Spirited Away


Viewed – 26 November 2014  Blu-ray

How long has this acclaimed, Academy Award winning entry in the Studio Ghibli cannon taken to reach Blu-ray?  It feels like an age since I first watched it, my very first introduction to the mind and talent of famed director Hayao Miyazaki – but sitting down to it’s immediate charm, I was transported back to a fantastical world, part Alice In Wonderland, part The Wizard of Oz, but woven together from a rich tapestry of Japanese mythology and sheer uninhibited imagination.

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Chihiro is a young girl moving to a new house with her parents.  Forced to go to a new school, the prospect fills her with uncertainty and dread as she sits disgruntled and winey in the back seat of the family car.  However on route to their destination, the small family come across a mysterious tunnel in the woods, and venturing inside soon stumble upon an abandoned village.  Yet this is no ordinary village and when Chihiro’s parents are transformed into greedy pigs after eating from a banquet, the frightened young girl begins a journey of self discovery and finding strength she never knew she had, by working in a bath house, meeting a magical boy who can turn into a dragon and bumping into all manor of spirits, monsters and witches.  This is a stunning achievement in ideas and wonder … Miyazaki really out did himself and the world we are treated to is rich in detail with spooky, weird and creepy inhabitants and locations … the boiler man and his many legs, the giant baby, the ‘no-face’ monster, the stink spirit, the witch and so much more.  On first seeing this the sheer wealth of creations and extremely bonkers ideas was overwhelming, but done with such style and skill – the experience stayed with me.  Now with more familiarity with the world of Studio Ghibli, I found it easier to get to grips with, not as strange as I recalled and just enjoyed it for what it was.  Traditional hand-drawn animation at it’s best, borrowing from some of the most memorable stories ever written but adding a vibe all it’s own, that makes it stand proud.   One of the most magical movies ever made.

This Blu-ray release from Studio Canal is really impressive.  The image quality looks sharp and is bursting with colour and vibrancy.  Shimmer and softness that has marred some other Ghibli releases is absent here thankfully, and I was also pleased to see a DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack that truly brings this classic to life.  That orchestral soundtrack is amazing and with a decent English dub with clear voice work as well as some great use of the surrounds (the boiler room sounds amazing) – this really can’t be faulted.  The disc itself isn’t exactly brimming with extras with an archive introduction from John Lasseter (who was still at Pixar when it was filmed apparently), yet an interview with Hayao Miyazaki and a making of are both good additions.  We also get the usual Studio Ghibli story-boards to watch as the movie plays, which can be worth a look for enthusiasts.

Verdict:

The Blu-ray:  4 /5

The Movie:  5 /5

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The Wind Rises


Viewed – 19 November 2014  Blu-ray

In some ways I was a bit nervous going into this.  The much anticipated swansong for arguably one of the finest animation directors in the world.  Hayao Miyazaki chose this very personal and understated story as his final feature for the famed Japanese animation house ‘Studio Ghibli’ following an illustrious career that spawned such classics as Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Howls Moving Castle.  However this is not the fantastical world we may have become used to but more a thought provoking biopic of a famed aircraft designer.

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I’d say Miyazaki has always had an interest with aircraft and flight, and this is certainly his love letter.  Jiro Horikoshi (voiced in the very good English dub by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) since he was a child has had a fasciation with air travel and the designing of planes.  He often slips into fantastical dream sequences where he meets and talks to famed Italian Aviation pioneer Giovanni Battista Caproni.  As time passes Jiro studies aeronautical engineering, and soon begins working for a plane building firm.  However with the advent of World War II, his designs become increasingly involved in the Japanese Army’s invasions plans, and Jiro finds himself questioning his conscience.

With a similarity to the Martin Scorsese / Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Aviator, and boasting several quirky characters, (Jiro’s boss is classic Ghibli), I did find this interesting even if all the plane building and Jiro’s enthusiasm went over my head.  More absorbing was his gentle love story with Nahoko (Emily Blunt) who develops Tuberculosis.  Yet this storyline also brought into question some of Jiro’s actions, with him having full knowledge that his planes would be involved in mass genocide but he seems to have more focus on building them than looking after his sick fiancé.  Thankfully the art and animation on show distracts from such a morally dubious main character and should be heralded as one of the studio’s most beautiful works – a real treat for the eyes that shows there is plenty of life left in traditional hand drawn animated movies.

Perhaps not as uplifting or as boundlessly-inventive as Miyazaki at his best, but with a good story and some great moments (the 1923 Tokyo earthquake is portrayed like the ground breathing and groaning…), this is still worth checking out.

Verdict:  3 /5

Princess Mononoke


Viewed – 25 May 2014  Blu-ray

I have wanted to give this much acclaimed Studio Ghibli film a second viewing for a while, and now that it has finally arrived on Blu-ray a film I originally was a bit mixed about, I can give a final verdict on.  This tells the tale of a young warrior, Ashitaka who after saving his village from a demonic boar, is cursed during the battle and forced to leave.  He soon stumbles upon the plight of mining colony who seem  hell-bent on destroying the local forest, regardless of the spirits and animals present, due to a power-hungry governess.  At the same time Ashitaka spots a young girl who is living amongst the wolves, and the villagers refer to her as Princess Mononoke, the wolf-girl.  Before long Ashitaka is torn between his loyalty to a village that take him in and the survival of a sacred forest, as war breaks out.

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This grand spectacle is full of quirky characters, some decent voice acting from the American cast shoe-horned in to replace the original Japanese (Claire Danes especially giving Princess Mononoke plenty of attitude), but its Miyazaki’s magical world and that charming Japanese art style that wins through, with a good story where you are soon routing for Princess Mononoke & Ashitaka and booing the villains.  At two and a quarter hours, it’s certainly epic, both in imagination and emotion, and it’s not hard to see why this is so regarded among movie fans; yet it also drags in places, which could make some viewers restless, with plenty of time given to bland dialogue and mundane moments like eating and working.  On this second viewing however, I was able to better appreciate the (at times) slow pace and the sheer artistic beauty of it all, as well as comedic side characters (the feisty female workers) and the various action sequences (Mononoke’s attack on iron town).  Although I do think it would benefit from about ten or twenty minutes being cut just to make it zip along more.   Yet for it’s character design, setting and echo-friendly message, this remains a land-mark.  I enjoyed it, even if for me it still pales next to Ghibli titles like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle.

This Blu-ray release from Studio Canal is impressive.  First and foremost the image is vibrant, sharp and very clear, with none of the smudgy, rough appearance that graced the DVD – clearly having been polished up quite a bit.  Add to this a stellar 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack with great use of the surrounds and pounding bass (when those drums beat … wow) and the orchestral theme is delivered wonderfully.  Dialogue is also very clear and easy to hear at all times (we also get the original Japanese soundtrack which I didn’t sample).  Extras are somewhat limited as they often are on these Studio Ghibli UK releases, but we do get a trailer, storyboards and a featurette.

Verdict:

(the movie)  3.5 /5

(the Blu-ray)  4 /5

Kiki’s Delivery Service


Viewed – 10 August 2013 Television

This is one of Studio Ghibli’s films that always seems to get mentioned as a favorite.  Kiki has just turned 13 and as all young witches must leave home for a year to complete their witch training … Kiki chooses to set off for the city, with her wise-cracking black cat Jiji along for the ride.

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As with many Ghibli movies, this is a charming experience filled with impressive, hand-drawn animation and plenty of quirky characters.  Kiki herself is a likable, feisty young girl voiced well by Kirsten Dunst, and other characters like a love-struck boy and a pregnant bakery owner are all very entertaining.  The clearly European themed city is also rather gorgeous.

For this kind of material, it is a bit long and sags in the middle slightly.  Also apart from the ending, it seemed to cry out for more menace and a villain of some sort … which we don’t get.  Instead the movie opts for simple feel-good storytelling with that age-old believe in yourself message.  Not exactly a bad thing.

I enjoyed it overall, but apart from the animation and fun characters, I felt there was much more potential here.

Verdict: 3 /5

Laputa: Castle In The Sky


Viewed – 29 January 2012  Blu-ray

It goes almost without saying, that Studio Ghibli, the animation house that brought us the Oscar-winning Spirited Away has become one of the most respected animation studios in the world, and taking just a glance at their back catalogue reveals a wealth of magical and endearing movies.  Back in 1986, the famed studio was formed to make its first feature-length movie, and so we have this, a magical Jules Vern inspired adventure that proves even over twenty years ago, director and studio founder Hayao Miyazaki was a true talent.

Pazu is a hard-working young boy in a mining community, who one day witnesses a young girl fall from the sky.  Hurrying to her rescue, he soon discovers she is on the run from a group of pirates and the army, who seek the magical properties of her necklace.  Before long a spectacular adventure ensues as Pazu tries to help the girl unravel the mystery of the necklace’s origin and its connection to a fabled city floating in the sky.  Clearly the imagination and artistic style Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have become known for, was their from the start.  The animation and character on display here is quite breathtaking.  The story borrows from the aviation-mixed-with-science-fiction of Jules Vern, but also reminded me of the Brit fantasy Stardust, which this could easily have been the inspiration for.  The two young characters are easy to like and get caught up in their adventure (voiced well by James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin), and the mother pirate is a classic Ghibli creation, as is the shady villain, all smart suit and sunglasses.  The action, when it comes is also very exciting (the robot encounter, the various sky battles) and the final act is pretty damn magical.

At over two hours, the movie is quite lengthy for an animation, but doesn’t drag.  I would have liked more revealed about the floating city, and sometimes the comedy was laid on a bit thick.  Yet this doesn’t really spoil what is essentially a well made and enjoyable movie, surely worthy of any animation fans viewing list.

For an older movie, this Blu-ray release from Optimum is difficult to fault.  The colours are vibrant and the detail is very sharp.  It looks like the whole movie has been remastered to show off the format, including a decent soundtrack and some good effects with booming explosions, as well as clear voice work.  Extras include brief behind the scenes featurettes, story boards and trailers, as well as the movie on DVD.

Verdict:

(the movie) 4 /5

(the Blu-ray) 4 /5