Princess Mononoke (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
When a spirit that guarded the forest had turned into a demon, in a form of a giant boar, threatened to attack a small village, Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) killed the suffering spirit. But Ashitaka did not leave the battle unscathed. The demon managed to touch his arm and put a curse on him. One of the wise men from the tribe claimed that there could be a possible cure out in the West. However, if Ashitaka left the village, he could never return. “Princess Mononoke,” written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was branded by fans and critics as a classic. I don’t believe it was as strong as it should have been. While I admired that it used animation not just as a medium to entertain younger children, personified by gory beheadings and limbs cut into pieces, its pacing felt uneven and the way story unfolded eventually became redundant. There was a war between guardians of the forest, led by a giant white wolf named Moro (Gillian Anderson), and humans, led by the cunning Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). The spirits were angry because men cut off trees and killed animals for the sake of excavating valuable iron. If the forest died, the spirits, too, would perish. Ashitaka’s stance was the middle, the one who we were supposed to relate to, and it was up to him to try to bring the two sides together. While I appreciated that there was an absence of a typical villain because the characters’ motivations were complex, there were far too many grand speeches about man’s place in the world versus man’s right to do whatever it took for the sake of progress. As the spirits and humans went to war, the story also focused on the budding romance between Ashitaka and San (Claire Danes), a human that Moro brought up as a wolf. It was an unnecessary appendage because the romantic angle took away the epic feel of the battle sequences. Just when a battle reached a high point, it would cut to Ashitaka wanting to prove his love for the wolf-girl he barely knew. The high point, instead of reaching a peak, became an emotional and visual plateau. It wasn’t clear to me why Ashitaka would fall for someone like San, who was essentially a savage being, who claimed that she hated humans, and who considered herself to be a wolf. There was a painful lack of evolution in their relationship. Did San eventually feel like she was more human than animal after spending more time with the cursed Ashitaka? What was more important to our protagonist: being with the girl he loved or the lifting off the curse so that he could continue to live? The deeper questions weren’t answered. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t deny that “Mononoke-hime” maintained a high level of imagination throughout. I especially enjoyed the adorable kodamas, spirits that lived in the oldest trees, with their rotating heads and confused expressions. If it had found a way to focus more on the big picture, without sacrificing details and actually offered us answers, it would have been a timeless work.
Spirited Away (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Every time I watch “Spirited Away,” I am in complete awe from start to finish. When Chihiro and her family discovered an abandoned amusement park on the way to their new house, Chihiro’s parents were turned into pigs right when the sun started setting and she found herself alone in an alternate universe full of strange creatures and spirits. Chihiro must then navigate in her new world and find a way to turn her parents to their original form and return to the human world. There many elements to love in this animated film. One of those elements was Chihiro’s drastic change from a whiny, spoiled girl to a mature individual who was capable of making decisions under extreme pressures. With the responsibilities that the bathhouse (where she had to work so that the witch would not turn her into a pig) had thrusted upon her, she eventually learned to break from her “me” mindset and really care for others. I also admired the fact that there were many morals that could be learned from this picture but none of those lessons felt heavy-handed. The movie merely showed what was happening and then it was up to us to determine why certain events were unfolding before our eyes. The concept of false first impressions was definitely at the forefront. Instead of making the hideous monsters one-dimensional, they turned out to be quite docile and adorable in their own ways. I particularly loved the raddish spirit, the stink spirit and No-Face because each of them were put under the spotlight at some point which at first suggested that they were not friendly or had something up their sleeves. The level of imagination of the picture was very impressive. Everything is so magical–from a giant baby capable of making threats to a one-footed lamp that worked as a guide–that it was able to easily entertain the kids and make the adults look back on childhood when anything seemed possible. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” was a complex demonstration on the power of imagination. Or better yet, how our imagination can inspire us to pull something from within and make it a reality. I would also like to note that I believe this is stronger than Miyazaki’s other classic animated feature called “Princess Mononoke.” The reason why I prefer “Spirited Away” is that I feel like this one had more magic, depth and malleability. It really offers a first-rate adventure that is unforgettable.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★
Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service” tells the story of a young girl who moves away from her parents’ house to another city in order to be more independent and find out and explore her unique talents. Just when I thought it would focus more on the magic and what it means to be a witch, this animated feature is actually more of human story more than anything. By that I don’t mean that the city has a rule against witches or people are mean to her because she’s a witch. In fact, witches are pretty welcome in this picture’s universe so it had the opportunity to focus on more on the circumstances that forces Kiki to be more of an adult instead of a kid. I also liked the fact that the people she meets on her journey are not mere quirky characters that we see once and never see again. They’re actually people that impact Kiki in many ways and they manage to come back when she needs them most. One could come to the conclusion that those people she meets are role models that help Kiki afloat when everything feels hopeless. All of that said, I can’t say that this is one of my favorite Miyazaki films. It lacks a certain innate edge and darkness of “Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” I say “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is more geared toward children because the story and dialogue are a bit too sweet and sugary. For me, the best part of the film was the talking cat and the old dog. I ended up laughing out loud a lot during those scenes because creatures that one would normally think of as mortal enemies ended up to be something quite the opposite. For the fans of Miyazaki’s movies, this is nonetheless a must-see because it has a certain universal appeal and wit that are very surprising from time to time.