Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Last Samurai

Although Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Kiki’s Delivery Service) is often called the “Walt Disney of anime”, I think it’s a lazy, inaccurate and backhanded compliment.

The late Uncle Walt, an artistic and financial genius, chose the wrong side in the Art vs. Commerce debate and shamelessly turned his beloved cartoon icons into corporate used car salesmen. Whenever I see Mickey Mouse, I can feel his gloved, four-fingered hand smoothly reaching into my back pocket.

Not Miyazaki. A rigorous 67 years old, the visionary founder of the prestigious Studio Ghibli is a fiery, tough-minded curmudgeon raging against the dying of the light. Interviewed by The New Yorker, Miyazaki said he wanted to live long enough “to see the sea rise over Tokyo” as punishment for mankind’s desecration of the planet. Whoa. Don’t be fooled by his gray hair and the thick-lensed glasses, the old samurai’s sword is still sharp.

Or was. Tales of Earthsea, adapted from the classic science-fiction series by Ursula K. LeGuin, is Studio Ghibli's next film. But it's being directed by Goro Miyazaki, Hayao's son. I haven't heard the dreaded word "retirement" yet. Still, that's what it sounds like.

Howl’s Moving Castle
, a smart and elegant adaptation of the children’s book by British fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, is most likely the last animated feature Miyazaki will direct. Watch it again so you'll realize what a huge loss his departure is going to be.

The English-dubbed DVD (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) features the voices of Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Jean Simmons and Billy Crystal. All of these actors, by the way, sound like they’re at a party they don’t want to leave. (Hey, you wanna make actors happy? Give ‘em a good script and they’ll roll over and let you rub their stomachs.)

In Howl’s Moving Castle, the castle itself is this huge, noisy, ugly Thingamajig that lumbers slowly across the countryside on a pair of metallic chicken legs(!). Try to imagine what would happen if the ghost of Rube Goldberg possessed a hallucinating Frank Lloyd Wright. Oh yeah, when needed, it’s able to travel hundreds of miles in seconds just by turning a multi-colored knob by the door. The cunning sorcery animating the castle is courtesy of Calcifer (a witty Billy Crystal, the long-lost Marx Brother), a wisecracking fire demon. Howl himself (Christian Bale, catching up on the fun he didn’t get to have in Batman Begins) is an outlaw wizard overflowing with an arrogant flamboyance and sensuality. He’s a mystical Ziggy Stardust.

My favorite character, however, is Sophie (voiced exquisitely by both Emily Mortimer and the great Jean Simmons). She’s the quiet, strong-willed emotional bedrock in Howl’s Moving Castle that keeps it solidly grounded in reality. Whether it’s Wendy taking Peter’s hand and flying out her window, Alice falling down the rabbit hole or Dorothy taking the 5:15 Twister to Oz, these exercises in fantasy only work when we have a human but not-so-ordinary tour guide.

Sophie, a timid 18-year-old girl is transformed into an old woman by the jealous Witch of the Waste (a wonderful Lauren Bacall, richly savoring her words like spoonfuls of caviar.) On her perilous journey to break the curse in a strange world of wizards, jelly-bodied malignant spirits and war, Sophie discovers that she’s braver than she realized. Sophie is a nuanced, full-bodied heroine who feels more genuine than a flesh and blood cartoon like Paris Hilton.

When too many animated features are poorly-disguised toy catalogues, Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t want to sell you T-shirts, bedsheets or video games. It just wants you to sit down for two hours, and believe that magic is real.

Boy, that was great, Uncle Miyazaki!

Tell us another story—please?



Montag said...

My favorite is My Neighbor Totoro. There are very few genuine, entertainment-based moments of pure wonder. The one that comes from watching a child's reaction to their first viewing of Totoro is simply magical.