(On DVD, October 2017) There’s a refreshing refusal to play by conventions that shines at the heart of Tonari no Totoro: The avoidance of conflict, the supernatural seen as wonder, domestic concerns and a constantly inventive imagination at play. There’s quite a bit of darkness in the film as it focuses on two girls waiting until their mother is well enough to be released from the hospital, but much of the movie is about discovering the hidden magic in their bucolic setting, with dream sequences and spirits helping out the two girls. Whatever drama in the film is limited to looking for a lost girl and the tension of knowing if their mother is doing well. I suspect that Totoro works on a level that escapes analysis or narration—it’s just cute, comforting, wondrous and unlike anything else. It plays like a pleasant daydream, non-threatening to a fault. The cute creature design may also help explain its popularity with kids of all ages. While I wasn’t as taken by the movie as I hoped I would, it’s squarely in Hayao Miyazaki’s impressive body of work and does rank highly as a must-see animation film.
(On Blu-ray, March 2016) At a time when live-action fantasy movies seem extruded from the same base elements, it’s difficult to overstate the refreshing impact of a more original kind of fantasy. Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t your usual kind of fantasy movie by virtue of drawing upon two different sources of inspiration: Diana Wynne Jones’s original novel, filtered through the unique sensibilities of legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. The result certainly isn’t perfect, and it shows clear signs of creaking where the novel meets the original material brought by Miyazaki, but it’s enjoyable for trying to do something unusual. Part of the difference is one of tone: Even though there is a war going on in the background of the story, much of Howl’s Moving Castle is concerned with domestic issues as basic as cleaning up, keeping a fire running and making meals. The heroine, a teenager abruptly cursed into the body of an older woman, keeps an impeccable sense of humour even at the worst of times. This is a very well-intentioned film: It’s hard to avoid noticing how it makes a sympathetic character out of an initial antagonist, and spends a considerable amount of time healing the emotional wounds of its title figure. As with much Japanese animation, the tonal shifts aren’t always smooth to western audiences. This being said, the English dubbed version is terrific and retains much of its accessibility throughout. The result is an animated fantasy film that may not be conventionally accessible to younger kids, but more than holds up as a fantasy film for older adults. While other Miyazaki movies often earn more critical attention, Howl’s Moving Castle is terrific, even when considered as a relatively less important entry in his filmography.
(In theatres, August 2009): I may watch fantasy films, but they seldom resonate with me… and neither do kids’ films for that matter. Both of those character flaws may explain why I’m impressed but not overly fond of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo. It’s skilful fantasy moviemaking that presents an original vision and yet… I’m less than thrilled about the entire thing. It advances in fits and starts for those who aren’t completely absorbed in its visual panache, and the story itself is paper-thin with little suspense along the way; at most we get a few mysteries, but no serious drama: the final choice made by the protagonist is never in doubt, lending an air on inconsequentiality to the entire film. Which may not be an inappropriate choice given the dream-like quality of the fable: Ponyo is definitely a kid’s film, after all, and the way it manages to impress Western audiences despite being firmly set in a Japanese rural area is still impressive. If it doesn’t come close to Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke… then again what does?