Category: Movie Reviews

Howl’s Moving Castle

In the extraordinary career of Hayao Miyazaki, there are films that achieve less than what they set out to do, but none that fail to capture visions of wonder. Howl’s Moving Castle, like the titular castle itself, is an assemblage of slapped-together parts that ultimately lacks cohesiveness, but that remains fascinating in its individual parts and rewards attentive exploration.

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople

What exactly makes Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople so much fun? I loved the film—based on Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress—long before I tried to puzzle out this question.

Perhaps it’s the premise, played out with such a wholehearted spirit of adventure: thirteen-year-old Ricky Baker, a de facto orphan under state supervision (Julian Dennison), and Hector Faulkner, the crotchety old man who’s ended up being responsible for him (Sam Neill), survive together for months in the New Zealand bush, on the run from authorities who want to relocate Ricky and believe Hector guilty of child abuse.

Perhaps it’s the lively dialogue, almost constantly snapping with wit. Perhaps it’s the gloriously rugged setting, the “majestical” New Zealand countryside—recognizably the same landscape where the Lord of the Rings films were shot. (Actually, that’s not the only connection, but . . . well, to say more would spoil a great moment.)

Perhaps it’s Ricky himself, full of quirky remarks, prone to mischief, but with a more sensitive side belying his tough, rebellious exterior—a sort of kindred spirit to the titular heroine of Lilo and Stitch. It may also be his developing relationship with his “Uncle” Hector, who initially wants nothing to do either with outlaw life or with Ricky, but finds an unexpected grace in the latter . . . and even the former.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind may be the quintessential Hayao Miyazaki film—not necessarily his best, but the most comprehensive assortment of his characteristic themes and motifs.

The setting is a staggering feat of creative world-building and visual opulence. Characters include a strong young female protagonist, children, and old people; and while the villains may be more clearly evil than most Miyazaki antagonists, they don’t ultimately evoke hatred or vindictiveness.

There are flight sequences and stunning uses of water. Themes include pacifism and environmentalism. The story frankly acknowledges the sadness of loss and fears for possible future losses, but is subtly shot through with hope and grace.

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Tales of the Night

Sorry, I can’t pretend to be objective here. Michel Ocelot’s Tales of the Night is simply a joy—not a perfect film, but a lyrical celebration of art and imagination, its assortment of stories sparkling like a jeweled mosaic.

Of course, it comes to us from abroad (specifically, from France, in a combined effort of NordQuest Films, Studio O, and Studio Canal). No American studio would produce such a film. The animation is simple, low-budget work, relying on lavish artistry rather than cutting-edge technology, much like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea (both of which, like Tales of the Night, were brought to the United States by GKIDS). Characters are black silhouettes with eyes, but the backgrounds are a riot of color and detail: flowers and branches, castle walls, a Gothic-style rose window, skies sprinkled with stars or streaked with pink and gold. Almost every frame is shot from the side, giving the images the feel of elaborate dioramas. The six eponymous tales, though none lack some form of excitement, are presented with fairy-tale simplicity and matter-of-factness, without attempts to sensationalize. Why can’t we get more movies like this?

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Whisper of the Heart

A review of Whisper of the Heart (1995), written in 2012

The animated films of Studio Ghibli have long been admired for their wild imagination, for the fantastic worlds and images they present. Examples include the exotic, staggering jungles and isolated cultures of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the elaborate da Vinci-esque technology of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and the surreal, haunting spirit world of Spirited Away, along with others that are less than masterpieces (the whimsical loopiness of Ponyo, the beautiful ruins of Tales from Earthsea).

Yet even at their most stunningly far-fetched, Ghibli films also have a history of celebrating the details of everyday life: cooking, cleaning, planting, studying, mending, become important and precious functions, worthy of devoted attention. Most recently, The Secret World of Arrietty infused the commonplace with probably unprecedented magic and wonder.

Director Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart may represent the studio’s simplest gesture of this honoring of everyday life. It moves and delights, not in another world or even a hidden magical corner, but amid the streets of Tokyo. Its heroine, a junior high school student named Shizuku (voiced in the Disney dub by Brittany Snow), never actually stumbles into a fantastic adventure, but often feels as if she has. Perhaps a film like this, amid Hollywood’s current drive for blockbusters and spectacular epics, offers American viewers something they’ve been missing.

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