Princess Mononoke, which got a spotty U.S. release to a handful of art houses and cineplexes back in 1999, is fortunately one of the Studio Ghibli films that have been making the rounds since early last year on newly-struck 35mm prints.
That’s right, on film. The fact that these are not being presented digitally is very specifically at the request of director Hayao Miyazaki who wanted them to be seen in a theater with light passing through them, film grain clearly perceivable, rather than reduced to a 1080p digital approximation. He’s a stickler as he goddamn well should be.
As with Miyazaki’s first feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, seeing Mononoke on the big screen in this country has been a rare event. Unlike more recent Ghibli films, which have received a solid marketing push from distributor Disney and Pixar frontman John Lasseter, Princess Mononoke was always an anomaly: a dark, not-so-family-friendly fantasy saga initially released by Disney subsidiary Miramax and rated PG-13. Its limited theatrical run was a disappointment to Disney, but was nevertheless something of a sleeper hit, playing to full houses in Albuquerque for weeks. I think I managed to see it four times at three different theaters. Then it vanished from U.S. theaters for 13 years.
Mononoke is one of the best fantasy films ever made. Its incredible attention to detail and earthy, naturalistic backdrops create a convincing secondary world in which the old gods are starting to fall before the might of the machine age. As Alibi reviewer Devin O’Leary pointed out in 1999, “The prevailing theme presented here is nothing less than mankind’s inevitable movement away from ancient, pastoral living to modern, industrial civilization.” That’s some heavy lifting for a cartoon, but this is no ordinary cartoon.
Clocking in at well over two hours, the scope of the film is awesome, its apocalyptic scenario rendered in broad strokes of violence and terror, tempered with quiet scenes of near-psychedelic mysticism. The iconic moment where protagonist Ashitaka first spots San (née Princess Mononoke), the wolf girl, sucking and spitting blood from the gunshot wound in her foster mother’s breast is one of the great visual shocks in cinema. The amorphous, Christ-like Forest Spirit (Shishigami in the original Japanese version) seems clearly patterned on the Great Prince of the Forest in Bambi (easily the best and most trippy of Disney’s animated features), yet the full effect as he appears in a distant glade is that something alien and magical is passing near, something truly from the realm of faerie—a high water mark hard to hit in any fantasy.
Devin again on Mononoke’s merits: “A carefully crafted script translation by Brit comic book writer Neil Gaiman (best known for his Sandman series) retains all of Miyazaki’s rich symbolism and historical context. The greatest testament to Miyazaki’s skill is that his characters never slip into easy caricature. For example: Had this film been made by Disney, Lady Eboshi [the antagonist] would have been portrayed as an evil, cartoonish shrew. Instead, she is a fully-faceted character—an admirably strong-willed woman who dreams of building a haven for the outcasts of feudal Japan. Ashitaka and Princess Mononoke are similarly portrayed as good people who frequently give in to their darker, baser urges.”
Princess Mononoke has never been available on Blu-ray, its 2000 DVD release is long out of print. Last summer I dragged my kids up to Santa Fe to catch a matinee when the CCA Cinematheque screened these same Ghibli prints, thinking that might have been my last chance. I’m happy Keif at the Guild (with some help from Mr. O’Leary) proved me wrong. But now this is possibly your last chance to see this film in glorious 35mm and I heartily recommend you do not miss it.
(This ghost of Christmas past originally posted Dec 24, 2008.)
The first made-for-television Christmas cartoon aired on December 18, 1962, broadcast through the ether to rabbit ears and flickering tubes and glassy-eyed cherubs around the country. It had been a busy year: Ringo Starr joined the Beatles, somebody tried to off Charles de Gaulle, John Glenn orbited the earth, Spider-Man was invented, the Vietnam War raged, and the world teetered on (and off) the brink of nuclear war during the the Cuban Missile Crisis. So I suppose it’s not too shocking that “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” has become the show that time forgot. But it deserves more love than that.
Done in the on-the-cheap UPA “limited” animation style that has been endlessly ripped off by modern animation stylists (e.g., Genndy Tartakovsky), this inspired speed-run through “A Christmas Carol”—featuring, implausibly, Jim Backus as Mr.-Magoo-as-Ebeneezer-Scrooge—manages to transcend its Flintstones-in-Outer-Space gimmickry and deliver a goddamn amazing TV watershed. No, seriously.
“Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” was clearly made by people who cared, and does a bunch of things right that nobody today would even bother doing:
1. The songs sound like A-list Broadway material because they are: Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) went on to write Funny Girl for Barbra Streisand. Tell me “Winter Was Warm” (play clip) isn’t honestly lovely.
2. The dialogue is literary. Actual lines spoken by Mr. Magoo: “You are about to show me shadows of things that will happen in the time before us. Is that so, spirit? Ghost of the future, I fear you more than any spectre I have yet seen. Will you not speak to me?"
3. The ghosts are genuinely creepy, especially the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who invokes sonorous timpani percussion with every silent nod.
4. The story takes place within a frame narrative: Magoo is an actor making his big comeback in “A Christmas Carol” on Broadway. One of his fellow actors is UPA contract star Gerald McBoing-Boing. There’s even intermission and a curtain call.
5. The whole Magoo-can’t-see gimmick is dropped as soon as he becomes Scrooge. Whew. That was never funny.
Where can you see this minor masterpiece? There’s a not-yet-out-of-print DVD out there, but right now it’s on YouTube posted by various contributors and in clips of varying quality. It’s not the same as having it blaring in the background while you trim the tree, but it’ll have to do. My 4-year-old gives it thumbs up.
Big-screen animation is a cinematic pleasure like no other, an alchemical transmutation of ideas into forms, a way to share visions that otherwise could not exist. At its best, it’s like stepping into someone else’s dream. Hayao Miyazaki’s films achieve this Stendahl-syndrome-like effect, and while I would personally rate 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle as somewhat overstuffed and unengaging as a whole (it’s adapted from a 1986 British novel), there are nevertheless moments of such jaw-dropping awesomeness, that any flaws are immediately forgiven. (From a “Mom’s Matinee” POV, know this this film is (a) two hours long and (b) a little heady. I’ll be bringing my 6-and-under posse, though.)
Last month I road-tripped to Santa Fe to see The Secret of Kells, which the Guild Cinema has wisely picked up as its main attraction this Memorial Day weekend. The film is a stylish delight with another idea-heavy, dark (and dare I say psychedelic?) story interwoven with delightful kid-friendly inventiveness. (This film isn’t a “Mom’s Matinee” per se, but could be. If your kids can hack a (highly stylized) Viking massacre scene and some other scary bits, their new favorite cartoon cat will definitely be Pangur Bán.)
The Guild Cinema continues its commendable big-screen animation run with a repertory screening of Hayao Miyazaki’s stunning Spirited Away. Even on a beat-up VHS copy this is a great film, chock full of persistent Miyazakian themes (self-reliance, transformation, spirituality), but the big screen is the best canvas for appreciating Studio Ghibli’s breathtaking methods of bringing finely-observed moments of motion to life. Like any great fairy tale, this one can be scary (it’s rated PG), but that’s why it’s so great.
Inexplicably (to me), Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo didn't get an Oscar nod for Best Animated Picture, but maybe (just maybe) it was nudged out of the way by this very cool-looking Irish cartoon that New Mexicans can see starting tonight (and running through at least April 15) at Santa Fe's Center for Contemporary Arts. I'll be hitting the 11:30 a.m. Sunday showing if I'm not too hung over, and I recommend you do the same.
The 75-minute film seems entirely OK for kids used to concepts like death and violence and beauty but is Not Rated. CCA says "this fantastical, breathtaking spiritual animation follows as the 12-year-old Brendan fights Vikings and a serpent god to find a crystal and complete the legendary Book of Kells. The story begins when Brother Aidan, a celebrated master illuminator, initiates Brendan into the art of illustration, awakening his hidden, but extraordinary talents. But finishing the magnificent book means a remarkable quest beyond the abbey walls and deep into an enchanted forest." Sounds awesome. See ya there.
This weekend the Guild Cinema’s “Mom’s Matinee” series scores big points for originality by programming Don Bluth’s 1982 animated feature The Secret of NIMH (loosely adapted from Robert O’Brien’s novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH). Back when it came out, this weird, suspenseful film (made by disgruntled ex-Disney animators) was up against sappy old E.T. in theaters and never really broke out as a hit, but time has been kind to its oddball mix of genuine scares, dorky comic relief, and inspired animated sequences set against shaggy, organic backgrounds. If you’ve never even heard of this movie, you might be surprised by the number of internet shrines out there praising its goodness.
The casting is notable, especially John Carradine (as the ominous Great Owl) and Derek Jacobi (as Nicodemus, aging leader of the rats). The story expands mightily on the fairly tame original text, introducing sci-fi elements, magic and some fairly violent fight scenes, mostly to good effect. Fairy tales are supposed to be scary, though, so I have no qualms about bringing my 3- and 5-year-old kids.
I’ve been personally nagging Keif at the Guild to program more big-screen animation, so I’m very pleased to note that he’s also got Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away scheduled in April. Hooray for repertory cinema!