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The Secret World of Arrietty (2012)

This adaptation of Mary Norton’s classic book, The Borrowers, is colorful, imaginative, and the antithesis of what has become the modern-day family film. It’s less antic with its pacing, it has a more somber mood, and the ending is essentially anticlimactic. While commendable on one hand, The Secret World of Arrietty is also a minor work under the tutelage of the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki. Like other Miyazaki works, the film immerses you into an imaginative world where all the details fit. The story itself within that world is a bit low-key. Arrietty is a 13-year-old tiny person, a Borrower, living with her mother and father inside a human being’s home (they refer to people phonetically as “beans”). Her friendship with one of those “beans,” a boy named Shawn, is pleasant and gradual, as she feels she cannot trust the enormous human. I kept waiting for something larger and more significant to happen, but it didn’t. The story feels too slight to justify being the introduction, and likely final, chapter of these characters. The world of Arrietty is beautiful to watch but after a while you’re just watching pretty pictures.

Nate’s Grade: B

Ponyo (2009)

It was hard for me to watch the initial trailers and advertisement for this movie because the animation just looked so … simple. I was forlorn that legendary director Hayao Miyazaki was taking a step backwards. He was stepping away from the complexity of his recent works. While his take on Han Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid tale is intended for young children, I was relieved when I finally saw the finished animation. I got what he was going for: a painterly aesthetic that is seductively simple. The boy meets fish-turned-girl tale is resoundingly cute with a delightful sense of wonder; however, it really just sort of comes to an abrupt stop. The character relationships are established, the conflict of a sea princess being on land is developed, and then all the magical creatures team up and chat with the humans, and then we’re pretty much done. It’s a curiously hasty conclusion and it makes the movie feel less formalized and finished; Miyazaki is still one of the most imaginative filmmakers alive, in any medium, but Ponyo, while visually appealing and mostly adorable, suffer from shrift storytelling that ultimately makes this a cute if passing diversion.

Nate’s Grade: B

Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)

The flick is wonderfully imaginative, as to be expected from Miyazaki. The Pixar people really do an excellent job of bringing these films to an American audience and treat the English dubs with reverence. I’m not someone who’ll bemoan an English dub when it comes to anime but it’s nice to see effort and respect. The story is a bit similar to Princess Mononoke with the warring factions, the mystic and the industrial, and Miyazaki’s refusal to paint in black and white. There are so many delightful touches here from the fire demon to the door portal to one segment that just involves two old ladies ascending stairs for three minutes. And yet it’s the spirit Miyazaki infuses and the attention to story and character that sets his films apart. There’s a genuine sense of magic while watching his films and Howl is no different. The only bit of contention I had with the movie is how abrupt the ending is. Howl’s Moving Castle is a bit soaked with confusion and some narrative cop-outs (“Surprise! I’m the prince responsible for the war!”). I would have loved another 30 minutes in this world as well as a better opportunity for Miyazaki to bring his story down with a smoother landing. Still, saying this is a slightly lesser Miyazaki film is like saying a million dollars is less awesome than 2 million dollars. Howl’s Moving Castle is another sterling addition to a master storyteller.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Toy Story 2 (1999)/ Princess Mononoke (1999)

There is a false prejudice circulating the land of merry movie goers as they skip from one theater to the next. This assumption is that animation is a kids only event, that’s it’s something to appease the screaming masses under three feet of height. Lately movies are giving more credit to the cause that animation can be a wonderful escape and isn’t just for the kids.

Animation can take people to worlds that otherwise could not have existed, and so is true with Princess Mononoke the 1997 Japanese import with a fresh English dubbing. Mononoke speaks of the battle between harmonious nature and forging industrious man. Often the film displays such scenes of visual passion that it seems like an animated love letter to those wishing to venture out to find it. The story is vivid and non-judgmental, you see the stories and reasons behind both warring forces and not everything is easily black and white. The English dub does not distract from the overall enjoyment as many professional actors yield their vocal talents to this masterpiece. Princess Mononoke leaves a spellbinding impression of intense ecological thought and aching beauty. The best anime has to offer.

At the other end of the animation spectrum lies Toy Story 2, the kid friendly three-dimensional quest of action figures and plush dolls. What is amazing about Toy Story 2 is how it not only matches its ground breaking predecessor but even surpasses it both in visuals and story. Story is packed with sly humor not just for kids, and it contains a poignant message about mortality and what one seizes with the opportunities they are given. The animation is mesmerizing and the humor is fast and fierce. Toy Story 2 proves that not all sequels are bad ideas.

Fresh from the gate are two examples of the great gifts animation has to offer. Couple these with the wonderful The Iron Giant, a ferociously funny South Park movie, an okay Tarzan, and the upcoming Disney redux Fantasia 2000 and it appears to be a solid time for animation. Go out and see some.

Nate’s Grade: Both movies A

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