By G. Michael Dobbs
I became more animated than unusual in this week’s movie review column.
I get screeners intended for me to cast my vote in an animation organization’s annual awards effort and I’d like to share my impressions first with you about two films I watched.
The Wind Rises
The Japanese artist, writer and director Hayao Miyazaki is simply the world’s most critically acclaimed living animator. There is no one who is working in the field today whose films have inspired such incredible reactions from audiences and critics.
His films include “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle,” among many others. Some have had fairly successful theatrical releases in this country, while most of his films have been discovered through home video.
It is difficult to put a thematic finger on his work, except to say that many of his films are deeply Japanese in story and tone. This is not said as any sort of criticism, but rather that as an artist Miyazaki clearly reflects his nation and culture in his work.
The cultural tilt certainly adds to the experience of watching these films. They are structured in a way that people around the world will understand them, yet they impart a viewpoint of a Japanese artist.
Miyazaki uses traditional cel animation, although his films had also utilized computer animation technology. They are known for an incredible lushness in the backgrounds, as well as a sense of boundless imagination.
“The Wind Rises” has been released in New York City and Los Angeles to qualify it for possible nomination in the Academy Awards. It will have a more general theatrical release in February. Unlike his other movies, though, “The Wind Rises” enters into subjects that are far more grounded in real history and politics that might not sell too well to Americans.
The film presents a highly fictionalized account of part of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Japanese fighter plane used in World War II: the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
The film opens with a wonderful dream sequence in which a young Jiro meets an Italian aviation designer named Caproni. Flight and airplanes are pure romance to him and he establishes at a young age his ambition to design aircraft.
He is portrayed a thoughtful, quiet and yet forceful in his efforts to succeed. A secondary plot arises when he is accidentally reunited with a woman he had met years before and had fallen in love.
Jiro comes across as such a decent person, so it’s becomes increasingly disconcerting that even as he acknowledges Japan is heading to war and his designs will be used in that war, he seems to have no moral or ethical stance. He appears to be neither a patriot nor a pacifist, but instead just an engineer.
Despite the lyrical nature of this film, its moving love story, its depiction of a young man who still visits the idol of his youth, Caproni, in his dreams, the movie seems incomplete. It ultimately sidesteps the moral questions it presents, even in a subtle manner.
When released in Japan, Miyazaki did face criticism for this part of the film, which was a huge box office hit there. In comments made to the press, he took a nationalistic tone by telling a reporter the Zero “represented one of the few things we Japanese could be proud of – they were a truly formidable presence, and so were the pilots who flew them.”
Does this make “The Wind Rises” a bad move? No. I do think it’s flawed, but the animation is well worth watching. Will it win an Academy Award? I doubt it.
If you are new to Miyazaki, I would recommend any of his other films as a place to start.
The Monster of Paris
I certainly understand why I received a screener for the new Miyazaki film. Despite its flaws, it’s an impressive piece of work. I cannot say that for a film that was known to me, called “A Monster in Paris.”
A French production released in Europe in 2011, Shout Factor released the film on DVD and Blu-ray last year. For whatever reason they decided to inflict it upon us animation fans for this awards season.
Set in 1910, two friends and bumbling idiots manage to create a chemical reaction that allows a flea to become about seven feet tall. I’m sparing you myriad details and narrative dead-ends that bring viewers to this point.
Watching this I thought how incredibly hideous a seven-foot flea would be – a huge blood-sucking insect that could bounce around the city. Instead we get a harmless creature who has the facility to sing and play the guitar.
He is befriended by the two idiots and a singer who hides him from a politically motivated chief of police. This third idiot has vowed to hunt done the monster and kill it even though he has done nothing to warrant an execution.
The singer dresses him in a costume that is highly reminiscent of the one worn by the Broadway version of the “Phantom of the Opera,” so he can perform on stage with her.
Seldom have I had the pleasure of watching such a train wreck of a movie. It’s almost impressive in everything it does poorly.
Director and writer Bibo Bergeron directed two moderately successful animated features “The Road to El Dorado” and “Shark Tale.” Perhaps he just had a weak producer who didn’t know a bad film when he saw it – although his producer was Luc Bresson, the French director who made “The Fifth Element.”
Please don’t let your kids watch this really bad film. And no, it won’t win any awards either.