I’ve caught up on some animated films during the past week. (When a member of one’s immediate household is three years old, one quickly becomes conversant on animation.)
:: Dinosaur. This film, which combines computer animated dinosaurs with live-action backgrounds, is visually amazing — and narratively boring. There is a wonderful opening sequence, detailing the “adventures” of an unhatched dinosaur egg after its mother is driven off and its brethren stomped upon. The egg is stolen by some kind of dino-mouse, taken into the woods where it is dropped into a stream, bobs along in the water somehow not being eaten by dino-crocs or stepped on by brachiosaurs (I think), and plucked from the edge of a waterfall by a pterodactyl. Then it ends up on a peaceful island populated by fuzzy, mammals that I think are lemurs. (I’m no paleontology expert; were there mammals during the time of the dinosaurs?) All this is told only through seamless visuals and a wonderful music score by James Newton Howard. However, then the egg hatches, and we then discover that all the animals speak English (except for the villainously ravenous carnotaurs, who only eat other dinos and roar a lot). And thus, after one of the more impressive opening sequences Disney has ever done, we’re right back in the midst of what could almost be termed the “Standard Disney plot”: plucky orphan with the heart of gold finds a loving family that is nevertheless not his own, and over the course of many adventures he saves his adopted family, learns his heritage, earns the respect of the Gruff Chieftain, and in the end has his own family. We get the obligatory “Young guy knows what to do, but the Gruff Chieftain won’t listen to him and takes it as a challenge to his authority” business, and there are the obligatory outcasts and misfits who don’t fit in but who end up being Our Hero’s closest friends. It’s all very slickly handled, although I felt a bit of a pall hanging over the proceedings — after all, I know that none of it really matters because all of these beasties are going to end up dead, with some of their bones on display in a museum millions of years hence. The film is probably best for young kids who are fascinated by dinosaurs (what young kid isn’t?) but who aren’t ready to see other young kids nearly torn limb-from-limb in Jurassic Park. Dinosaur isn’t bad, but it’s really nothing special.
:: Hercules. I can’t believe it took me this long to see this movie; maybe it had something to do with the baggage of that Kevin Sorbo television series or something. Anyhow, this is Disney’s take on Greek mythology, and it’s smart and funny. This is a frothy, light entertainment that is probably the most fun bit of traditional animation Disney has done since Aladdin. (Disney’s best entertainments these days seem to be coming from the Pixar division, where the Toy Story films are made.) The film opens with portentious narration by Charlton Heston (very sad about Mr. Heston’s illness, by the way) that is interrupted by the Muses, who demand to tell the story themselves. After Mr. Heston says, in that wonderful Heston fashion, “You go, girl”, the Muses come to life and become a Greek Chorus by way of a Gospel Chorus, commenting on the action throughout the film. (A nice in-joke is that the Muses are first images on a Grecian urn.) You normally wouldn’t think to hear Gospel-style music in a film about a Greek hero, which is part of the charm of this movie: it cheerfully mixes-and-matches so many genres, and is packed with so many witty asides and in-jokes that after watching it one almost wants to see it again immediately just to see what was missed. For instance: two children who are in danger before they are saved by Hercules yell out, “Somebody call I-X-I-I!!”. Hercules has a personal trainer, voiced by Danny Devito, who is just like all those cynical old trainers in boxing movies, right down to the “This guy was my best, but he couldn’t get it done” bit. (That “best guy” turns out to have been Achilles; later on, some townsfolk jeer him: “Hey, nice job with Achilles, especially his heel. Ya missed a spot!). The villain of the film is none other than Hades, the Lord of the Dead (above whose domain a sign reads “Over 50000000 Served), and he is voiced by James Woods. The drawing style of the film is markedly different from many of the other Disney films, and yet is somehow perfectly fitting with the story. The music and songs are surprisingly good. Hercules seems to be an underrated film in the Disney pantheon.
:: Kiki’s Delivery Service. And then, we have a masterpiece. This Japanese anime is by the magnificent Hayao Miyazaki, who is sometimes called “the Japanese Walt Disney”. The film tells the story of a young witch named Kiki, who has just turned thirteen. Thus, by tradition, it is time for her to leave home and go into the world. This she does, taking her cat Jiji with her as she flies away on her broom to seek her fame, fortune, or merely her life. She settles in a city by the ocean, where she is befriended by a pregnant couple who own a bakery. Moving in with them, Kiki starts a delivery service, making her deliveries by flying the parcels on her broom to their destinations. And, she makes friends: a boy who adores aviation and is totally fascinated by Kiki and her ability to fly via broomstick; an old lady who is blissfully unaware of her granddaughter’s lack of appreciation for her; a painter who lives in the country. The locations of the film seem to be European, but it’s a Europe where dirigibles are still in use and apparently World War II never happened. (None of this is really clear; one of the charms about the film is that it is totally convincing of its setting precisely by not spelling out any of its details, but by simply showing it and the people who live there.) Kiki is a charming character whose problems seem real and difficult, although not insurmountable. There is no evil threat here to be surmounted, only the normal difficulties that arise from maturity and dealing with other people. Miyazaki has a wonderful eye for the way people speak and behave; it’s a testament to his skills that he can make a movie about a witch who comes to live in the city and not a minute of it feels contrived or implausible.
The animation is, of course, wonderful; that goes without saying in a film by the man behind Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro. Here, Miyazaki captures the essence of flight to such an amazing degree that I have to wonder if he actually has experience with broomstick flight. In any event, the way he depicts flight in this film is completely convincing, far moreso than the broomstick flights in, say, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
The Disney Company now owns the distribution rights in the United States for all of the Studio Ghibli films (Ghibli is Miyazaki’s production company). They are bringing these films out fairly slowly — they’ve had a dub of Laputa: Castle in the Sky in the can for a couple of years now — and with relatively little fanfare, which I find surprising. (I only learned of the US release of Kiki when I spied it in the video section of my local supermarket.) Disney’s intention seems to be to capture a fairly sizable share of the anime market in this country, but beyond that seems to have little interest in expanding that market by promoting Miyazaki’s films as the first-rate family films that they are. Not all anime is about robots that fire lasers from their eyes and the cyberpunk teenagers who battle them; the films of Hayao Miyazaki not only reveal the breadth of anime but also provide beautiful alternatives to watching Peter Pan or The Lion King for the tenth time in one week. Princess Mononoke probably isn’t appropriate for very young children, with its violence and fairly dark storyline, but Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro are family films in every sense of the word. So, for God’s sake, see these movies!!!