revisiting ponyo (hayao miyazaki, 2008)

Back in 2009, I wrote about Ponyo:

The best part about watching this in the theater, even though it was the English-dubbed version, was listening to the kids in the audience. They were enjoying the movie very much, right from the beginning, when the Studio Ghibli logo came on and a kid sitting behind me said to his parent, “it’s Totoro!” You see, I had forgotten Miyazaki makes movies for kids. I assume they’re more like Fantasia, movies for acid heads to enjoy while tripping. Ponyo is neither the best nor the worst Miyazaki movie, which means you should see it.

Not a lot to add to that, except to comment on the viewing situation this time. We watched at home with our 8-year-old grandson. He hasn't seen many movies ... his parents are pretty strict about that. But he has seen Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, so he is familiar with Studio Ghibli, and he recently got an illustrated book version of Ponyo, so it was a good time for him to see the movie itself.

The weird thing was, he jabbered the entire movie about what was coming next. OK, that's an 8-year-old. But he had never seen the movie! The book he read, though, was quite accurate to the film, and he enjoyed seeing the animated version of what he'd seen on the page. (Once again, we watched the English dub. I wish they'd use voice actors rather than famous names. It's not that the famous ones are bad, but it's distracting to hear a character and recognize the voice of  Tina Fey or Liam Neeson or Betty White.)

by request: cloudy with a chance of meatballs (phil lord and christopher miller, 2009)

The request came from my grandson, who had already seen it a couple of times. His mom knows my feelings about kids and movies ... I don't believe in showing crappy movies to kids just because they are age-appropriate. She wondered if I'd be up for a movie that didn't quite meet my requirements. I told her it would be fun to watch with the squirt. Thus, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

First, I was glad to finally find out what the title meant. I assumed it was something suitably loony, and I guess it is, but it also makes sense in the context of the film, which is about a young inventor who creates the "Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator". You put water in one end, and food comes out the other. Eventually, disaster sets in, the machine ends up in the sky, and it starts raining food. Hence, cloudy with meatballs.

It may have been a good thing to watch on a regular TV, as the 3-D effects were a mixed bag if I'm reading contemporary reviews right (plus I'm not generally a fan of 3-D). The story and presentation was just intense enough to shake up the grandson once or twice, but he knew what was coming and was happy to watch again.

The voice cast was the usual bunch of big names ... am I the only one who misses when actual voice actors were used in cartoons? The standouts for me were Bruce Campbell, because Bruce Campbell, and Mr. T as a cop. Everyone else did a good job, I suppose ... I didn't recognize most of them, for what it's worth.

The grandson seemed to enjoy the fact that his grandparents could sing along to Lesley Gore, whose "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" makes an appearance.

geezer cinema: revisiting princess mononoke (hayao miyazaki, 1997)

It was my wife's turn to pick a Geezer movie, and she had never seen Princess Mononoke, so she chose it. It is the best of the 45 movies we've watched so far in Geezer Cinema. I wrote about it way back in 2005:

It's an oddball epic, weird and beautiful and brutal by turns, sometimes weird and beautiful and brutal at the same time.

I often get a bit lost in the plots of these Ghibli movies, and Princess Mononoke was no exception, but they are so loony in their pretty aesthetic that it hardly matters. Hollywood is capable of creating special effects that cause your jaw to drop, but Miyazaki creates special effects out of his brain ... he's always got some little character that's unlike anything you've ever seen before (this time it's the white thingies whose heads crack sideways), and there's wild boars that transform into squiggly monster things (Miyazaki always manages to include beings that would fit comfortably into a futuristic Philip K. Dick book ... Dick would give them names like greebs), and stunning landscapes, and heroic young women, and complex characters with complex motivations ... this isn't just a good cartoon, this is a great movie.

And the thing is, even the plot got to me this time, for as the film nears its end, I was caught up in the narrative, gasping and moaning and, of course, dropping my jaw in amazement.

I should add that the version I watched was in Japanese with subtitles ... there's an American Disney DVD with Claire Danes doing the voice-over for the title character, and I have no idea if it's any good ... in general, I don't mind dubbing when it comes to animation, I'm just saying, caveat emptor and all that if you watch the American version.

I agree with all of the above, although this time, we watched the English dub on Blu-ray. I'd bought that Blu-ray to watch with our grandson, but his mom did a little research and found that this movie is not suited for a sensitive 7-year-old. I have to say she's right ... there's a reason it's rated PG-13. The English dub was fine ... it's been a long time since I watched the original, so I can't make much of a comparison. None of the voices seemed awful. The Blu-ray picture was gorgeous, which matters a lot for this movie (my previous time I was watching a DVD from a quasi-legal box set). I also noticed the score by Joe Hisaishi, which was truly fitted to the epic nature of the movie. Fifteen years later, Princess Mononoke remains my favorite Ghibli movie.

Here is a Letterboxd list of the Studio Ghibli films I have seen:

a town called panic (stéphane aubier, vincent patar, 2009)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 33 is called "Current Host Week".

Well, friends, we've reached the end of our journey, and what better way to end it off then with a little self indulgence. I was hesitant to do a list of this nature last year as I hadn't felt I'd earned it and I didn't even have a list like this made. But this year, I think I'm ready. So, take a look at the films that personally drive my love for the medium, and enjoy the final week of the challenge. To everyone who made it this far, thank you for participating, as I really couldn't do it without you all. Have a great summer, and I'll see you next Season!

This week's challenge is to watch a film from my I Like These Ones list.

A Town Called Panic is a fun and silly stop-motion animated film from Belgium. It's narrative defies logic, but in a good way ... you never know what will happen next, only that it will be absurd. It's not chaotic ... you could make a timeline of what you see ... but the connections are dreamlike. Once you quit worrying about it making sense, A Town Called Panic is a delight.

It helps if you don't mind a movie with characters named Horse, Cowboy, Indian, Policeman, Mailman, and the like. The characters are "played" by toy-like figurines, and everything is treated as if it were normal, which I suppose it is in their world. Aubier and Patar aren't looking for the emotional tug of the Toy Story franchise ... they're just having fun.

The movie lasts 75 minutes, and it actually seems a bit long. The looniness can be overwhelming. But, as Roger Ebert wrote, "Because the plot is just one doggoned thing after another without the slightest logic, there's no need to watch it all the way through at one sitting. If you watch it a chapter or two at a time, it should hold up nicely." It's the kind of movie an adult and a kid can watch and enjoy together. And there's even a character named Steven! #964 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

klaus (sergio pablos, carlos martínez lópez, 2019)

This will be quick. Klaus falls into two of my oft-mentioned categories, "It's Not for Me", and "Liked for What It Isn't".

I'm not much of a fan of animated features that don't come from Studio Ghibli. Granted, I liked Toy Story 4, which is one of the competitors with Klaus for this year's Best Animated Feature Oscar. Klaus isn't a musical, which pleased me, and it looked good, which was nice. But I was nonetheless mostly uninterested, and I found the main character (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) annoying in the extreme. I couldn't stand to watch him, and he was on screen most of the time.

Klaus is being praised for existing outside the usual Pixar style that is so prevalent today. Like I said, it looks good, a nice combination of current technology and old-school visuals.

So I didn't care for Klaus, but your mileage may vary.

what i watched last week

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand et al). So, is the world made up of two kinds of people, those who think Snow White is a great movie, and me? The evil queen is a frightening creation. But after her first scene, she disappears until the movie is more than half over. And is she ever missed. The character of Snow White is a boring drip, so much so that she needs seven dwarfs just to keep us from falling asleep. And a little of the dwarfs’ antics go a long way … it feels like it takes them an hour just to get up the stairs to wake up Snow White. Thank goodness that lively, spirited prince shows up … he’s the perfect match for Snow White. They live happily, and boringly, ever after. A technological landmark. #256 on the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They list of the 1000 greatest films of all time.

what i watched last week

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009). A story of twenty-somethings that gets just about everything right. Which doesn’t mean it’s a great movie … it insists on the low-key revelations of real life, and the result is a movie that is itself a bit too low-key. Still, it does for 80s nostalgia what American Graffiti did for the early-60s and Dazed and Confused did for the mid-70s, including a spot-on soundtrack.

Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki, 2008). The best part about watching this in the theater, even though it was the English-dubbed version, was listening to the kids in the audience. They were enjoying the movie very much, right from the beginning, when the Studio Ghibli logo came on and a kid sitting behind me said to his parent, “it’s Totoro!” You see, I had forgotten Miyazaki makes movies for kids. I assume they’re more like Fantasia, movies for acid heads to enjoy while tripping. Ponyo is neither the best nor the worst Miyazaki movie, which means you should see it.

what i watched last week

Appaloosa. Takes its time getting where it’s going, and where it’s going isn’t all that interesting. Some good acting, some not so good, with Jeremy Irons playing the bad guy as if he thinks Daniel Day-Lewis’ John Huston impression in There Will Be Blood was over-baked. Farts around with the traditions of the western without doing much more than farting. Amiable, but dull.

Pinocchio. Its technological/artistic breakthroughs are taken for granted now, and later, less impressive Disney animation efforts have dulled the luster of the early classics. Until you start watching, and then you are transported into a remarkable world that, among other things, is far more dark than you might remember. I mean, what ever happened to those kids who were turned into donkeys and sent to work the salt mines? #346 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the 1000 greatest films of all time.


what i watched last week

Apocalypto. The final chase scene in The Road Warrior remains one of the great action sequences of all time. Mel Gibson, the star of that movie, who has in the years since become a major international movie star, a director, and an all-around crackpot, works backwards from that scene (he has said he wanted to make a car chase that took place on foot). To get to the chase scene, Gibson has us sit through close to two hours of historical fiction about the Mayan civilization, piling up more gore than you’ve likely ever seen a movie before. Imagine if Spielberg had been serious when he had the goofy religious guy pull out people’s hearts in that Indiana Jones movie … Gibson has several such scenes, not meant to get the kid in us to squeal in delight but to make the grownup in us want to vomit. From the much-remarked-upon scene of a man eating the testicles of a just-killed wild boar, to beheadings that end with the remains bouncing down a long stairway while the masses shout their approval, Apocalypto has a kitchen-sink approach to violence that is impressive, if also revolting and essentially stupid. When the chase scene finally arrives, it’s a doozy … Gibson learned a lot from George Miller, there are some very exciting moments in this movie … but it’s all wrapped in a package that promises far more than it can deliver (even the title is overwrought). Whatever Gibson thinks this movie is about, and it’s not clear even he knows, the result is pornographic, for better or worse.

Gigi. There was an interesting mini-discussion of nostalgia in the comments thread for a post last week, and watching this movie felt like an addendum to that conversation. I give Gigi 10 out of 10 … the average rating at the IMDB is 7.0, at MovieLens the average is 3.62 out of 5. Suffice to say, I rate this higher than most people … they like it, I love it. My love is hard to explain, though, without admitting to a feeling of nostalgia, because Gigi was one of my parents’ favorite movies. They owned the soundtrack album and played it often, and while I was grown and out of the house by the time VCRs made their appearance, I believe Gigi was one of the first movies they owned. The movie, of course, has nostalgia built right into it, culminating in Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold singing “I Remember It Well.” Makes sense that the older I get, the more charmed I am by that song, if “more charmed” is possible when I was totally charmed the first time I heard it as a kid. Here’s the thing, though. Gigi came out in 1958, and I assume my parents saw it in a theater … it wouldn’t have been on TV for some years, there was no tape to buy. And they, like everyone, loved “I Remember It Well,” which so perfectly captures old lovers as they look back. Like I say, I liked the song when I was a little kid … you don’t have to be an old lover to appreciate it … but it clearly carries more resonance the older you are. When I was a kid, my parents loved that song a lot more than I did, and I do recall how much it meant to them, how they loved to sing along. But here’s the thing: in 1958, my dad was 34 years old and my mom was 30. That seems pretty young to be already “remembering when.”

Coraline. In the mid-80s, I wrote short fiction for a couple of years as part of a series of creative writing classes. In one story, a hermit-like woman lived in an old house, with no contact with the outside world except for the mail that came each day. Her mail box was a slot in the wall at the front of the house … the mailman would open a flap and drop the mail through the slot onto the floor. One day, a letter got caught in the slot, and as the woman tried to pry it free, she discovered that the mail slot had an opening. She reached in, eventually working her whole body into the crevice. Finally she fell through a hole on some other side, and found a room full of the people whose names appeared on the junk mail she received. The story ended when all of the people filled the room … it became so crowded the woman fell to the ground, where she was trampled to death. In another story, a young boy whose father died found himself in an odd relationship with his widowed mother. She would give him sadomasochistic porn and they would act out the scenes ... she would burn her son with cigarettes, stuff like that. Coraline is arguably a kids’ movie, but if you’re wondering whether to let your own kids watch it, know that the stories I wrote would fit right in to Coraline. It’s an extremely disturbing movie. In the end, I was impressed without really liking it much. It’s quite an achievement, there isn’t much else like it out there, and it’s certainly better than Kung Fu Panda. So I guess I better give it a higher rating than I did for that dud.

spirited away (hayao miyazaki, 2001)


Seemed to take me forever to finally watch this movie, and it was well worth the wait. I'm forever searching for films that reflect what I think of as the world of Philip K. Dick novels. Movies based on Dick books rarely meet my approval, but once in awhile, some other picture will find the psychedelic spirit of Dick's best work. You don't expect to find it in a "children's movie," for sure, but I take what I can get.

There are a bunch of astonishing creatures in Spirited Away, and most of them would make sense as intergalactic beings from a PKD novel. My favorites were the little soot thingies ... that's what they are, soot with arms and legs ... but there's plenty more where that came from.

It's a wonderful movie, accurately described by Andrew O'Hehir in a Salon review:

To those who want to ask practical questions, such as whether "Spirited Away" is an appropriate movie for children, I have no answers. Arguably it isn't an appropriate movie for anybody.
I give it a 9 on a scale of 10.

[Edited to add Letterboxd list of Studio Ghibli movies I have seen]