half and the speechless scarecrow Turniphead both have a distinct personality despite a lack of lines and screen time. There’s just something about this ensemble and their chemistry that works for me and makes me want to see more.

The animation… do I even have to say it? It’s fucking gorgeous. It’s Ghibli and Miyazaki for christ’s sake. Everything from the character designs, backgrounds, and animation itself is high quality and meshes well. I really liked the design of the castle itself and it added a steampunk element that fit in this magic/science world. There are moments where you can tell that the animation jumps in quality so for an anime junkie who will notice that kind of thing it’s rather jarring, but for the average viewer it’s sure to not be a problem.

The soundtrack is standard Ghibli fare and rather unnoticeable which I guess means it did it’s job, but what I really want to talk about it the dub. I love the casting choices for the Disney dub and it’s probably one of the best out there. For the most part it’s unknown actors, but there a few celebrities in this cast. Christian Bale plays Howl and he does a fantastic job. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull of the more boyish aspects of the character, but he did and admirably at that. It’s a character archetype in Japan that has no real translation in the West and changes were made so if you’re a fierce loyalist to the original you may have problems with it. Billy Crystal, as I said before, plays Calcifer and does a fine job at that giving it that annoying touch without breaching into Jar-Jar territory. THE Lauren Bacall plays The Witch of the Wastes and she’s, of course, fantastic. She has this disney villainess quality about her, but it really works in this context. The rest of the cast is great too, but if I had any gripes it’s that the actress that plays the young Sophie has an accent that doesn’t match up with the speaking mannerisms of old Sophie and when they switch back and forth it’s quite distracting.

I suppose we should get to what doesn’t work… Howl’s Moving Castle is an extremely ambitious film in that it tries to juggle several different themes and plots. It unfortunately doesn’t succeed and the two aspects that end up suffering the most are the romance between Sophie and Howl and the war subplot. Now I understand the war subplots point of existing, that being to add a little tension and action to what would have been a rather quiet movie, but it could have been implemented better as it just pops in and out and there’s very little involvement or context with it. Sophie/Howl’s relationship gets pushed to the background while all this other stuff goes on and while you get a sense that their relationship is developing, there’s a lot of stuff I wish we could have seen to clarify it. One other fatal flaw of this film is that towards the end of the movie the plot just… goes all over the place. I’m not entirely sure how half of it worked or even what happened as the film tries to cram a lot into the last half hour and it doesn’t really take the time to explain properly. Everything’s jumbled and messy until the last two minutes where everything’s tied up in a neat bow, with too much convenience for my tastes.

I’ve said this about a lot of movies lately, but Howl’s Moving Castle is a ton of fun. It’s got a great mix between dark and light content as well as just enough maturity to keep an adult engaged while still keeping that childhood innocence for kids to enjoy. I thoroughly enjoy the characters and concept, and while I know there’s story flaws, who cares? If you know what you’re getting into and you let yourself get taken away by the characters, the weird pacing and underdeveloped story won’t matter to you (as much). A rottentomatoes rating or my recommendation really doesn’t do this movie justice as this is one film where I truly believe you must form your own opinion about so please check it out.