3 More Studio Ghibli DVDs

by Alex Stroup, staff writer
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Disney recently released another trio of DVDs from Studio Ghibli. Each of the three is unique from the others in its existing relationship to American popular culture. Howl's Moving Castle is the newest of the three and was up for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award just a couple months ago, while Whisper of the Heart has never been released in the United States until now and will be completely new to all but the most dedicated animation fans. My Neighbor Totoro is probably the most famous Studio Ghibli movie in the United States and has already had a long life on non-Disney VHS and DVD, but with this new set gets a complete dubbing makeover.

Whisper of the Heart
(1995) | Approx. 111 min. | G | Reviewed by Alex Stroup
Cover Art
Click to Buy
Ratings Summary
(Scored out of a maximum of five)
Audio 3 stars Video 3 stars
Goodies 3 stars Interface 1 stars
Value 3 stars

The Movie

The first thing to know about Whisper of the Heart is that it is not a movie for young kids—not in the sense that it has inappropriate content, but rather that there is nothing much in the movie to keep the interest of a younger child. The movie is pretty much a straight teen love story, and except for a couple of minutes depicting the events of a story one of the characters writes, animals don't talk and nobody flies. In other words, your 6-year-old is probably going to be bored.


© Disney.

One of the surprises when you start the movie is being greeted with Olivia Newton-John singing John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" over the opening credits and scenes of a suburban Tokyo town. Apparently issues with rights for the song is part of the reason Whisper of the Heart has waited so long in the release cycle before getting onto DVD. It might be confusing to people who have been purchasing these Studio Ghibli releases since it is obviously connected in some way with The Cat Returns, which was already released by Disney on DVD but was originally released in 2002, seven years after Whisper of the Heart. So what's up?

The character in common is the Baron. In The Cat Returns (see the DVD review), the Baron is a regal cat who helps a young girl with some problems (unexpectedly being engaged to the Cat King) and the movie is pretty much entirely fantasy. Whisper of the Heart takes place entirely in the real world of modern Japan and the Baron is an antique cat figurine that plays an important role in the life of several characters. In one of the DVD extras, Cary Elwes (who voices the Baron in both movies) calls The Cat Returns a prequel, but that really isn't the case. An interesting bit from Whisper of the Heart was taken and expanded into its own movie; beyond that there is no real connection and certainly no appropriate order in which to watch the two movies.

As I said above, this movie is essentially a straight drama telling the melodramas of teenage love. Your ability to be entertained by this will be reflective of how interesting you find such stories in any other venue. So I was at a bit of a disadvantage watching young teenagers pine for each other in a seemingly endless chain. I wasn't much interested in such dramas when I was one of the teenagers. Slowly it won me over, though. It is told in a simple straightforward way and even if you find it difficult to take seriously, you know that the teenagers themselves really do. Eventually it also moves beyond the simple story into one I feel must have had a lot of personal feeling for Hayao Miyazaki (who wrote, but did not direct the movie).

Japanese culture is one in which the pressure to conform is strong, and striking out on your own path discouraged. Shizuku and Sheiji (the main characters) are both artistic souls struggling to find the courage to stand up to what society wants them to do (take the high school entrance exams that will largely put them on a set career path). This must have echoed strongly for an artist like Miyazaki.

As always, the animation is superb if not quite what we see in American animation and at first glance may look more like what we expect from after-school cartoons. But as you watch, the attention to detail begins to draw your attention. The little details that are there simply because they're real, and easy shortcuts are avoided.

The Goodies

The somewhat pointless second DVD continues in this set of releases. Disc 1 includes a short "Behind the Microphone" featurette in which the English language voice cast talks about how wonderful the project is. The disc also has original Japanese trailers and TV commercials for the movie. The only thing on disc 2 is another presentation of the entire movie (English dub only) played over the original storyboards.

Video, Audio, Interface

Generally speaking, the output of Studio Ghibli isn't anything that is going to stress the range of a television set and this remains true for Whisper of the Heart. The sound is crisp as it should be for a new dub and the Japanese track is almost as good, but neither requires a high-end home theater set-up to fully enjoy (though you may want to crank it up for the Japanese version of "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

The menus are preceded by short animated sequences from the movie, and are sometimes too long. Fortunately the animation is skipped on subsequent screen changes.

The Final Evaluation

Whisper of the Heart is a quality movie and would be widely acceptable if done as a live-action movie. It may be that for some people it is just too far away from what we expect from animation, with long thoughtful scenes, hardly any action, and only light humor. It definitely isn't for young children for reasons of boredom, but older children and young teens may find enough there for them, and the messages (other than talking marriage before even getting to high school) are good.

If you've been developing a Studio Ghibli library, you'll definitely want this on your shelf. Otherwise you may want to rent it before making a final decision.

DVD Information

Bonus Features:

  1. Behind the Microphone featurette with English-language voice cast.
  2. Trailers and commercials (Japan)
  3. Original storyboards

    Technical Specifications

    • Region 1 encoded
    • 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio
    • ASIN: B000CDGVOO
    • Original Japanese and dubbed English language soundtracks
    • Closed captioning for the hearing impaired and English subtitles
    • Manufacturer's suggested retail price: $29.99
My Neighbor Totoro
(1988) | Approx. 86 min. | G | Reviewed by Alex Stroup
Cover Art
Click to Buy
Ratings Summary
(Scored out of a maximum of five)
Audio 3 stars Video 5 stars
Goodies 1 stars Interface 2 stars
Value 3 stars

The Movie

For most people, My Neighbor Totoro is a very known entity. Back in the early '90s, 20th Century Fox put it out on VHS and had something of a hit on their hands. They since transfered it over to DVD and unlike other Studio Ghibli films, has been continuously available in the United States for years. That means there is a fair chance that you already own it in some form. So the question for you is whether it is worth putting out another $20-something to buy a new version.

There are three differentiating factors between the 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney DVDs:

  • Bonus Material: The Fox DVD has none. The Disney DVD has a "Behind the Microphone" featurette, storyboards, the original trailer and isolated opening and closing animation sequences. I'll go more into these in the next section but I would not consider them a factor unless you really love storyboards. Repurchase influence: Keep the one you have.
  • Dubbing: The Fox DVD has only an English-dubbed soundtrack. Most people won't care that the original Japanese track is not available but if you do prefer to listen to movies in their original language with subtitles, then this might be a big selling point for you. Also, the Disney/Pixar people put a lot of effort into providing quality English dubs and while I haven't compared the two, I would suspect that the Disney one is much better. Repurchase influence: Slight lean towards buying the new one for overall improvement and access to original language.
  • Aspect Ratio: For me this is a no-brainer, but other people certainly don't care as much as I do. The Fox version of the DVD is in fullscreen format, whereas the Disney DVD is in widescreen (or letterboxed) format. Some people don't like the black bars on their screen but don't realize that by avoiding those black bars they are instead cutting out pieces of the screen image. If you really don't care about this then you'll be fine with what you have, but if you want to see the images that were actually drawn, then getting the new version is practically mandatory. Repurchase influense: Strong rebuy.

Now, for people who don't already own the movie, how does it shape up? Prior to screening this edition of the DVD, I had seen My Neighbor Totoro once, way back in 1993. I didn't care for it then, and it has always languished at the bottom of my rankings of Studio Ghibli films. Let's just say I was shocked when I rewatched it for this review. Apparently I fell asleep halfway through way back when because I had no recollection of anything beyond the bus stop scene about halfway through. More importantly it turns out I had no idea what the actual story is.


© Disney.

My Neighbor Totoro follows two young girls (Satsuki and Mei) who find themselves moving out to the country so that the family can be closer to the hospital where their mom is experiencing a long stay. Away from the city, they find themselves open to fun experiences with natural sprites and goblins (including soot sprites who appear again in Spirited Away) and generally make them feel safe. The movie touches on themes of the loneliness and fear of children facing change in a way that I completely missed the first time. I now understand why the movie has been so successful for so long in the United States.

The Goodies

As with all the Studio Ghibli DVDs released so far, these are pretty much identical and pointless. If the effort is "create" a second DVD and allow a higher selling price, it is an unfortunate ruse. The only unique item is an extra that has the opening and closing animations sequences isolated with the credits removed to allow unfettered viewing of those clever bits.

The Final Evaluation

My Neighbor Totoro still plays a little too young for my tastes, though much better than my memory had given it credit for. It is definitely ideal for children young and older, and may raise some interesting topics of conversation. If you already own it and are happy, you probably won't want to switch, but from a purist's point of view I would strongly recommend doing so if for no other reason than to see the full picture as originally drawn.

DVD Information

Bonus Features:

  • Behind the Microphone featurette with English-language voice cast.
  • Trailers (Japan)
  • Original storyboards
  • Isolated opening and closing animation sequences.

Technical Specifications

  • Region 1 encoded
  • 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio
  • ASIN: B0001XAQ0A
  • Original Japanese and dubbed English or French language soundtracks
  • Closed captioning for the hearing impaired and English subtitles
  • Manufacturer's suggested retail price: $29.99
Howl's Moving Castle
(2004) | Approx. 119 min. | PG | Reviewed by Alex Stroup
Cover Art
Click to Buy
Ratings Summary
(Scored out of a maximum of five)
Audio 3 stars Video 5 stars
Goodies 2 stars Interface 2 stars
Value 4 stars

The Movie

The biggest disappointment to me at this year's Academy Awards was that Wallace & Gromit won the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar over Howl's Moving Castle. I consider Howl's Moving Castle was not only the best animated film I saw last year but probably in the top 10 that I've ever seen.

Rather than launching into a story recap and reinventing the wheel, I'll just point everybody to my review that ran last June when the movie was released in theaters. Unfortunately it didn't do as well as it deserved, so most people are probably still waiting for their first exposure and making inaccurate the final line of my review where I hoped that Studio Ghibli would finally have its big theatrical success in the United States.

The Goodies

More effort has gone into the extras for Howl's Moving Castle than either of the other two discs reviewed today. The "Behind the Microphone" featurette is glossier and while it has all the normal "this is great" platitudes, it also spends more time focusing on the technical challenges of redubbing an animated movie. In addition to the standard storyboards, trailers, and TV commercials, the disc also includes an interview with Pete Docter from Japanese TV and video of a visit to Pixar Studios by Hayao Miyazaki.

The Final Evaluation

Obviously I think Howl's Moving Castle should be in the collection of any fan of animation. It only goes to show how great the output of Studio Ghibli has been over the years that I can say Howl's Moving Castle is in the top 10 animated films I've ever seen—but is still only the third-best from Studio Ghibli. Young children will probably have problems with sections of the movie, but go out and buy it, anyway. Eventually they'll be old enough.

DVD Information

Bonus Features:

  • Behind the Microphone featurette with English-language voice cast.
  • Trailers and TV commercials (Japan)
  • Original storyboards
  • Interview with Pete Doctor
  • Hayao Miyazaki visits Pixar Studios

Technical Specifications

  • Region 1 encoded
  • 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio
  • ASIN: B000CDGVOE
  • Original Japanese and dubbed English or French language soundtracks
  • Closed captioning for the hearing impaired and English subtitles
  • Manufacturer's suggested retail price: $29.99