Tag Archives: animation

From Up on Poppy Hill

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From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

I don’t envy those who have chosen to follow in the footsteps of successful parents in the same field. Apparently, neither does Gorō Miyazaki who was long said to be reluctant to follow his parents, and specifically his legendary director of a father, into the world of animation. So against the notion was Miyazaki that he went to school for agriculture and took up landscaping for many years. It wasn’t until he was 39 that he made his directorial debut with the Studio Ghibli film Tales From Earthsea. It is said he worked his way into the role of director, first starting off as a storyboard artist which impressed his bosses enough to promote him to director. This was said to have gone against the wishes of his father, Hayao Miyazaki, who felt the younger Miyazaki wasn’t ready. As a result, the two did not collaborate at all on the film, though the father gave the film a positive endorsement upon release.

The film community was less kind to Tales From Earthsea. Commercially it was a success, and there were some positive reviews for it initially, but since it has come to be viewed as probably the worst film released by Studio Ghibli. It’s the only one with a negative rating on aggregate review websites, and it would not have been surprising to see Gorō Miyazaki return to a lesser role. He did not though, and returned in 2011 with a new film; From Up on Poppy Hill. Unlike with his first film, From Up on Poppy Hill was a collaboration with father Hayao Miyazaki, whom together with Keiko Niwa, wrote the screenplay for the feature. As a result, it feels very much like a Hayao Miyazaki work as it features a hard-working female protagonist trying to make sense of adolescence on her path towards adulthood.

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Umi and Shun’s first encounter leaves Umi feeling embarrassed and angry.

Umi Matsuzaki is a sixteen year old high school student who lives at, and more or less runs, her grandmother’s boarding house. She is the eldest of three girls and takes on a maternal role to her younger sisters while their mother is away in the United States studying abroad. Her father was the captain of a trade ship that was sunk during the Korean War. Every morning since she was a little girl, Umi has risen early to raise signal flags wishing safe passage for all sailors. It was a practice she undertook while her father was alive, and continues even past his death.

The film takes the viewer to a post-war Japan, where those wishing to usher the country into a new era are clashing with those who wish to preserve history. At the center of this is a clubhouse located at the high school. It’s an old, dilapidated, building that some would like to see bulldozed, but the students who use it view it as a haven for their various clubs that occupy it. One such club is the school newspaper, and within it a poem about Umi’s flags appears one morning. A chance encounter that day with the newspaper’s editor, Shun Kazama, initially sours Umi to the young man, but she soon finds herself wondering about the poem and if Shun was the author.

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A tugboat proudly responds to Umi’s signal flags, leading to a poem appearing in the school newspaper.

The two end up striking up a fast friendship, due in part to Umi’s sister wanting to meet Shun following a daredevil stunt he performed at lunch the prior day. Umi was put-off by that same stunt, finding it reckless and foolish, but she comes to be drawn to Shun pretty easily. She agrees to help out with the paper, and things seem to be progressing the way a lot of young romances do, but soon something from Shun’s past pops up and things get complicated.

When the issue first surfaces, Shun becomes withdrawn from Umi and pays her only the bare minimum attention as she and her friends start helping out with the restoration of the clubhouse in an effort to change attitudes towards it. Umi is confused and hurt, not knowing what she did and interpreting Shun’s attitude towards her as being founded in anger. It’s a pretty relatable situation for anyone who went through high school and the awkward start to what seemed like a promising relationship. It’s a strength of so many Studio Ghibli pictures, the ability to authentically portray young adulthood, and they’re so well versed in doing it that it still translates across the ocean to a non Japanese audience.

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The rundown old clubhouse is a character itself.

I don’t want to go into detail regarding Shun’s secret that he keeps from Umi as I don’t wish to spoil anything for those who have yet to see the film, though I’ll say it’s nothing nefarious or duplicitous. The silent treatment routine doesn’t last long, and the characters are forced to confront the new conflict, though just as quickly they’re ushered into a subplot about saving their old clubhouse. The clubhouse plot felt the most contrived of anything in the film, conjuring up memories of poorly executed teen dramas from the 80’s and 90’s where the characters seek to preserve a place of refuge for themselves. It’s not very compelling, but serves its purpose to force our two main characters into an awkward situation where they must work together and not let their personal lives disrupt their shared goal. The overarching conflict between the two is resolved in the end, and it was somewhat anti-climactic and not as rewarding as it probably could have been. It’s resolved in such a neat and tidy manner that I felt the issue wasn’t given its due. It could have been explored in greater detail, but perhaps those involved felt it couldn’t have been without straying into some weird, possibly taboo, places.

The resolution of the film may have been unsatisfying, but it didn’t ruin what came before it for me. The interactions between Umi and Shun are what drive the picture. We feel their quiet affection for each other as their relationship blossoms and we can cut the tension with a knife when things go wrong. They’re both strong, sympathetic, individuals and the film is able to say a lot with small, quiet, scenes. The supporting characters around them are only portrayed in the simplest of tones. We get some sense of the camaraderie that exists amongst the women staying at the boarding house, but we’re only given the bare minimum. Sometimes Ghibli movies are guilty of overstaying their welcome and upping the runtime needlessly, but this is the rare film in the studio’s catalog that probably could have benefitted from another twenty minutes or so (it’s listed runtime is 92 minutes).

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Studio Ghibli’s scenic visuals have become routine, though no less breathtaking.

From Up on Poppy Hill is another Studio Ghibli production where the localization for english speaking audiences was not handled by Disney, but by GKIDS, who also handled other non-Hayao Miyazaki pictures like When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The GKIDS localizations tend to possess less star power than the Disney counterparts, but they’re of no less quality. I’m of the mind that voice acting and traditional acting in front of a camera are of limited relation; success with one does not guarantee success with the other. The cast assembled by GKIDS is talented and professional, and I very much enjoyed my viewing experience.

The soundtrack for the film is perhaps understated. Composed by Satoshi Takebe, it won’t be mistaken with the works of other Ghibli composers, but it’s not a fault of the picture. From Up on Poppy Hill is a grounded, quiet, story that does not need grandiose pieces of music to fill gaps between scenes. What’s here works, even if it’s not particularly memorable. The visuals in the film are of the same, superior, quality of other Ghibli works. The backgrounds are lush and vibrant and the characters expressive, even if a bit simple. My only complaint would be some awkward walking animations early in the picture, that were either absent from the rest of the film or just not picked up on by me as I became engrossed with what I was seeing.

I have some valid criticisms about From Up on Poppy Hill, but at the end of the day this is still a film I very much enjoyed. Studio Ghibli is simultaneously both masters of the fantastic and the mundane. This is one of the studio’s simpler pictures, and it’s a well done tale about two youths navigating the sea of young adulthood without resorting to corn or cliché. The conflict is legitimate, and not young adult camp, even if it’s resolved in perhaps a far too convenient manner. Perhaps it was a quiet, grounded, picture like this one needed to extract the talent present in Gorō Miyazaki, as opposed to the more fantastic Tales From Earthsea. The younger Miyazaki has not returned to the director’s chair since From Up on Poppy Hill for a Studio Ghibli feature, instead taking his talents to the small screen with Sanzoku no Musume Rōnya. Hopefully, he does get the opportunity to direct another feature as I very much look forward to what he does next.


The Sword in the Stone

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The Sword in the Stone (1963)

Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone has the distinction of being the final animated film released during Walt Disney’s lifetime. It was also just the second feature completed using the Xerox process introduced with the previous film One-Hundred and One Dalmatians. Given that it was the final animated feature Walt laid eyes on, it’s a bit surprising that the film isn’t more well-known. It’s not considered one of the studio’s classics, being relegated to that second tier of features that isn’t considered worthy of a “Diamond” release on home video. Based on the novel by T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone tells the tale of a young King Arthur and his tutoring by the wizard Merlin to prepare him for when he sits on the throne. There are numerous elements of fantasy and it’s a tale familiar to Disney fans in design as it follows a young misfit’s rise to importance through self-discovery. In a way, it’s like the male-equivalent of a Cinderella.

The story opens with a montage focusing on the death of Uther Pendragon and the tale of his sword which was magically sealed in an anvil and only the true ruler of England can remove it. We’re then soon introduced to our unlikely hero, Arthur, who goes by the name of Wart. Wart is an orphan taken in by Sir Ector and his ambition is to one day squire for his foster brother, Kay. Similar to Cinderella, Wart is treated like a servant by his foster family often forced to clean the kitchen and do household chores while Kay is being steered towards knighthood by his father. Sir Ector dangles the potential of being Kay’s squire as a carrot for Wart, but it would seem the old knight has no real intention of letting the boy actually serve in that capacity, preferring someone of noble birth for his true born son.

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Archimedes, Merlin’s crotchety owl, steals many of the scenes he is in.

Fortunately for young Wart, he has Merlin looking out for him. The old wizard has been to the future and back numerous times and has foreseen the coming of Arthur, right down to where Wart will fall through his roof for their first “chance” encounter. Merlin is not quite a bumbling old wizard, but he is a bit forgetful which at times gets the duo in trouble when he needs to recall the words to an important spell. He is accompanied by his owl, Archimedes, who in true Disney fashion is fully capable of speech. Archimedes is a grumpy sort but incredibly intelligent, often foreseeing the trouble Merlin is about to get himself into. Despite his prickly nature, he is a loyal pet and does look out for Merlin, and eventually, Wart as well.

Merlin is forced to endear himself to Sir Ector in order to serve as Wart’s tutor. He’s permitted to inhabit the old tower outside the keep, which is badly in need of repairs. The bulk of the film consists of Merlin trying to teach Wart lessons that will serve him well as king in the future, often by way of changing Wart into another creature to experience nature from another perspective. This is how the film sources its various gags as Wart becoming a small fish inevitably leads to him being viewed as food by a hungry predator. The best gags probably occur when Merlin changes the two into squirrels and an eager female takes a liking to Wart. These scenes are fairly light and innocuous and Disney tries to incorporate some danger into them, though the characters rarely feel like they’re in true peril. The film also doesn’t take many risks with its humor, often resorting to the simplest of jokes which contributes to the film’s safe tone. The climax of the film actually arrives rather quickly with little fanfare or much teasing of the outcome giving the film a rather abrupt ending. It’s not all together unsatisfying, but the film could have perhaps lingered a little longer with the fallout of Arthur pulling the sword. Once again, this invites a comparison to Cinderella in how that film is essentially over once she puts on the glass slipper and we don’t really see the fallout with her step family.

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The film sources a lot of its humor from the repeating gag of Merlin having some object or knowledge of the future.

Narratively speaking, The Sword in the Stone is a simple tale that’s not likely to offend, but also not likely to delight in the ways some other Disney films do. When the narrative is a bit lacking, these films turn to two important components: their looks and their songs. The Sherman Brothers contributed to the film and it’s not one of their best efforts. Merlin’s song, “Higitus Figitus” sounds like a “Bibbidi, Bobbidi, Boo” knock-off that’s not nearly as charming. The best sequence is probably the villainous Mim’s number “Mad Madam Mim” but it’s not exactly memorable when compared with other Disney tracks. Being that the film was done with Xerox, it’s also not as attractive as Disney’s best, but it is a step-up from Dalmatians. The backgrounds have a bit more personality, though there are scenes of flat, monochrome, backdrops that feel lazy. These are mostly reserved for some of the interior shots as the exterior ones look quite good. They’re not on the same level as Bambi, and The Jungle Book would do better, but they’re perfectly fine to look at. The characters have a sketch quality to them, a hallmark of the Xerox process, but it seems to suit the subject matter of the film better here than others. The film had the opportunity to add some nice visual effects for all of the transforming scenes, but chose the easy way out and just had the characters vanish in a puff of smoke only to reappear as a fish, squirrel, etc.

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Because every film with swords and wizards needs a dragon.

If you head over to Amazon.com and check out reviews of the Blu Ray release, you will see a lot of negative ones regarding the film’s transfer. I view all of the my movies that I review on Blu Ray on a 55″ LED television and I use a Playstation 4 to watch them. I found my viewing experience to be fine so maybe I’m not as big of an animation snob as I thought. I also do not own the film’s older DVD release so I can’t compare the two. It’s possible people are just sensitive to the scratchy Xerox look now that it’s being presented in high-definition, and being one of the older films, The Sword in the Stone has minimal clean-up in that regard. This film also did not get a Diamond release, so I don’t expect it to look as good as something like The Jungle Book, so maybe expectations should be held in check. Simply put, if you decide to purchase this film and find it’s not up to your standards you can always return it.

The Sword in the Stone is a rather basic entry in the Disney catalogue. It can entertain kids and adults but only so much. It’s probably rare to find the fan that says this is their favorite Disney film, but it’s also probably just as hard to find someone who detests it.


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Studio Ghibli is a cultural institution in its native Japan. It’s credited with the anime revival of the 1980’s and for popularizing the form in and outside of Japan. Many of its films have gone on to influence not just anime, but other works of animation as well with its characters even making cameos in Pixar films. Studio Ghibli was officially founded in 1985, but many consider its beginning to be with the film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Released in 1984, it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki and future Ghibli director Isao Takahata was named producer. The film’s success is essentially what founded Studio Ghibli with most of the crew joining the studio.

Nausicaä is a film that almost didn’t happen. Fresh off his well received directorial debut in Lupin III:  Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki was approached to direct another feature length anime picture by Animage. Miyazaki came up with the concept for Nausicaä then, but the studio wasn’t interested and the project was aborted. Miyazaki took Nausicaä to the manga form where he was able to build up a fanbase for the property leading to another opportunity to bring the story to the anime form.

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Nausicaä atop her glider.

It’s easy to see why Nausicaä is considered the spiritual beginning for Studio Ghibli. It goes beyond the fact that it’s a feature-length anime production featuring names that would become synonymous with Ghibli. The film, thematically, is very much in line with a great many of Ghibli’s films, most obviously the one’s directed by Miyazaki. The film contains a female protagonist with a Buddhist-like point of view towards nature and the people around her. The film can simply be described as an environmental picture that also strongly endorses pacifism, subject matter that would be covered in other Miyazaki works with the most obvious being Princess Mononoke. The film’s themes are clear and easy for any viewer, even the very young, to pick up on. The film’s themes are so obvious and central to the plot that it’s one of weaknesses as well as Miyazaki would become better skilled at relaying his message in future films with more skill and subtlety. The film’s directness sometimes leads to stilted dialogue and some uninteresting villains.

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In the path of an enraged Ohm is not someplace you want to be.

Beyond the film’s sometimes amateur story-telling, there aren’t a lot of negatives to be had. The film focuses on the princess Nausicaä, who lives in a small dessert village on the outskirts of the poisoned forest. Mankind is forced to live in a world dominated by insects with the most formidable being the massive, tank-like Ohm, following an apocalyptic event occurring a thousand years before the events of the film. These insects are hated and feared by most of humanity and the toxic forests they inhabit slowly kill the people who live close by. Warring factions of humanity eventually bring harm to Nausicaä’s home with her people becoming casualties of war when a prison ship crashes on the outskirts of the village. Nausicaä is able to rescue one of the passengers who instructs her to destroy the ship’s cargo: the remains of a Giant Warrior which brought about the apocalypse of a thousand years ago. The owners of the ship, the Tolmeki empire, come after the ship and its contents bring their war to Nausicaä’s doorstep. The princess is pressed into battle and even takes human life in the process, but it’s all for naught. The Tolmekians, lead by a princess of their own named Kushana, wish to revive the Giant Warrior to destroy the poisoned forest. The village priest deems this unwise as doing so would only incite the Ohm who’s massive stampedes have brought great destruction to humanity in the past.

The Tolmekians are also embroiled in conflict with the Pejite people. Kushana, taking Nausicaä as hostage to ensure the cooperation of her people, and her airships encounter the Pejite which allows Nausicaä to escape. Circumstance forces her into working with a Pejite pilot and the two discover an amazing secret beneath the toxic forest. Nausicaä’s journey becomes one of self-discovery for herself and her world. With few people even interested in understanding the Ohm and the forests they dwell in, she finds herself as the only one who can prevent a second cataclysmic event that would surely doom her people as well as others. The machinations of the film’s plot are easy to follow and easy to predict. Still, the end result is not particularly harmed by this as the film presents a satisfying climax and conclusion for the story.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

As a protagonist, Nausicaä (voices by Alison Lohman in the english dub) is easy to like and understand. Her sense of adventure is contagious and represented most by her mastery of a unique jet-propelled glider she often zips through the sky on. She has a special empathy with nature which is shown early in the film. She’s fearless and possesses a strong conviction for what is right. She kills early in the film out of rage and self-defense and is affected by it. Through her actions we can see she would make an excellent killer if that was her aim, but chooses a different and noble path. Her closest ally is the sword master Lupa (Patrick Stewart), who also seems to embody a form of pacifism as we don’t see him kill in his parts of the film, though we see him demonstrate his incredible talent with a blade in each hand. Asbel (Shia LaBeouf), the Pejite pilot Nausicaä befriends, is our set-in-his-ways character who learns to see the world through a new lens during his trials. He’s the character most affected by Nausicaä and her outlook on life.

The film is set with many suspenseful moments like daring escapes from doomed aircraft and stunning rescues. Much of the film takes place in the air as the most prevalent piece of technology in the film are the massive airships piloted by the Tolmekians and Pejite. Anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s works know he’s a lover of aviation so it’s not surprising to find it here. When the film is not in the air the setting either shifts to vast desserts or the wondrous toxic forests. The forests are portrayed in cool shades of green and blue with mostly imaginative looking flora, some of which looks like it belongs under the sea. The look of the film is a bit dated, which should be expected of a thirty-year old picture. Still, it’s not unpleasant to look at and it still has some wonderful moments. The audio is also a bit dated, mostly in the sound effects department, but the score (Joe Hisaishi) is easily the part of the film that best stands the test of time. The english dub is also handled well by Disney and the Blu Ray release contains the Japanese audio for purists.

Anime fans owe a great deal to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Not only did its popularity and success in Japan help to pave the way for future anime releases, but its butchered original western release helped to convince Miyazaki and others to oversea the localization of future films. Studio Ghibli’s famed “no cuts” policy is born from Nausicaä and I think all fans of animation can agree that’s something we’re all happy is in place. It’s hard to separate a film, or any work of art, from its legacy, but in doing so Nausicaä still holds up us a nice picture worthy to rest in the library of Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli films. As a legacy piece, it’s a fascinating look at the beginnings of a great director and a fun piece of nostalgia for animation buffs around the world.


When Marnie Was There (film)

When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Marnie Was There (2014)

In my review of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya I detailed the state of Studio Ghibli and its decision to suspend all production on animated features. It was a sobering bit of news and remains so as the studio certainly seems to possess enough talent following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki to press on and a film like When Marnie Was There only reinforces that thought.

When Marnie Was There is based on a novel by Joan G. Robinson. I had never heard of it nor read it so my experience with the story is entirely via the Studio Ghibli film. The film is written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi in his second go-around as director for a Studio Ghibli film, the first being the very good The Secret World of Arrietty. Even though this is only his second turn as director, Yonebayashi has been with the company for over a decade working on several other animated films in various roles. Takatsuga Muramatsu handles the music for the film making the film feel like a promotion of the studio’s younger talent. The film is wonderfully animated and visually resembles very strongly another recent work by the studio, The Wind Rises. Like that tale, When Marnie Was There is a mostly grounded film from a visual sense and lacks some of the studio’s more wildly imaginative settings and characters.

The film follows Anna, a young girl of about thirteen who has a hard time fitting in. The film never explicitly states it, but she’s quite obviously depressed at the start of the film and is paralyzed by a social anxiety order that seems to manifest itself in the form of severe asthma. As the film progresses, we learn the root cause of most of her issues is her sense of abandonment as she lost her parents and grandmother at a young age and has been in foster care with the same family for most of her life. She is having a particularly hard time coping with a recent discovery about her foster parents that lessens her sense of self worth. She states that she hates herself, and following another asthma attack early in the film, her foster mother decides it may be good for her health to visit some relatives in the countryside.

The film is visually quite earthy, with many lush and well-detailed backgrounds.

The film is visually quite earthy, with many lush and well-detailed backgrounds.

It’s in the countryside where the film’s plot gets rolling along. Anna stays with the Oiwas, relatives of her foster parents, in a seaside town located somewhere near Kushiro and Nemuro. It’s a small, quiet town located on the coast. Her family tries to get her involved with the local girls her age but Anna struggles to make friends. She soon finds herself drawn to an old, rundown mansion on the coast that she enjoys drawing from the shore. It’s there she encounters Marnie, a lonely young girl about the same age as Anna. Marie tells Anna she dreamed of her and the two form a fast friendship. Marnie is the child of wealthy socialite parents who are rarely home leaving Marnie in the care of an abusive nanny and two maids. Anna and Marnie have an instant connection and the two are free to express their love for one another. It’s a sisterly kind of love, but when Marnie invites Anna to a party her parents are throwing and dances with a young man, Anna is seen as jealous and possessive of her new friend. It becomes obvious to the viewer that Anna has never had a real friend before, and it’s touching to see Marnie wordlessly pick up on this and tenderly sooth her friend.

What the film doesn’t obviously address for a long time is the nature of Marnie’s existence. During the day, the old mansion where she lives is run-down and abandoned, but at night, time seems to rewind around the old house and restore it to its former beauty. As the viewer, we’re left to wonder if Marnie and the people in the mansion are ghosts or if everything is a product of Anna’s imagination. Anna seems to think Marnie is an imaginary friend, as she’s confronted later in the film by a young girl who’s family has purchased Marnie’s mansion and is renovating it. The girl, Sayaka, notices Anna staring up at her room and mistakes her for Marnie. She knows that name because she found an old diary by a girl of that same name when her parents bought the mansion. Anna and Sayaka soon become determined to unravel the mystery of Marnie. I do not wish to spoil anything further, but I’ll say it’s a very satisfying tale and the film answers all of the questions it poses which helps give it a sense of closure. Repeated viewings are also satisfying because knowing the end adds added context to a lot of what happens during the film.

The mansion seems to call out to Anna beckoning her to investigate.

The mansion seems to call out to Anna beckoning her to investigate.

The film may contain a mystery as part of its central plot, but it’s really secondary to the story of friendship between Anna and Marnie. Both characters possess tragedy about them and both are instantly likable even though both also possess obvious flaws. Anna’s inability to communicate with others is a frustrating flaw for the viewer, but also a heartbreaking one. Meanwhile, Marnie is so clearly neglected that it’s sad to see just how happy she is when she’s able to sneak outside at night knowing what awaits her when she eventually returns home. The film’s reluctance to really address how Marnie is able to exist allows it to focus on the growing friendship, and all of the trials and tribulations a new friendship creates. Once Anna becomes so attached to Marnie an anxiety brews. When Marnie disappears for a few days Anna immediately assumes it’s because of something she did to anger her friend. The film makes it easy to think back on one’s own adolescence and recall similar feelings.

The film moves at a comfortable pace and the english dub is well done, even if the film was not picked up by Disney for release outside of Japan. Universal handled it, which also handled the release for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and the english cast features some notable names such as Geena Davis, Catherine O’Hare, and John C. Reilly. Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka voice Anna and Marnie, respectively, and both do an admiral job giving a voice to these characters. It is especially important that the english dub be of a high quality because it would be a true shame to mar the visual presentation of such a film with subtitles. The look is so vibrant and colorful that I often found myself delighted by even the most simple of shots. This is one of the studio’s finest productions and it’s a joy to see it was not wasted on an inferior story.

There's a lot to distract the viewer from what is at the heart of the movie: two lonely souls desperate to find a kindred spirit.

There’s a lot to distract the viewer from what is at the heart of the movie: two lonely souls desperate to find a kindred spirit.

When Marnie Was There is the kind of film that you either connect with or you don’t. I suppose for those where the film’s characters and plot do not resonate they’ll see it as a perfectly fine little film about friendship. For those able to connect with it on a more personal level will find something truly captivating and beautiful. I do not know why the film made such an impact on me, it’s not as if I could truly relate to any of the characters because of a personal experience, but I think it’s because the film was able to tastefully portray Anna’s struggles without being heavy-handed that it made everything to follow so believable. The score is impressive and there isn’t a scene in the film where the music isn’t perfectly suited. Even the closing track, “Fine on the Outside,” is utilized at just the right moment and feels wonderfully suited to close out the picture. When Marnie Was There possesses the heart and magic that has made Studio Ghibli one of the premiere production houses in the world when it comes to animation. It is my sincere hope that it is not the final feature from the studio, but if it turns out to be, it’s a wonderful way to cap an unprecedented run.


#1 Best in TV Animation: The Simpsons

The_Simpsons_LogoCould it really be another? There have been funnier shows, better looking ones, and shows with better stories to tell, but it’s hard to argue against the show that made prime time animation a thing and has lasted over 25 years. The Simpsons are an American institution at this point. There are people in their twenties who have never had a year of their life pass by without a new season of The Simpsons. That’s pretty incredible. And say what you will about the quality of the show in recent times, there’s still a large body of work that’s among television’s best.

Let me actually start with the argument against The Simpsons being number one. Really, that argument boils down to the show not being very good for the last ten or fifteen years. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a fan of the show willing to argue that the best is happening right now. The general consensus seems to be that the show’s peak was probably seasons two through seven. Seasons eight through twelve have their moments, and from there the show has been in a downward spiral of re-used plot devices and poor gags. After all, how many times have Homer and Marge split-up during an episode only to patch things up in the end? Or how often has Bart pulled some elaborate prank only to feel remorseful after the fact? For me, the best era of The Simpsons probably ended with the season nine premiere, “The City of New York vs Homer Simpson.” It was a promising start to what ended up being a mostly mediocre season. I’d argue though that The Simpsons ever since has mostly remained mediocre and has never produced a truly awful season. Though I concede one should feel fortunate if there’s at least one memorable episode per year that isn’t a Treehouse of Horror installment.

The first family of animation: Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer, and Bart.

The first family of animation: Maggie, Marge, Lisa, Homer, and Bart.

Even if I were to go so far as to say that The Simpsons has been bad since season nine, that’s still nearly two-hundred episodes of quality prior to that. Such an episode total dwarfs almost every other series on this list with the only comparable being South Park (which has had its own peaks and valleys over the years). When The Simpsons was operating at its best it was sharp, funny, satirical, but with enough heart to make viewers care about the characters. It operated as a pretty typical sitcom, but one willing to take advantage of the animation medium. Characters never had to age and the town of Springfield could be filled with hundreds of characters without the need to expand the cast.

What made The Simpsons a hit was its edgier brand of humor when compared with other sitcoms. The Simpson family was dysfunctional. Bart and Homer were always at odds with Homer being a rather poor example for the kids. They weren’t as hopeless as Fox’s other family, The Bundys, but they certainly weren’t The Waltons (much to the dismay of then President George H.W. Bush). Bart dominated the early episodes, often getting into trouble and just being a general delinquent. Overtime, Homer moved more and more into the spotlight as his I.Q. seemingly deteriorated more and more each season. Lisa and Marge have mostly served in a supporting role with each representing a foil for the male members of the family. Often once or twice per season one of the ladies would assume a starring role. The supporting cast became robust and episodes would even follow someone from Springfield with The Simpsons serving in a supporting role. It’s hard to pick a best character from outside the family because there are just too many to choose from. The miserly Mr. Burns is so good as the boss character/villain of the series (boss as in Homer’s boss, not video game boss, though he did serve in that role too). Krusty is well known as Springfield’s resident celebrity as is the cartoon duo Itchy and Scratchy. Moe, Barney, Troy McClure (voiced by the late, great, Phil Hartman), Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and on and on it goes. I doubt there’s ever been a larger cast in the history of television.

The cast is positively ginormous.

The cast is positively ginormous.

Every cartoon needs its own look, and visually, the series has always been distinct with its yellow skin-toned characters and circular eyes. Everyone sports three fingers and a thumb and wears the same clothes every day. The quality of the animation was a bit crude in the early going with some of the colors in the first season looking washed-out. As the series became a success, more and more money was tossed its way and the quality of the animation has steadily risen each year. In fact, that’s one thing the current episodes can boast over the classics: better animation. The show is often bright, but not distractingly so, with a lot of Springfield often appearing kind of run down. The main theme of the show was composed by Danny Elfman and is about as well-known as any other television theme. Shockingly, Fox has been able to keep the same vocal talent onboard over the years, though it hasn’t always been easy. There was a time when it appeared as if the rising costs of production due to raises for the cast would eventually kill the series, but now that seems unlikely. Everyone is past their career prime at this point and there’s less of a call for them to leave the show to pursue something else. They’re also all nearing or beyond retirement age and I imagine The Simpsons is a nice source of income they can rely on now. They’re also not stupid and know the show has gone past its peak so they’re unlikely to demand significant raises going forward, unless they collectively all decide they don’t really want to continue working on the show and demand Fox make them an offer they can’t refuse. It must be noted though that The Simpsons hasn’t avoided some tragedy over the years (it would be almost impossible for it to considering how long it’s been on) losing two popular talents. Phil Hartmen, who voiced many supporting roles, was murdered in 1998 while Marcia Wallace, voice of Bart’s hard-luck teacher Mrs. Krabappel, passed away in 2013. Both actors had their respective characters retired upon their death.

A neat graphic of the principal voice talent and the recurring characters they voice.

A neat graphic of the principal voice talent and the recurring characters they voice.

Just as it’s hard to pick a favorite character, it’s hard to pick a favorite episode or even season. The show was so good and so consistent in the early 90’s that it seemed to turn out a classic every week. “The Telltale Head” from season one is arguably the show’s first classic, along with the very first episode “Simpsons Roasting on an Open-Fire,” which is still the show’s best Christmas episode. “Bart the Daredevil” is another classic with an iconic moment even referenced in The Simpsons Movie. “Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment,” “Bart the Murderer,” “Flaming Moe’s,” “Homer at the Bat,” “Marge vs The Monorail,” “I Love Lisa,” “The Last Temptation of Homer” and so many more. It truly is a daunting task to list the best of the best. Just coming up with a list of the best Halloween specials is hard (which The Simpsons must have a record for most Halloween episodes, easily)!

The Simpsons has been on television for so long that its legacy is likely going to be forever linked to its longevity. It has almost surpassed the show’s reputation for just being a damn good TV show. And how long will it go on? Who knows? The natural assumption would be 600 episodes, or maybe a 30th season, but it’s possible the show just goes on and on until someone too important decides to leave. It likely won’t go quietly as I imagine Fox would not allow the show to just end without making a big deal out of it, and they should. The show deserves as much. If it weren’t for The Simpsons it’s unclear what the landscape for adult cartoons would be. Sure, The Flintstones came first, but The Flintstones were not as nearly as impactful. While The Simpsons embraced the animated form, The Flintstones tried to be a typical sitcom that just happened to be animated. I may not watch The Simpsons on a weekly basis anymore, and really have not since the nineties ended. I still do not look forward to the day when The Simpsons has ended. It may no longer be the best show on television, but I still think the world is a better place with The Simpsons on at 8 PM every Sunday.


#3 Best in TV Animation: Futurama

FuturamaWhen Futurama was first announced I didn’t think much of it. It felt like an unofficial spin-off of The Simpsons with a stupid title. The premise, a 20th century slacker getting cryogenically frozen to awake in the 30th century, probably should have interested me more than it did. As a result, I, along with most of America, mostly ignored the show during its initial run. Only when re-runs started surfacing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block of programming did I truly give the show a chance. And what do you know? – I loved it!

Futurama follows the exploits of Fry, Bender, Leela, and the rest of the Planet Express package delivery crew as they parade around the universe getting into more trouble than a normal package delivery company would expect to. Like The Simpsons, Futurama relies on satire and a diverse cast of characters for its humor, and setting the series a thousand years in the future actually makes the satire come rather easy. It’s almost as if show runners Matt Groening and David X. Cohen watched Back to the Future Part II and decided a show that centers entirely on the future portion of that film would be a great idea. The future is a lot like our present, only America essentially rules the entire globe with President Nixon, now a head preserved in a jar, coming into power early in the show’s life. There’s also the Democratic Order Of Planets, or DOOP, which attempts to police the entire known universe with the incompetent Zapp Brannigan as its leading general. Robots handle a lot of the menial labor on earth with relations between humans and robots tenuous at best.

This picture essentially tells you all you need to know about Bender.

This picture essentially tells you all you need to know about Bender.

The principal cast revolves around the Planet Express crew itself. Fry (Billy West) is the main protagonist who is time-displaced due to a mishap in 1999 and doesn’t seem to mind it all that match. He’s a well-meaning but plainly stupid sort of character. His best friend is the robot Bender (John DiMaggio), who would rather chain smoke and steal than actually do any work around the office. Leela (Katie Sagal) is the pilot of the Planet Express ship and nominal love interest of Fry, a subplot that actually takes quite a while to fully develop. She also happens to be a one-eyed mutant. Professor Farnsworth (also voiced by West) runs the company (mostly incompetently) with the help of Hermes Conrad (Phil LaMarr), Amy Wong (Tress MacNeil)e, and Dr. Zoidberg (West). As you may have noticed, the voice cast is pretty well stocked with talented individuals, some who made a name for themselves with Groening’s Simpsons. West is the obvious star and one of the very best at his craft, but everyone is pretty top-notch making Futurama arguably the most well-voiced program in the history of animation.

Visually, the show is excellent and for most of its run was superior to its predecessor, The Simpsons. Fox clearly was pretty generous with the budget for the show’s first four seasons as traditional hand-drawn animation was blended well with computer-aided visuals where appropriate. The show is bright and vibrant and the setting helps to give it a unique look. As expected, there are some pretty standard tropes of the future setting like transportation tubes and laser weapons to go along the obvious hover cars. The show doesn’t make too many attempts at actually predicting the future, and given the setting is a thousand years away there’s little need to. The various aliens and robots are usually pretty fun to take-in and is where most of the show’s visual creativity ends up being on display.

Billy West lends his voice to many characters on the show.

Billy West lends his voice to many characters on the show.

Most importantly, the show is just plain funny. The characters tend to work well with each other. Fry and Bender are often the ones getting into mischief, and early in the show’s run, Leela was often left to play the straight man (woman). Bender is the unofficial star of the show as his general selfishness and law-breaking ways make him both hilarious and popular in the same way Bart Simpson did ten years prior, only with the debauchery and lewdness magnified considerably. Dr. Zoidberg, likely the universe’s worst doctor, is often a source of humor at the character’s expense considering he is both poor and foul-smelling. Professor Farnsworth is probably my pick for the most unsung hero of the cast. Whenever the show turns to him for a one-liner or a visual gag he seems to always deliver. The simple delivery of his “Tell them I hate them,” from “Fry and The Slurm Factory” gets me every time.

Where the show really found a way to separate itself from others is with its heart. It sounds sappy, but the show is surprisingly effective when it wants to make the viewer experience something other than laughter. The first episode where the show really successfully delivered on such was the Fry-centric “The Luck of the Fryish.” In that episode, Fry finds out his brother essentially stole his identity after he was frozen and basically lived out all of Fry’s dreams while becoming a national treasure. He owed it all to Fry’s lucky seven-leaf clover. Fry, in anger, wants his clover back and will go to great lengths to get it back, even if it means digging up his brother’s corpse. There’s a twist in the end and good luck keeping your eyes dry when it comes about. Of course, the show’s most infamous episode in this style is “Jurassic Bark,” in which we find out what happened to Fry’s dog, Seymour, after he was frozen and left him behind. I still remember the first time I caught the episode on television and the ending really snuck up on me and obviously made an impact. In general, the show does a really strong job of finding the humor in almost any situation. And even when the characters have to do something mean for laughs, the show is able to keep them from straying too far from a moral baseline so that the audience never turns against them. Even Bender has his moments where he does something nice.

Like The Simpsons, Futurama's cast became exceptionally large.

Like The Simpsons, Futurama’s cast became exceptionally large.

Futurama was originally unsuccessful during its initial run on Fox, though it did manage to last for the better part of four seasons. After the reruns performed well for Cartoon Network and DVD sales excelled, the show went the direct-to-video route with four feature-length films. They would eventually be chopped up into episodes that aired on Comedy Central, who picked up the show for an additional three seasons. Having the show come back from the dead was pretty awesome, but you would have a hard time finding a Futurama fan that felt the post-cancellation episodes were up to the same standards of quality as the first four seasons. Still, there were episodes here and there that stood out and subpar Futurama is better than most shows. The show ended with its 140th episode, a healthy run by any standard. In those 140 episodes the show made a bigger impact than all but two others, according to this list, and really stand among all television shows, animated or otherwise, as being among the very best.


Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book (1967)

The Jungle Book (1967)

Walt Disney and his talented team of animators had become synonymous with feature-length animation come the 1960’s. The studio had faced numerous challenges along the way and at many times was nearly forced from the medium. The studio’s biggest challenge though came towards the end of production for The Jungle Book. Sudden to everyone except his closest family members, was Walt Disney’s passing in December of 1966 at the age of 65 from lung cancer. Disney had never planned for his own demise and the studio would be forced to pick itself up from the ashes, and it would (obviously). As a result, when The Jungle Book was released in the summer of 1967 it was like a curtain call of sorts for Walt Disney. Based on that fact alone, the film likely would have been a commercial success but it certainly helped that it was an entertaining and superbly animated film.

Like many of the Walt Disney animated features, The Jungle Book is an outside story.  Based on the works of Rudyard Kipling, it is a loosely adapted feature taking most of the characters and major plot points and adapting them into a mostly unique story to fit the Disney form. The film focuses on the young boy, or man-cub, Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman, who also voiced Christopher Robin in the Disney produced Winnie the Pooh shorts) and the members of his jungle family who are trying to secure his safety. Mowgli was found in the jungle by the panther, Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot), as a baby and brought to a family of wolves who had just recently had a den of pups. The wolves raised Mowgli to boyhood, but when the man-hating tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders) returns to the jungle the pack leader determines Mowgli cannot remain with the wolves for his own safety. Bagheera offers to take Mowgli to the man village where he belongs, but Mowgli is not exactly pleased with the arrangement. When the pair encounter the free-spirited bear, Baloo (Phil Harris), Mowgli feels he’s found a kindred spirit and Baloo agrees to watch over the boy in the jungle. Baloo’s slothfulness essentially gets Mowgli into a bunch of trouble, particularly with the monkeys and their leader King Louie (Louis Prima) and eventually he’s forced to face Khan in the film’s climax.

The story is probably mostly familiar to those reading this as the film has been re-released several times over the last 40+ years. It’s an easy story to relate to as Mowgli is being driven out of the only home he knows. The characters are likable, in particular Baloo who feels like the real star of the picture though viewers are able to identify with Bagheera, who really only wants what’s best for Mowgli, easily even if they side with Baloo. It’s a simple story though with a logical resolution that some actually deem slightly controversial, but only because they fell in love with the pairing of Mowgli and Baloo. I know as a kid it kind of disappointed me, but as an adult I appreciate it more. It’s a bit melancholy, but I kind of like those endings. Otherwise it’s easy for youngsters to follow along with the plot of the film and handled with enough maturity that adult viewers likely won’t mind. At 78 minutes, it’s fairly short but the breezy plot probably didn’t even need that much time.

In some ways, the film is a buddy flick featuring Mowgli and Baloo.

In some ways, the film is a buddy flick featuring Mowgli and Baloo.

The Jungle Book is one of the first Disney animated features to really pack-in the musical numbers, which are the major contributor to the film’s running time. If not for the songs, the film could have been wrapped-up in half the time. As such, the film feels almost like a spiritual precursor to the films of the late 80’s and 90’s that took-on a more Broadway-like structure. The Jungle Book is not quite in the same style though, as there is an effort to incorporate the songs into the dialogue and plot as opposed to just having a musical number break-out. The characters also sing and dance in the actual setting of the film, as opposed to having the backgrounds change like a music video to fit the song (contrast that with something like The Lion King’s “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” where the visual style of everything around the characters changes). Composing most of the music are the Sherman brothers, Richard and Robert, who prior to this had done songs for The Sword in the Stone and several live-action Disney films. The lone song not done by the Sherman brothers is actually the most memorable from the film, “The Bare Necessities” which was done by Terry Gilkyson. Gilkyson had originally been tasked with writing the songs for the whole picture, but when they weren’t meeting the standards of Walt Disney, he had to lobby to keep just one song in. He apparently chose well. The most memorable tune by the Shermans is easily King Louie’s “I Wan’na Be Like You” with its up-tempo, swinging vibe. As I’ve stated numerous times in past reviews, I’m not a fan of musicals and I mostly tolerate the musical numbers in Disney films. The two previously mentioned tunes are the only ones I really enjoyed in The Jungle Book. Some of the others felt too interruptive (such as the python Kaa’s number) or just tacked on (the barbershop quartet of buzzards towards the end).

"I Wan'na Be Like You" is perhaps the most memorable sequence from the film.

“I Wan’na Be Like You” is perhaps the most memorable sequence from the film.

What brings me back to these films time after time if I don’t particularly care for the music? The production, of course, which also includes the film’s score. In contrast to the brighter songs, the score (composed by George Bruns) is more foreboding and slightly sinister at times. It’s mysterious with lots of slow percussion that suits the jungle theme (apparently, had Gilkyson been allowed to contribute all of the songs they would have more closely matched the tone of the film’s score). The cast of voice actors is full of veteran Disney actors that have all either done prior work for the studio or would go on to voice other characters in later films. Phil Harris, who voiced Baloo and would go on to voice Little John in Robin Hood (also, interestingly enough, a bear), was considered a celebrity voice and something Disney strived to avoid. Apparently, he had a personal relationship with Walt which was why Disney chose him for the picture. The most fun voice for me is Kaa, the python, who was voiced by Sterling Holloway, only because Kaa is a villain of sorts while Holloway is probably best known as the original voice for Winnie the Pooh. Imagining Kaa’s lines coming out of the tubby old bear amuses me more than it should.

The true star of the picture is the animation. After getting two films done using the Xerox method (One-Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone) with adequate success, the guys at Disney pretty much had the thing figured out and produced a wonderful looking picture. Where Dalmatians opted for simple, monochrome, backgrounds The Jungle Book utilizes lush, full-figured scenery that beautifully captures the jungle setting. And unlike Dalmatians, the character models are not loaded with extraneous lines or rough edges. There’s still some evidence of the process, but it’s not drastic. The characters are also sharper and more angular when compared with the films of the 40’s and that look would mostly continue into the 80’s. The character designs are simple, but effective, and they still pop against the complex backgrounds. The only character design I did not enjoy that much was Shere Khan’s, who I felt was too scrawny and could have looked more intimidating. Bagheera looked like he could have stood a chance against the tiger, and certainly an entire pack of wolves could have probably over-powered him.

The two most devious characters of the film, Shere Khan and Kaa, share an uncomfortable (for Kaa) scene together.

The two most devious characters of the film, Shere Khan and Kaa, share an uncomfortable (for Kaa) scene together.

Khan’s character is both a strength and a weakness of the picture. His looks may not have been as intimidating as it could have been, but the work of voice actor George Sanders adds a lethal quality to the character. He comes across as more menacing than some of the more one-note villains from films past. His scenes are uncomfortable for both the viewer and the characters he shares the screen with. He’s cunning, the sort of villain that lulls the character into a false sense of security before slipping a dagger in their belly. Of course, being a tiger Khan has claws and no thumbs, so he can’t really wield a dagger. Those claws represent one the more jarring pieces of the film, as when Khan pops them out during some banter with another character they make this tacky spring sound. If you’ve seen any of the Donald Duck shorts featuring the cougar character you’re probably familiar with the sound and effect. In those shorts the aim is for humor but in The Jungle Book Khan is meant to be frightening and it breaks the mood of the scene. Perhaps that was part of the aim, to inject an element into the picture to lessen the scene’s weight, but it doesn’t work for me.

All in all though, The Jungle Book is an entertaining and enjoyable picture, a worthy film for Walt to go out on. It’s not the best work from Disney, and is probably more successful at entertaining children than adults, but it’s still suitable for all audiences. The picture best succeeds as both a musical and with its animation, which helps make it more of a stand-out film in the Walt Disney lineage than it normally would be. This review is based on the Blu Ray, and the film is practically meant for that format. If you have your own collection of animation at home and it’s missing The Jungle Book, I encourage you to reconsider.