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|Kevin Krock, editor|
It is easy to understand why Pixar's John Lasseter holds Japan's Studio Ghibli in such regard. Ghibli's movies are very characterdriven and you generally consider them good stories first, great animation second; an ideal which Pixar has gone a long way towards attaining in its incredible run of success.
When Disney purchased the U.S. rights to Studio Ghibli's movies, there was a lot of concern over how they would be treated. When Kaze no tani no Naushika was first released in the United States back in 1985 as Warriors of the Wind (and released now by Disney as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds), it had more than 30 minutes chopped out of it and was edited to incomprehensibility. It was that release that led studio head and director Hayao Miyazaki to insist that any further licenses would have clauses prohibiting any editing.
There is a lot of room, though, to meet that requirement and still do a poor job in presenting a foreign movie. Lazy dubbing and subtitling, rescoring, and bad voice casting can all torpedo an otherwise worthy film. Fortunately, although you can complain about how Disney has marketed theatrical releases, they have done a very respectable job on DVD releases, even of the catalog titles they didn't put into theaters.
Reviewed today are the second trio of Studio Ghibli films released on DVD under this relationship. The first set released back in 2003 included Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, and Kiki's Delivery Service. Those three films showed the range that can be had with animation, that just because it is drawn doesn't mean it has to be a children's fairy tale.
Today's three movies cover similarly broad ground. The Cat Returns is a lighter confection, more in line with Ghibli's greatest American successes My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. It involves Haru (Anne Hathaway), a girl who saves a cat from certain death and is a bit surprised when it rises up on two legs and thanks her, promising to return later for a proper expression of gratitude. Soon she finds herself about to be whisked away to the Cat Kingdom and betrothed to the Cat King's (Tim Curry) son. Desparate to find a way not married to a cat, a voice tells her to find the Cat Bureau where she meets another talking cat named Baron (Cary Elwes), a fat grumpy cat (Peter Boyle), and a raven (Elliott Gould) who will try to assist her escape and return home.
At 75 minutes, the pace keeps moving (it grew out of what was originally planned as a 20-minute short promoting a Japanese amusement park) and The Cat Returns is the best fit of these three for younger kids, with plenty of action. Despite the oddness of the story, adults may find it just a little bit ordinary in its storyline. Made after Spirited Away some may wonder if this is a step backwards in scale for Studio Ghibli. In fact, it was always envisioned as a smaller project and part of a program to develop new young animation directors to eventually replace Ghibli's grand masters Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.
All the way on the other end of the spectrum is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, an epic with a political message and more in line with the style audiences saw in Princess Mononoke. It is set in the far future after some ecological disaster has overwhelmed much of Earth with an everexpanding toxic jungle and giant instects. What remains of human civilization is an odd blend of agrarian and technological cultures. Alison Lohman provides the voice of Nausicaä, the young princess of a smaller kingdom. While the rest of humanity struggles for a state of stalemate with the toxic jungle, Nausicaä seems to have a special understanding of nature and how to regain an appropriate balance.
The ecological message is very much standard for the Japanese culture that experienced the toxic impacts of atomic weapons and the devastation of total war. Unfortunately, unlike Princess Mononoke it frequently feels a bit too blunt in getting this across and the early '80s animation feels dated, and too familiar from watching imports of Japanese television cartoons when I was a kid.
The very pleasant balance between these two is Porco Rosso which combines the alternate reality fantasy of The Cat Returns with the examination of human nature found in Nausicaä. Porco Rossa is a Japanese movie set in the Mediterranean during 1929, telling the story of an Italian WWI ace pilot who just happens to be a pig in love with a French hotelier and finds himself in a feud with a gang of air pirates. You probably didn't think the young girl marrying a cat thing could be topped, did you?
It is an amazingly personal story, though. Porco Rosso is an very cool character. Looking a bit like Ernest Hemingway with a Humphrey Bogart demeanor, for the English dub he is voiced by Michael Keaton. Keaton provides just the right reserved cynicism for the character. Kimberly Williams (Fio), Brad Garrett (Boss), Cary Elwes (Curtis, an American from Texas), and David Ogden Stiers (Piccolo) all provide additional voices with great flair. My preference is to usually watch even animated fair in the original language with subtitles but an awesome job was done in voicecasting the English dub. If you speak French, the word is that Jean Reno does a very good Porco Rosso in that version.
Though the visuals are wonderful and combine pigs and planesMiyazakis two favorite subjectsthe story is just too slow and involved for the younger set. For older kids and adults, though, the depth of the characters should combine with the attention to detail to create a real treat.
The Video, Audio, and Interface
All three discs have decent transfers, with The Cat Returns perahps being the weakest, appearing a little washed out. Even with the best transfers, though, none would be a choice for showing of your high-end home theater as the muted palettes of all three will just never jump off the screen at you.
The audio is another matter. The producers of these DVDs put great care into the voice casting and other incidentals. The voicework is a little over the top in The Cat Returns but hardly worth complaining about. In a reversal of the normal process great care was also taken to make the voices match the animation. Normally the voices are recorded first and then the movie is animated to match; obviously that wasn't possible and a lot of work went into translating the script in such a way so that mouth movement would still match. To get a sense of this and now much specific word choices can affect the impact of a scene I recommend watching Porco Rosso with the English audio on as well as English subtitles. Where the audio has been rewritten to match the animation, the subtitles are direct translations of the original Japanese. While I don't think any of these writing choices negatively impacted the story, it is interesting to see where changes were made (Curtis, for examples was moved to Texas from Alabama). If nothing else it is an interesting look at the sausage making process that is a movie.
None of the three discs does anything interesting with the interface, but use simple animated screens with a single cutaway between screens (The Cat Returns doesn't even have that, just immediately switching to the new menu).
Making each of these DVDs a two-disc set is a bit of a scam, as each hardly contains much bonus material of interest. For each, the second disc contains only one item: the complete movie in storyboard form. It is nice that all the audio and subtitling options are available on this disc as well, but not many are going to want to watch the movie all over again with very roughly drawn images.
For live action, there is a certain fascination in storyboards as they just how much of a live action was visually imagined before it was filmed, but with animated fare that is pretty obvious. Watching storyboards for an animated movie doesn't really show anything new.
The other extras in each set are all found on the first disc with the actual movie. Each disc has a Behind the Microphone featurette where the English language voice talent talk about what a wondeful experience it was to do the project.
Each also has a rundown of the original Japanese trailers and commercials. I personally have never understood why these are so often put on DVDs since you generally have two or three major variations, each having an endless number of minor tweaks.
In addition, each also gets a unique featurette. Nausicaä has the story of Studio Ghibli's creation, The Cat Returns has a very interesting makingof documentary detailing its convoluted creation, while Porco Rosso has a wholly unsatisfactory TV interview with producer Toshio Suzuki.
The Final Evaluation
If there were cheaper single-disc versions available, I would encourage you to buy them. I can guarantee that almost nobody will watch the second disc for any of these titles and they seem to be there simply to bump up the list price to $30. While all three are worthy of your attention, Porco Rosso is the only one I can unabashedly recommend plunking that much money down for. The other two you should probably rent first to decide if they belong in your collection.
Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.
The Cat Returns
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Kevin Doc Krock is been a long-time animation buff and home theater fan. He's been following the rise of the DVD format in the home market since its introduction, and he hopes to help you make the most of your family's home theater viewing time and video collections.
You can contact Kevin here.
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