One of the strengths of animation is that there’s no limit to the worlds that can be created. It costs no more to draw a mile-long spaceship than an inflatable kayak. But in the hands of an artist like Hayao Miyazaki, animation can point viewers to the fantastic in the world around them, or bring out the recognizable features of a universe they’ve never seen. In broad terms, Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle, both released in new dual-format editions this week, do just that, whisking moviegoers away while simultaneously rooting them more deeply where they are.
For anyone who knows Miyazaki’s name, Totoro needs no introduction. The title character, a forest spirit who resembles a plump, neckless rabbit, has become the symbol of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, as recognizable in the director’s native Japan as Mickey Mouse. But the movie was not a hit on its initial release—it was programmed on a double bill with the masterful, but devastating Grave Of The Fireflies, by Miyazaki’s Ghibli partner Isao Takahata—and received mixed reviews in the U.S. (The New York Times’ Stephen Holden called it “relentlessly goody-goody”; Variety said it demonstrated “adequate television craft.”) In 1988, a Japanese animated feature was a bargain-bin curiosity, cheap enough to be picked up and dubbed into English by the proudly threadbare Troma.
The Troma dub, as preserved on Fox’s pan-and-scan DVD, has since been replaced by a new Disney soundtrack featuring Dakota and Elle Fanning as sisters who relocate to the countryside with their father (Tim Daly) to be near their convalescing mother (Lea Salonga). Though some of Disney’s dubs fall victim to the unfortunate trend in American animation of casting name actors regardless of their affinity to the part, this one was sensitively created, though purists have the option of switching to the original Japanese audio with English subtitles. Oddly, the Disney version redubs the wordless roles of Totoro and the iconic Catbus, who sound a tad more feral than their Japanese counterparts, thanks to the vocal work of animation legend Frank Welker.
In comparison with the polished photorealism of a movie like Epic, Totoro’s painted backdrops can seem almost primitive, but their simplicity is integral to their effectiveness. Rather than apply texture simply because he can (did anyone need to see Shrek’s pores?), Miyazaki deploys it strategically. His young protagonists are flat and cartoonish, drawn with broad blocks of color; one of the girls’ heads is the same size as her torso, and when she lets out the sort of earsplitting yell that only little children can muster, her mouth takes up half her face. The world the characters inhabit is less expressionist than impressionist, blessed with a delicate evocation of natural light and color that subtly incorporates Miyazaki’s environmentalism.
There are magical creatures in My Neighbor Totoro: the Catbus, a 12-legged conveyance with headlight eyes; the soot sprites, tiny animate dust balls who cluster in the dimly lit corners of the family’s house; and Totoro himself. But the world is magic, too, in the way it might be to children who have never seen the towering beauty of a camphor tree before. Acorns sparkle like diamonds in the dirt; branches part to reveal hidden forest paths, then hide all trace of them.
Although the 86-minute Totoro is uncharacteristically short for a Miyazaki feature, the film is never in a rush; it’s nearly half an hour before the title character makes his first appearance. Though conventional wisdom has it that younger viewers need incessant stimulation lest their tiny attention spans expire, Miyazaki so effectively captures the feeling of a child’s life, inside as well as out, that little ones are often mesmerized by the movie, and adults are returned to a time when they could enjoy mystery for its own sake. Should there be something they don’t understand, they can always ask the nearest 4-year-old for clarification.
In terms of artistry and subject matter, Howl’s Moving Castle is a more mature work. On the new Blu-ray, the visuals are breathtaking, especially when Miyazaki takes to the air, but the tone is far darker—inspired, Miyazaki has said, by his anger at the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq. The movie itself, adapted from Diana Wynne Jones’ book, is less angry than it is sorrowful, sadly shaking its head at the inhuman absurdity of war. The conflict that rages between neighboring kingdoms is never explained—although a line inserted into the English-language adaptation offers a tentative casus belli—but that’s entirely on point. Once the bombs have dropped from flying warships that look like armor-plated bacteria, and the cities below have been set ablaze, the reasons for this destruction are meaningless.
Unwittingly drawn into the conflict when she accepts the aid of the mysterious Howl (Christian Bale) in warding off a pair of presumptuous soldiers, a young milliner (Emily Mortimer) is turned into a stooped crone (now voiced by Jean Simmons) by the Witch Of The Waste (Lauren Bacall), a wrinkled blob of flesh as amorphous as her gelatinous henchmen. (Incidentally, even those inclined to listen to the English dub should switch to Japanese to sample the vocal stylings of Akihiro Miwa, the well-known drag queen who voices the original Witch Of The Waste.)
Howl’s is far more plot-heavy than Totoro, sometimes to its detriment, especially when it comes to a garbled conclusion. But in spite of the severity of its central conflict, the movie often strays far away from the war, as each time Howl uses his magic to hasten the conflict’s end, it takes a greater toll, literally stripping him of his humanity. (He transforms into a giant birdlike creature to attack the flying ships, and it becomes harder and harder to change back.)
Although the movie’s anti-war framework naturally lends itself to good guys and bad ones, Miyazaki avoids drawing clear lines. He establishes the Witch Of The Waste as his principal villainess, then shifts focus halfway through the film. The real tragedy is that there’s no one to blame.
My Neighbor Totoro: A
Howl’s Moving Castle: B+
Also this week:
Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, the genre-blurring story of a documentary cameraman who wades into the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, gets the Criterion treatment, including a new half-hour piece by Wexler linking the film with the Occupy protests of the 2012 NATO summit. Warner Bros. rounds up the gangster film’s usual suspects in two new Blu-ray collections—The Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics joins White Heat, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and The Petrified Forest, while The Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Contemporary repackages previously issued discs for Mean Streets, The Untouchables, Goodfellas, Heat, and The Departed. (In the case of the Classics collection, titles not previously released on Blu-ray will be available as single discs on the same day.) Speaking of classics, the previously un-releasable, 1990 version of Captain America (Shout! Factory) is apparently old enough to pass as one, at least in the most fluid sense of the term. Does J.D. Salinger’s son, Matt, make a passable Cap? Suffer through it to find out.
On the recent-film release front, horror goes alphabetical in the 26-part anthology The ABCs Of Death (Magnolia), which offers the benefit of skipping to its few memorable segments. (Try “O.”) Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds was raved about by the few who saw it in theaters; Cinema Guild treats it like an established classic, bolstering the Blu-ray with an hour of the director’s short films, a commentary, and deleted scenes. Taylor Hackford’s Parker (FilmDistrict) features Jason Statham in a hard-edged adaptation of Donald Westlake’s novel, while Steven Soderbergh plays it cool in the twisty and not a little preposterous Side Effects (Open Road Films), his last movie except for the one that airs on HBO this week.