A very good week in films for me. All of them are animated, but, unfortunately, none of them are available online legally. Didn’t realise until I wrote this whole thing, but that’s sort of a bummer. I’ll try not to do that again. I mean, some films I watch will be unavailable on Netflix or Hulu or whatever else, but I’ll try to at least have one or two easily and widely available on here.
- Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata
- My Neihgbor Totoro by Hayao Miyazaki
- Kiki’s Delivery Service by Hayao Miyazaki
- How to Train your Dragon by Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders
- How to Train your Dragon 2 by Dean DeBlois
That’s right: all Ghibli and Dreamworks.
Since I’m doing weekly reviews of the Studio Ghibli films, I’m going to discuss all of these together and more broadly. I’ll have the specifics in for the individual reviews.
So let’s talk about these three Ghiblis!
It’s actually quite difficult to compare them because they’re all incredibly different. Even the tone of the films have very little in common. With Grave of the Fireflies we have an incredibly powerful and tragic story dealing with the weight of choices and the cruelty of war. With My Neighbor Totoro we have, maybe, the most perfect children’s film ever made, one without a conflict or an easily stated plot. It’s also full of magic and wonder and is probably the best film ever made about being a child, while also having real moments of sadness. Kiki’s Delivery Service is more of a comedy and a coming of age tale, which very much focuses on the transition from childhood to adulthood. The only similarity, really, is that they’re all about children.
These three films have just about nothing in common, but I think it’s here that Studio Ghibli really learns what it is. Laputa: Castle in the Sky feels sort of out of place with these other early films. It’s sort of chaotic, violent, and heavily plotted. None of these three films have any real depicted violence, which is kind of surprising considering Grave of the Fireflies is about war.
That’s probably the biggest transition here. Laputa always had things happening onscreen with very little time devoted to people living life. These three are almost exclusively about how people live and survive. They deal with very normal people under varying circumstances. Grave of the Fireflies is undoubtedly an extreme circumstance and My Neighbor Totoro is just ordinary life and Kiki’s Deliveery Service is about growing up and finding oneself. But within these environments and circumstances, both Takahata and Miyazaki devote a great deal of time to just letting us inhabit the characters. I mean, in my Neighbor Totoro, very little happens at all, and almost nothing at all happens in the first half hour. But it’s that first half hour that really defines the film and makes us slowly fall into the films so hard. Same with Grave of the Fireflies and Kiki’s Delivery Service. It’s not the big thematic element that pulls us in and changes our life. It’s all the small things. The way Takahata obsessively focuses on the minute components of life or how Miyazaki just lets his characters wander around. They’re both deeply invested and interested in creating real behavior in their animated creations, and that’s why we connect so strongly. That’s why we love so deeply.
And we do love Studio Ghibli’s films.
While Takahata’s masterpiece is difficult to watch due to its intensity, Miyazaki’s are pretty pleasant.
It’s interesting, too, since these men have been working together for over fifty years. Takahata was Miyazaki’s mentor before they became partners, which was also before Miyazaki stepped out as a director in his own right. But Miyazaki’s shadow is now cast heavily over Takahata, and it’s interesting to see how this happened. Laputa is a fun film, but it’s also immature. I think we see Miyazaki discover himself in My Neighbor Totoro. That’s the film that begins to show us who he will be when we get to his masterpieces, which we’ll discuss in a few months. But I think Takahata is at least fully formed here. He’s putting everything into Grave of the Fireflies and it shows. And it’s clear to see his early influence on Miyazaki and what Miyazaki learnt from Takahata about storytelling and animation, because, though they’re both anime directors, their styles are quite distinct from what we now think of as anime.
I’ll leave it there for now, as there are many more Ghibli films to watch and I don’t want to spill too many ill-formed or half-formed thoughts out yet.
We save that for the weekly reviews!
How to Train Your Dragon I & II (2010 & 2014)
I’m going to discuss these together since, well, they’re two parts of a yet to be finished trilogy.
I saw How to Train your Dragon way back when I was living in Korea, but it was a pretty terrible bootleg, so it was nice to watch it again with Chelsea. We loved both of them. A lot. Chelsea had some very strong reactions to the films, including a lot of tears, which the films really earn.
Anyrate, I love these. They’re so much fun and they do just about everything right. They’re great adventures. They’re great coming of age stories [which is maybe my least favorite kind of story]. They do some very cool worldbuilding. They hit you with big emotions without being manipulative.
I really think they earn every thrill, every moment of dread and panic, every scare, every tear, and most of their laughs. They’re complex stories that hit home for people of all ages. I mean, Dreamworks is no Pixar or Disney, but they’ve put out a lot of truly amazing animated films in the last twenty years. Their biggest problem, I think, is that they love to do sequels.
Luckily, How to Train your Dragon 2 hits all the marks of the original and then hits more, doing everything somehow better than before. Everything feels improved. The story does more, the animation’s better, the characters become more fully realised [for the most part], and it captures all the wonder and awe of the first film while building off of it and springboarding into the stratosphere. There are genuine moments of tragedy! That’s something you don’t get in many children’s films. Part of what makes it work so much is that we’ve already lived with the characters for a film and a half by then and we’ve watched them grow and change.
Also, how awesome is the badass dragonriding lady?
Highly recommend this series and can’t wait for the third one, though it looks pretty far off in the distance right now.
Also, the second film had a lot of moments that reminded me of Miyazaki’s work. Really glorious visuals on scenes that are more about the awe of existence and life than they are about action and adventure. This sequel does what so few films even try to do anymore: it becomes mystical.
Not, like, it’s about mysticism. But it taps into that very ethereal and necessary aspect of art that transforms us and reflects us and teaches us who we are and why we are and where we exist in the world and how we relate to it.
And that, too, reminds me of Miyazaki. Especially My Neighbor Totoro.
It’s absolutely fantastic stuff.
Go see them now.