For what he has said will be his final film, animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki tackles a controversial biopic that could just as easily have been shot in live action. It's as if he's challenging filmmakers to use their imaginations and make the best movies they can make in whatever way they can. And the result is utterly magical, transcending the touchy subject matter to tell a story about the purity of creativity.
Based on the life of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, this Oscar-nominated film opens in the 1920s when young Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English version) decides to study aeronautics because his poor eyesight won't let him become a pilot. So he dreams of designing the perfect plane, and his inventive approach catches the attention of Mitsubishi, which assigns him to a secret military project working with Japan's allies in Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, Jiro meets Nahoko (Emily Blunt) and they fall for each other as she struggles to recover from tuberculosis and he grapples with the moral issues of designing a beautiful plane that will be used to kill people in wartime.
Clearly this isn't the kind of animated movie Hollywood would ever produce: it's packed with complex characters who don't always do the right thing, and it takes a perspective that requires sympathy with someone who could be considered a historical villain. But Miyazaki tells the story exquisitely, animating the scenes with such inventiveness that it's impossible not to get lost in the breathtaking imagery. Scenes are also packed with lively side characters, including Jiro's bulldog-like boss (Martin Short), a more grounded colleague (John Krazinski) and a suspicious foreigner (Werner Herzog) who seems to be following Jiro.
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From the studio that brought us classics like Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, this animated drama feels unusually low-key and realistic. But while the lack of fantastical elements leaves it somewhat dry, as if it should really be a live-action movie, the animation is still a lavishly detailed feast for the eyes.
It's set in 1963 Japan, where orphaned teen Umi (Bolger) lives with her grandmother (Hendricks) atop a hill overlooking a fishing village. She raises flags every morning as a signal her fisherman father, who died in the Korean War, then heads to school where the topic on everyone's lips is the impending demolition of the ramshackle clubhouse. As the nation prepares for the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, old buildings like this must go, but the students band together to protect it, and Umi teams up with student journalist Shun (Yelchin) to clean up the building and make a plea to the corporate boss (Bridges). Meanwhile, Shun is having a personal crisis: as he begins to fall for Umi, he starts to suspect that they have the same father.
The film never really weaves these two plot strands together, so as Umi and Shun try to save the clubhouse and work out their parentage, each storyline feels like a distraction from the other. But they both raise intriguing questions about the past, present and future in a nation still recovering from WWII. And the beautifully rendered backgrounds bring the period to life with artful detail. On the other hand, the characters are more basic anime shapes, inexpressive and a bit stiff, which makes it difficult to identify with them even when their stories turn extremely emotional.
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When the sickly young Sho (voiced by Kamiki) goes to live with his aunt (Takeshita) in the country, he spots a tiny girl in the garden, just like his mother remembered seeing when she was young. But housekeeper Haru (Kiki) denies they exist. Indeed, the girl was Arrietty (Shida), who lives with her parents (Miura and Ohtake) in a small home under the floor full of things that are borrowed unnoticed from the house above. But being seen has consequences, and even though Sho is clearly friendly, Arrietty's world is about to change.
Continue reading: Arrietty Review
Sosuke (voiced by Jonas) is a 5-year-old living in a cliff-top house with his frazzled mother (Fey) while his fisherman dad (Damon) spends most of his time at sea. One day, Sosuke finds a strange little fish named Ponyo (Cyrus). What he doesn't know is that Ponyo's the daughter of the Mother of the Sea (Blanchett) and the keeper of balance (Neeson), and that Ponyo is using her powers to become human. Actually, Ponyo doesn't seem very aware of this either, but whatever she's doing is throwing nature out of balance.
Continue reading: Ponyo Review
The Yamadas are your basic suburban family weathering the storms that most families deal with. Because their issues have such a commonality, nearly everyone, regardless of age, will find something to connect with -- and chuckle at -- in this charming feature just released on DVD here in the States.
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The story involves young Haru (voiced for the States by Anne Hathaway), who rescues a helpless cat from an oncoming truck, only to find herself in the debt of a feline kingdom she formerly didn't know existed. Haru is awakened one night by a bizarre procession on her street: It's the king of the cats (Tim Curry), bearing gifts. Before she knows it, she's whisked into the world of the cats, where she is transformed into a half-cat/half-person, and is told she will be marrying the cat she saved, who turns out to be the cat prince.
Continue reading: The Cat Returns Review
The story of a young girl who, after being changed into an elderly woman by an evil witch, joins forces with a petulant playboy wizard against a nefarious sorcerer, Howl's is akin to a cluttered, cacophonous childhood dream come to life. However, as with dreams, Miyazaki's film is also far-too-often a bewildering jumble of intriguing ideas and ingenious images that never fully coalesce into a moving or compelling whole.
Continue reading: Howl's Moving Castle Review
Spirited Away begins with the young Chihiro reluctantly accompanying her family as they explore a deserted amusement park. The girl's parents are seduced by a feast set up in one of the park's food stands and eventually turn into pigs. At sunset Chihiro is transported into an alternate phantom universe filled with lumbering radish men, the shrill and controlling witch Yubaba (voiced by Suzanne Pleshette in her finest performance since Oh God, Book II), and a trio of bouncing, disembodied heads. Looking for a way to free her parents and find a way home keeps Chihiro exploring this world long enough to uncover enough strange and amazing creatures to keep us glued to the screen for the duration.
Continue reading: Spirited Away Review
In fact, the few successful transitions of series to the big screen have been the Rugrats and South Park cartoons. Why were they successful? Because their creators went beyond the usual scope of TV work to incorporate real story and character development into the feature-length films.
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