The Films of Hayao Miyazaki
The Castle of Cagliostro
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (March 9/11)
Hayao Miyazaki's second feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind follows the scrappy title character as she attempts to protect her people from a variety of outside sources - including oversized, toxic insects and vicious warriors known as the Tolmekians. There's little doubt that Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind fares best in its opening half hour, as Miyazaki does a superb job of transforming the open-hearted protagonist into a figure worth caring about and rooting for (although Nausicaä's penchant for talking to herself is admittedly a little ridiculous). The movie's amiable (yet far-from-engrossing) atmosphere persists right up until Miyazaki starts emphasizing an almost unreasonable number of subplots and supporting characters, with the increasingly busy nature of the narrative resulting in a lack of momentum that holds the viewer at arm's length on an all-too-regular basis. The inclusion of a few isolated stand-out sequences - eg Nausicaä rescues a pilot from an enormous flying insect - buoys one's interest every now and again, yet it's clear that the film, which grows more and more complicated and convoluted as time progresses, eventually becomes an exhausting, aggressively overlong piece of work that seems unlikely to appeal to the hardiest of animation aficionados.
Castle in the Sky
An unexpectedly thrilling adventure from Hayao Miyazaki, Castle in the Sky follows a pair of scrappy adolescents, Pazu and Sheeta, as they're thrust into a rip-roaring escapade involving pirates, secret agents, and, of course, the title locale. Miyazaki, working from his own screenplay, does a fantastic job of immediately grabbing the viewer's interest, as Castle in the Sky opens with an impressively engrossing action sequence set aboard an enormous airship - with the pre-credits set piece setting a fast-paced, Indiana Jones-like tone that proves impossible to resist. (Well, fast-paced by Miyazaki's otherwise excessively, interminably deliberate standards, anyway.) The typically overlong running time isn't, as a result, as problematic as one might've feared, as Miyazaki effectively peppers the proceedings with one exhilarating scene after another - including a fantastic bit involving an oversized robot. (It's worth noting, too, that the movie fares quite well in its smaller, quieter sequences, with the vivid characters, both good and bad, perpetuating the persistently watchable atmosphere.) And although the 124 minute running time begins to wear on the viewer past a certain point, Castle in the Sky's energetic climactic stretch ensures that the film ends on a palpably high note - which confirms the movie's place as a better-than-average effort from Miyazaki. (This is, after all, one of his few works that matches his always-gorgeous visuals with a compelling story and interesting characters.)
My Neighbor Totoro
A typically erratic effort from Hayao Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro follows two siblings as they embark on a series of adventures with a variety of nearby forest spirits. The film, perhaps predictably, boasts gorgeous visuals that are often hindered by an almost oppressively deliberate execution - as writer/director Miyazaki's slow-moving sensibilities prevent the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting to the material. And although the first half, which seems to revolve entirely around the girls' fun-loving exploits, tests one's patience to an aggressive degree, My Neighbor Totoro admittedly does improve once the aforementioned forest spirits begin interacting with the protagonists - as the mythical characters' mere presence infusing the proceedings with a much-needed jolt of electricity and energy. The subsequent emphasis on oddball creatures generally compensates for the perpetually sedate atmosphere, and it's difficult not to get a kick out of some of the more inventive figures that ultimately crop up (eg the cat bus). It's clear, though, that the film's aimless vibe prevents it from becoming anything more than a passable animated endeavor, and although Miyazaki manages to mine some drama out of the girls' sick mother, My Neighbor Totoro is, in the end, an all-too-slight cartoon that hardly seems likely to hold the interest of small children.
Kiki's Delivery Service
As tends to be the case with Hayao Miyazaki's films, Kiki's Delivery Service boasts a striking visual sensibility that is, unfortunately, slowly-but-surely rendered moot by an uneventful, deliberately-paced narrative. The storyline follows a young witch named Kiki as she leaves her home and travels to the big city to complete her training, with the character's subsequent efforts at opening a flying delivery service hindered by a number of complications (including an item that goes missing and a pie that's still uncooked). It's clear right from the outset that Miyazaki isn't in any hurry to tell this admittedly simple tale, as Kiki's Delivery Service unfolds at a clip best described as lackadaisical - with the episodic structure and absence of interesting periphery characters effectively perpetuating the all-too-subdued atmosphere. The viewer's efforts at embracing the material are, as a result, thwarted at every turn, and there's little doubt that the hands-off vibe grows more and more insistent as time slowly progresses. It's too bad, really, given that Kiki's Delivery Service possesses as bright and vibrant an animation style as one might've anticipated, while the narrative admittedly does contain a very small handful of unexpectedly engrossing sequences. (The best and most obvious example of the latter is the action-packed climax, which is far more exciting and entertaining than anything preceding it.) The film's status as a top-tier animated endeavor is baffling, to say the least, and it's ultimately difficult not to wonder what its ardent followers have embraced so passionately over the years.
Porco Rosso follows the title character, a WWI pilot cursed with porcine features, as he agrees to participate in an aerial battle with a flashy rival, with the film detailing the character's various exploits in the buildup to the competition (as well as his growing friendship with a spunky mechanic). Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki has, as expected, infused Porco Rosso with an almost excessively relaxed atmosphere that's reflected in its various attributes, and it's clear that the movie is, as a result, rarely as engrossing or compelling as one might've hoped - although, to be fair, the film picks up considerably once it progresses through its uneventful, middling first act. (There are, having said that, a few strong sequences sprinkled throughout, including an enthralling interlude detailing Porco's first flight in his repaired aircraft.) The unfocused narrative eventually does, past a certain point, become much more streamlined in its execution, as Miyazaki drops the aimlessness of the first half in favor of a welcome emphasis on Porco's tragic past and his relationship with the aforementioned mechanic. Miyazaki isn't quite able to sustain the watchable vibe right through to the movie's conclusion, with the climactic duel unable to pack the captivating punch that the writer/director has clearly intended - which ultimately confirms Porco Rosso's place as a near miss that nevertheless fares better than most of Miyazaki's output.
Spirited Away (March 3/12)
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away follows a plucky little girl (Rumi Hiiragi's Chihiro) as she inadvertently wanders into a mystical landscape inhabited by a whole host of strange creatures and monsters - with the film ultimately detailing Chihiro's efforts at freeing her parents from a curse and escaping back into her own world. Before it becomes unwatchably strange, Spirited Away comes off as an uneven yet compelling animated endeavor that benefits substantially from Miyazaki's seemingly endless creativity - as virtually every frame of the movie is bursting with astonishingly inventive images and elements. (This is especially true of the various characters that reside within that aforementioned fantastical city.) The rampant weirdness on display is, as a result and in the film's early stages, not as off-putting as one might've feared, with the ongoing emphasis on Chihiro's fish-out-of-water exploits proving instrumental in grounding the proceedings on a fairly regular basis. There's little doubt, however, that Spirited Away's hold on the viewer demonstrably flounders as the movie progresses into its increasingly aimless midsection, as Miyazaki, in stressing the episodic comings and goings of the various characters within an otherworldly bathhouse, pummels the viewer with a relentless series of tediously bizarre sequences and interludes that are exacerbated by a seriously overlong running time. The inexplicable atmosphere effectively prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly working up any real interest in or sympathy for Chihiro's climactic efforts at saving her parents and returning home, which, in turn, ensures that the movie's admittedly engrossing final stretch is simply unable to pack the emotional punch that Miyazaki is clearly striving for. The end result is a gorgeously animated yet sporadically entertaining endeavor that isn't quite the instant classic one might've expected, although, to be fair, it's ultimately not difficult to see why the film has been so passionately embraced by hardcore animation fans (ie you've never quite seen a cartoon like this before).
Howl's Moving Castle (June 9/05)
It seems clear that Howl's Moving Castle has been designed to appeal solely to animation buffs; it's hard to imagine neophytes to the genre or even kids getting much out of this impenetrable film. The movie features a lack of compelling characters along with an expectedly baffling storyline, ensuring that only the most die-hard fans of director Hayao Miyazaki will find something here worth embracing. Set in some kind of an alternate reality where witches and warlocks are commonplace, Howl's Moving Castle follows a young girl named Sophie who finds herself magically transformed into an old lady by an ill-tempered hag, and her only hope lies with a socially-inept warlock. There's no denying that Howl's Moving Castle is quite impressive in terms of its visuals, but there's nothing here to keep the viewer engaged; Miyazaki himself has admitted that the plot makes no sense, while the scarcely-developed characters aren't even remotely interesting. The film is completely lacking in momentum, a problem that only gets worse as it progresses (that the storyline becomes increasingly esoteric and hard-to-follow certainly doesn't help matters). Adding insult to injury is the dubbed soundtrack that Disney has attached to the movie for its North American release; this sort of thing is no longer acceptable for so-called "adult" movies (eg Hero, House of Flying Daggers), so why is it okay for an animated flick?