Hayao Miyazaki's animated films maintain a fragile balance between menace and innocence. Some of his features, like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, take place in a sunny wonderland where there are no villains, apart from doubt. More recent efforts, like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, adopt a darker tone, but still hold to the idea that everyone has some good in them, and that evil mostly stems from fear and misunderstanding. Still working its way through the back catalog of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, Disney has released three more anime features that once again take up this theme, though an unpleasantly crude translation in one case upsets that balance that makes Miyazaki's films such elegant wonders.
Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind was one of Miyazaki's earliest efforts; he started it as a long-running comic epic, but in 1984, he produced a two-hour animated version. The visuals are dated by comparison with his more recent works, but all the Miyazaki hallmarks are in place: rapturous explorations of natural vistas, a fascination with flight and flying machines, and a spunky female lead out to change the world, or at least hold her corner of it together through sheer love. Nausicaä is the princess of a rural valley that lives at peace on the edge of a deadly fungal wasteland, until a ship carrying a weapon from a bygone industrial age crash-lands nearby. When warriors from a far country come to retrieve the artifact, their invasion draws Nausicaä and her people into a sprawling political conflict. Part epic adventure, part environmental tract, part early testing ground for the themes and characters of Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä is in some ways a grim and serious film, but it mixes a sweet optimism into its horror-filled lessons.
The shorter 1992 feature Porco Rosso is a little more grown-up, but even more buoyant in its conviction that everybody's a hero at heart. The film centers on a '30s-era seaplane pilot who was, for vaguely explained reasons, cursed to become an anthropomorphic pig; now he serves as a bounty hunter in the Adriatic, running down air pirates for hefty fees. Eventually, the squabbling pirates hire an American blowhard to shoot Porco down, which launches a loose, low-key plotline in which romance and airplane design feature prominently. Porco Rosso was initially conceived as a short film for Japan Airlines, and its roots show in its delight with aviation and the experience of flight, but also in its somewhat shapeless plot.
First-time Studio Ghibli director Hiroyuki Morita took the helm for The Cat Returns, a barely connected spin-off of the Miyazaki-scripted, unavailable-in-America 1995 Ghibli film Whisper Of The Heart. Whisper is a sweet, low-key romance between two kids finding their own identities; by contrast, The Cat Returns is a frantic fantasy in which a klutzy, self-doubting teenage girl saves a cat from being hit by a truck, and consequently learns that he's the Prince Of Cats, and she's engaged to marry him. Over the course of 75 rambunctious minutes, she enlists the aid of a handful of odd characters voiced in the English language version by the likes of Elliott Gould and Peter Boyle, but eventually she's kidnapped to the Kingdom Of The Cats, where she's menaced by Tim Curry as the Cat King. The results are disappointingly conventional for a Ghibli film—the film is good-hearted, energetic, and full of Ghibli's characteristically beautiful hand-rendered animation, but it's also lightweight and hyper, with none of Miyazaki's more resonant themes.
Disney's casting, scripting, and direction of the English dubs for Nausicaä and Cat Returns is generally solid and respectful, though the two-disc packages of each seem unnecessary, since the extras are minimal and the additional discs are devoted entirely to storyboards. Though Disney does well by the material overall, Porco Rosso is an odd exception. The extensive rewrites of the dub script insert gags and jibes that seem unnecessary and awkward by comparison with the more staid subtitled translation, and while Michael Keaton as Porco does okay even in growly Beetlejuice mode, other cast members—including Cary Elwes, Susan Egan, and David Ogden Stiers—seem to mistake silly accents for characterization. But the degree to which goofiness and snideness throw the movie off-center just emphasizes the admirable delicacy of Miyazaki's style: No one else in animation so successfully makes happiness into cogent entertainment, or puts such a uniquely joyous spin on stories that could just be rote action-adventures if placed in the wrong hands.