Hayao Miyazaki is one of Japan’s living treasures, a beloved filmmaker whose animated films number among the most beautiful and most enchanting productions ever drawn by hand. In this day of CGI productions, the aging artists still personally draws his key frames and defining characters, with a love and craft that comes through every frame. They may seem old fashioned and perhaps too sweet for American audiences—his films, while loved by many, have never found the huge audiences that flock to the more knowing and culturally savvy Pixar films and Shrek sequels—but the lovely fables, epic adventures, ecologically-minded dramas and modern fairy tales are all treasures.
His most recent film, Ponyo (Disney), is released this week by Disney, which—despite the great voice line-up of their English language adaptations—treats his films more like exotic imports than mainstream movies. Part Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, part ecological fable and part children’s fantasy come to life, this gentle storybook film is a simple, sweet tale animated with a delicacy unique to animated features. Ponyo is a water sprite, a curious undersea creature and daughter of the sea gods who gets swept to the shore, trapped in the pollution of the human world and rescued by a human boy, with whom she falls in love. This isn’t the romantic type of love of Disney’s The Little Mermaid but the unconditional affection of young kids and she takes human form to join him on land, which upsets the balance of nature so carefully kept in check by her wizard father (voice of Liam Neeson) and elemental mother (Cate Blanchett).
There are moments of personal magic (the boy “talks” with his sailor father as he passes their Cliffside home using signal lamps), natural magic (schools of fish become literal waves curling upon the shore in the search for the missing Ponyo) and imaginative magic (Ponyo turns a toy boat into a watercraft sized just right for a couple of kids), but the film’s real magic is in the generosity and love on display from humans and spirits alike. Unlike Anderson’s fairy tale, this is no tragedy but a celebration of a meeting of cultures and the possibility of a healthy (and ecologically responsible) co-existence, all told with a sense of wonder. The English language version was scripted by Melissa Mathison (E.T.) and produced by Pixar honcho John Lasseter with Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, and features a voice cast that also includes Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cloris Leachman and Lily Tomlin, among others. Features an English language introduction, the “Storyboard Presentation of the Movie” (which replays the entire film soundtrack to a slideshow of storyboards and sketches) and “The World of Ghibli,” a collection of featurettes (both Japanese and English language productions) on the film and the English adaptation, plus interactive peaks at other Miyazaki features. The Blu-ray features a bonus DVD of the film, which is about the best supplement you could have for protecting your Blu-ray from little fingers.
Timed to Ponyo’s release are new special editions of three earlier Miyazaki films. Castle in the Sky (1986, Disney) is a grand adventure from the director’s private mythos, the odyssey of an orphaned girl with a magic crystal and a courageous young engineer’s apprentice is set in a world of magnificent flying machines and sky-born cities. Chased by a wacky pirate family and shifty, suspicious government agents, it all converges on the legendary floating castle of Laputa, an ancient civilization in the clouds which holds the key to great power. The voice cast for the English language version include James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman, Mandy Patinkin, Mark Hamill, and Andy Dick.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989, Disney) takes place in a magical variation of our own world. Strong, plucky young heroine Kiki (voiced by Kirsten Dunst in the English language version) has turned thirteen, the age when witches leave the nest for a year of solo training. She’s ready to take on the world with her broomstick and her best friend Jiji, a cautious but supportive black cat (a tiny wisp of a feline voiced in English by a gently subdued Phil Hartman) if she can only get her flying under control. Miyazaki’s gentle rhythm and meandering narrative capture the easy pulse of real life. The magic of Kiki is the girl’s sense of wonder in her new world, whether it’s her soaring flight among the migrating geese or a bicycle ride with Tombo (Matthew Lawrence) to see the dirigible. Kiki and Tombo are marvelous models of courage, drive and self confidence and her adventures have as much to do with real world situations, such as fear of failure and blows to her self esteem, as with the lyrical flights among the birds and over the forests and city streets (a lovingly detailed middle Europe seaport town of red tiled roofs and cobble stone streets). A wholesome, life affirming picture that doesn’t speak down to kids or up to adults. The American voice cast also features Matthew Lawrence, Debbie Reynolds and Janeane Garofalo.
My Neighbor Totoro (Disney) is perhaps my favorite of Miyazaki’s films, a magical family film with a darling story of two young sisters befriended by forest spirits (among them a friendly, perhaps imaginary, giant blue hedgehog who introduces them to the wonders of nature) one magical summer. While the fantasy and whimsy captures the playful imagination of children, a powerful undercurrent of emotional crisis grounds their experience: their infirm mother is recuperating from some unexplained illness in a local hospital and the anxiety takes its toll on the youngest. The compassion of Miyazaki’s world is in the way the spirits (including a bus that is part Cheshire Cat) rally to look after the little girl lost. Rarely has there been such a tender and respectful exploration of the emotions and fears of children, and never in such a delightful flight of fantastical adventure and wonder. A masterpiece of modern animated fantasy made for children and adults alike.
Each film is available with original Japanese soundtracks and English dub soundtracks produced by Pixar director (and die-hard Miyazaki fan) John Lasseter with excellent American voice casts, and each set features a bonus disc of supplements. Along with introductions by Lasseter and a couple of English language featurettes, the American DVD releases include the “Storyboard Presentation of the Movie” (which replays the entire film soundtrack to a slideshow of storyboards and sketches) and never-before-seen featurettes and new interviews with Miyazaki produced for the Japanese market.