Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away

Every frame of Spirited Away is a jewel, but this one of Chihiro is the most poetic…

Even though I have seen Hayao Miyazaki’s uncanny masterpiece Spirited Away countless times (there are only two or three other movies I think I have seen more), I only just recently finally saw it on the big screen, as well as in its original language. Still, it lost not one ounce of its magical effect: The experience only added to it.

As the first anime movie I ever saw, I can safely say that Spirited Away is the one anime movie for people who don’t think they like anime movies. Miyazaki has made countless classics, but this has to be his number one film (though My Neighbor Totoro is a close second).

The story of Spirited Away is like that of Alice in Wonderland. A ten year old girl named Chihiro (Daveigh Chase, who was also Lilo in Lilo & Stitch) is on her way to her new home when her parents stumble upon what looks to be an abandoned theme park. They see food that does not seem to be for anyone, so they eat it (well, chow down). Chihiro eventually realizes that the park is a place of unimaginable creatures and spirits. Her quest has her meet unforgettable characters including the tyrannical boss Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette), the boiler man Kamachi (David Odgen Stiers), the blunt yet kind Lin (Susan Egan), and the helpful friend Haku (Jason Marsden).

I will leave it at that, because this a movie that is not to be seen or heard, but experienced. Any artist out there would benefit to pause every frame, and spend five minutes looking at it. Miyazaki (who also wrote the script) gives such pin point detail to each inch of our screens that we are stunned. Even the animators at Disney and Pixar will tell you how much of a master this man is.

Upon watching the movie again, I also realized how much of a hero Chihiro really is. It is not just that she puts herself in harm’s way (the scene where she runs on a pipe is beyond bold for any person), but it is why she does it. Despite her puny appearance (she looks like she weighs no more than 50-60 pounds), she has a heart of purity and soundness, and it is perfectly reflected in the film’s closing line (which is very underrated).

Parents, this is a movie for any child. There are some scares, but nothing too bad. More so, it is one which you can sit down and watch with them (and even enjoy).

 

Recently, I did a poll on Instagram about whether Disney should keep making live action remakes of their films (most were for the idea). I am personally growing tired of it: Some of them did work, but now they are just overshadowing the far better originals. Spirited Away is one movie that, no matter how much money Disney (or any studio) has will ever be done well in live action. Heck, bring in James Cameron, and a live action version would still be terrible. Some movies are meant to stay the way they are.

I could go on and on about my love for Spirited Away, but it is better to experience for yourself if you haven’t already done so. It is impossible not to be moved by this film.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

 

Blade Runner 2049

One of many images that are entrancing in Blade Runner 2049

Despite some holes and question marks in the screenplay, Blade Runner 2049 still manages to be the best sci-fi sequel since 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day. It is a movie that challenges the mind and brightens your eyes with some of the most gorgeous imagery of recent years. I have only seen the original once, but I know that I have to return to get some answers (though not all the questions will have them).

The plot is a lot harder to follow this time around, but not too terrible. Basically, the new Blade Runner in town is named “K” (Ryan Gosling). After reporting to his boss (Robin Wright, having a very decent year with this film and Wonder Woman) the discovery of a dead replicant who died giving birth to a child, he is sent out to erase the mistake and kill the child. As he digs deeper, he realizes he is more and more in danger. It eventually leads him to the Deckard (Harrison Ford).

I will stop there for two reasons: I don’t wish to ruin any plot points, and I am also afraid that I may have still misunderstood the plot. I can talk about a few other characters, however. Dave Bautista (Drax of Guardians of the Galaxy) is rather surprisingly subtle and reserved as a runaway replicant. The owner of the replicants is played by Jared Leto, proving to be a better villain (or is he?) than he was in Suicide Squad. One of my favorite performances came from Ana de Armas as Joi. Joi is basically Suri, but far more upgraded. She has been with K (who she now names Joe) for so long she is almost like a personal secretary. So lovely and ironic is it that she is one of the most human characters in the film.

Now we get to the visuals. They are, quite simply, marvelous and uncanny. It should come as no surprise, mainly thanks to two men. The first is director Denis Villeneuve (who recently was nominated for 2016’s Arrival). He knows how to pace the film at the right tempo: If you think there is not enough action in the film, you are not paying attention.

The second, and possibly most critical, is cinematographer and legend Roger Deakins. Here is hoping that his losing track record at the Oscars (0-13) might end next February. Watching the movie, I had that same feeling when watching films from Studio Ghibli. You could pause each shot, and look at them for hours. You know what? I take back what I said: Roger Deakins will win the long overdue Oscar, and will get a standing ovation.

Parents, even if you children may have seen the original, you should be warned that his film has a lot more nudity in it than the first one. While the only real sex is through blurry glass, there is still a bit of sound. Add in the swearing and (not so horrible) action/violence, and you have a movie for only High School and above.

I mentioned before that the plot does have some holes: one character clearly betrays another and then shows their utmost loyalty. Even so, this movie is worth seeing just for the visuals alone. They are haunting, spellbinding, breathtaking, cold,…seriously, words don’t do the visuals justice.

On the sights alone, Blade Runner 2049 is a movie that, once seen, is something we people will not believe.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

 

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

the-tale-of-the-princess-kaguya

Princess Kaguya (Chloe Grace Moretz) is as free a spirit as they come…

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is as pure a fairy tale as one ever put to film. I was up early in the morning when I was watching it, but it felt like I was a little boy, being told a simple, beautiful bed time story by the masters of Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, just to name a few).

The story is of a bamboo cutter (James Caan) who, while cutting, discovers a young child he immediately calls “Princess”. Along with his wife (Mary Steenburgen, who also does a stellar job narrating the story), they see her grow up right before her eyes in a blink of the eye. The Husband (no names are given to the parents) is determined to make her a Princess, and while the wife is set to follow her husbands wishes, she just wants her daughter to be happy.

She meets friends (who call her “Little Bamboo”), most importantly Sutemaru (Darren Criss), who knows she is destined for great things. One day, her parents take her to the palace, where she is indeed made a Princess.

We also meet Lady Sagami (Lucy Liu), brought it to teach the Princess how to act like a Princess ought to act (which is easier said than done). What we get is not a tale of palaces and fame and fortune, but of sad isolation and loneliness.

Five Princes approach to offer proposals for marriage, in a scene that will have you struck in awe of how it is handled (with a good number of laughs as well). The Princess (now having been called “Kaguya” does not seek anything more than happiness, which she learns is not always easy to obtain (shades of Citizen Kane come to mind).

It seems like the saying “Less is more” may be the best to describe the animation here. Basically all hand drawn almost like a coloring book, the film avoids all obvious uses of computer animation we would expect in today’s modern animated films. If you ever pause the film, you can spend five minutes just looking at the animation itself. One imagines how many pains in the wrist occurred to the animators.

Parents, they is one or two scenes of nudity, though it is non sexual. Toward the beginning, the mother realizes she is able to produce milk, and is able to breastfeed for the Princess (I assume it is normal for kids in Japan to see this as ok, but I am not sure). Without this scene, I feel the film is perfect for all ages.

There is a scene where Lady Sagami is showing the Princess how to observe scrolls. Sagami says to scroll slowly, while the princess unrolls the whole parchment from one end of the room to the other. In observing animated masterpieces such as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, it should be observed the way Lady Sagami mentioned: Slow, and with attention to every detail.

 

Although I would not blame you for wanting to see it all for its glory as the Princess would.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

 

 

Pokemon: The First Movie-Mewtwo Strikes Back (1998)

Pokemon The First Movie

There are many Pokemon you don’t mess with…Mewtwo tops that list.

It is hard for me to not be biased, for I grew up with the Pokemon TV show. I only lasted a few seasons before I got to middle school, but it was a true staple in my childhood (how I miss my gameboy).

The first film they made was the only one I ever saw (it was hard for me to get into Pokemon when they made more than the original 151), and it was not nearly as good as the show. Still, when you have a Pokemon as big as Mewtwo (and Mew, for that matter), one episode will not cut it.

For those who don’t know what Pokemon are (or have just started playing Pokemon Go on their phone), Mewtwo is considered the most powerful of all Pokemon, having been made from remains of Mew, the rarest of all Pokemon. He comes across Ash Ketchum and  his friends Brock and Misty and (of course) Pikachu (from the show), and challenges them. By now, the best thing to do is ask your kids who they are, because they will know.

Parents, this movie is ok for kids. Maybe you should just watch it with them, because they will explain it (as I am sure they would the other movies, which, as I have said, I have yet to see).

I have found myself going back to watching the shows, and realize it is possibly the main source of puns I picked up as a kid. Jokes from the movie include letting us know most Vikings exist now, in Minesota.

Still, the lessons kids can learn from Pokemon are as true today as they were when I was a kid. One scene which has stuck with me for years is from Meowth (the main Pokemon of Team Rocket, some of the best bad guys kids TV has ever made). While talking to his evil clone (again, ask your kids), he says the following:

“We do have a lot in common. The same earth, the same air, the same sky. Maybe if we started looking at what’s the same, instead of looking at what’s different…well, who knows.”

Am I the only one who thinks the world today needs a quote like that?
Overall: Three Stars ***

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Two teens make a connection, "From up on Poppy Hill"

Two teens make a connection, “From up on Poppy Hill”

While the animation is stellar, and the relationship between the characters (especially the main two characters) are nice to behold, the story is really a bore.

It tells the story of two teenagers who try to work together and save an old building on campus from being destroyed to get ready for the 1964 Olympics. This is from the studio who gave imaginary masterpieces like Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, and My Neighbor Totoro.

That is not to say the movie is bad. It is just not up to par with the other films of Studio Ghibli. There is not much here bad for kids, parents. There just is not as much nourishment as in the other films.

Overall: Two Stars **

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

A simple story of survival, yet it is so much more...

A simple story of survival, yet it is so much more…

I never thought I would say this, but I finally found something negative about the output of Disney.

Sure, the people at Disney have been the cornerstone of children’s entertainment (and really, entertainment in general) for decades, but it seems to have made the general population think that animation is only for kids, and not for the older folks in the home.

Enter the masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies, which is so effective I feel it was probably truly ahead of its time when it was released. It tells the story of two siblings: teenager Seita and his little sister Setsuko (about four or five years old). They are growing up in Japan, in the carnage of World War Two. That is really all there is to the plot, but as far as the emotionality of the film, it goes deeper than you would imagine.

I have stated before that I am not one who cries much during movies: I feel films have to earn the tears they want the audience to shed. This film earned every single tear that I shed, and there were plenty of them. Seita and Setsuko are two of the most tragic, yet most loving siblings you will ever encounter on celluloid.

Parents, the film is not rated, but (as I viewed the film) I felt it should be a good solid PG-13. There are moments in the film that will remind you of how heartbroken you were in animated films like Bambi, Dumbo, Up, and the end of Toy Story 3. That being said, Grave of the Fireflies deserves its own spot along some of those films as one of the best animated films ever made.

Overall: Five Stars *****

Ponyo (2008)

PONYO Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas lend their voices as new-found friends in PONYO

PONYO
Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas lend their voices as new-found friends in PONYO

A child really is the best example of how to love.

When a child smiles at the littlest thing, or gets a new pet, it tugs at any adult’s heart strings. That kind of love is wonderfully shown in Ponyo, another hit from Studio Ghibli.

The film (which is based off of the original story of “The Little Mermaid) centers around 5 year old Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, the youngest of the Jonas brothers), who discovers a magical gold fish he names Ponyo (Noah Cyrus). Together, they go on an adventure that is both magical and life changing (which, when done right, is always a joy to behold regardless of your age).

Others in the cast include the great Liam Neeson as Fujimoto, Ponyo’s demanding father. Also well cast is Tina Fey as Lisa, Sosuke’s mother, who is upset at the fact that her husband, Koichi (Matt Damon) is always at sea.

The animation of anime is always uncanny, and there is no exception here. What makes Ponyo stand out even more is the story. Parents, it is essential for kids to know to love others, regardless of appearance. Even if the entity is a fish.

Overall: Four Stars ****

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Two girls wait in the rain with their new neighbor, Totoro

Two girls wait in the rain with their new neighbor, Totoro

There is a ten-year old girl in my church named Amanda, and every time I say the word “Totoro” she lights up. She, like everyone I know who has seen this film, adores Totoro.

I think we have all, at some point, had a Totoro in our lives, someone (or something) we can go back to for us to feel like kids again, and regain our happiness and innocence. Think of “Rosebud” from Citizen Kane, but in Anime.

My Neighbor Totoro is easily one of the best animated family films ever made. It tells the story of two sisters: Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and her younger sister Mei (Elle Fanning). They are moving to a new home with their father (Tim Daly) as their mother is sick in the hospital. They come across their neighbors, Nanny (Pat Carroll) and her grandson Kanta (Paul Butcher). It is clear, but (and this is a hidden success of the film) not acted upon how their may be potential puppy love between Kanta and Satsuki.

Eventually, the girls (who have one of the best sister relationships in any movie I have seen) meet Totoro, a big fluffy creature who may be the most huggable creature in film history. He is not in the movie all the time, but he is in the movie at the right times, like any great neighbor or friend.

Parents, there is one scene that may seem weird (at least to non-japanese audiences). The two girls take a bath with their dad. There is some rear nudity, but really, nothing bad at all. This truly is the movie to introduce kids (and their parents) to anime.

My only issue with the film is the run time. I would have loved, LOVED, for this film to have gone longer. I would even want a sequel (and it is hard to pull off a good sequel, especially an animated one). As for the animation, it is beyond breathtaking. It shows the world where there is some comedy, some danger, some depression, some heart ache, but all life. It is a film that reflects who we are, and more.

Overall: Five Stars *****

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Even without the wolf, "Princess Mononoke" alone is not worth challenging.

Even without the wolf, “Princess Mononoke” alone is not worth challenging.

The picture above may show that this film is not for kids (it isn’t), but it does not go and show how extravagant the film is for those old enough to see it.

Princess Mononoke is one of the best animated adventures in the area of celluloid. It tells the story of Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), a skilled young warrior who is cursed from a cursed boar (which is putting it lightly) and must go find the cure. He eventually finds himself in the middle of a war between humans and the spirits of the forest. One of those spirits, a wolf Goddess, has taken in a child who is the Princess (Claire Danes), or San for short. She is against the human leader Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) and a bounty hunter named Jigo (Billy Bob Thorton).

In a line of great films by the unbelievable Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, this is justly one of the most famous. The animation is beyond the imagination, with imagery you would never have thought could exist. It is a movie you could freeze at any moment, and just observe the pain and time the animators put into the film. My only issue is that some of the film seemed to drag on a bit with a few stretches of dialogue. A minor issue, however, in an otherwise glorious film.

Parents, this may be animated, but don’t let it fool you: the PG-13 rating is just. There is some swearing (maybe two or three curse words), some animated cleavage, but mainly it is the violence, which is similar to The Lord of the Rings films. If they have seen those, this should be fine (though I would still say 13 and up).

One of the best things the film does is show the symbolism of the violence. We all have experienced violence in our lives (if you don’t think so, just turn on the news or read the newspaper). It is all caused by the curse of hatred, and that idea has never been shown so beautifully on film before.

Overall: Four Stars ****

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

Arrietty's secret world is in danger in "The Secret World of Arrietty".

Arrietty’s secret world is in danger in “The Secret World of Arrietty”.

About half way through The Secret Life of Arrietty, I had something trigger in my mind that may have happened once as a child. I felt myself wanting to enter the movie through the screen. The animation of Studio Ghibli is, as far as I am concerned, the most gorgeous in the world.

Based off of the book “The Borrowers”, the movie starts as Shawn (David Henrie, former Disney Channel Star) is moving in with his Aunt. He catches a glimpse of something in the garden, and we find out it is a little person (known as a borrower). This is the hi-spirited and kind-hearted Arrietty (Bridget Mendler, another former Disney Channel Star). She lives with her parents, Homily (Amy Poehler) and Pod (Will Arnett). Homily is a stay at home type mom, who tends to worry a lot (portrayed wonderfully by Poehler). Pod is the stern but loving father who knows the humans are dangerous no matter what (he also looked a bit like Harrison Ford to me).

As Pod takes Arrietty on her first “borrowing”, they are accidently noticed by Shawn (though Pod does not know he sees them). This is trouble, for if borrowers are seen, they must move. Shawn soon gets a message to Arietty to let her know he means no harm.

I had very little knowledge of this film before I saw it (though I remembered seeing a live action version of “The Borrowers” as a child). When it ended, I did not intend to feel as refreshed as I did. It should come as no surprise of the beauty of the film, but I was surprised by how much I felt for the characters. The thing I realized is that, as in most of all Studio Ghibli’s films, the main male character does have a friendship with the main female character, but it never goes to romance. In a way, this is refreshing to me.

I have two minor issues with the film. First, like all great films, it is too short. Secondly, I did not feel there were enough characters to support Arietty and Shawn. Still, parents, this film is perfect for any child or adult to view. There are some scary parts, some sad parts, some (underrated) humorous parts, and they all come together to make a world not meant to be secret.

Recently, I told a friend how much I liked this film, and he said all of Studio Ghibli’s films are like magic. I responded, “No, they are magic.”

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2