Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968)

Here’s a movie I’d been intending to get around to watching for… well, three decades or so. After its largely unsuccessful theatrical release in Japan, a dubbed copy of Horus, Prince of the Sun made the rounds of American UHF channels throughout the 1970s under the name Little Norse Prince. Kids who saw it during that sweet spot age of about eight to ten fell in love with it and never forgot it. Seems a shame that I missed it, but I’ve certainly heard enough people raving about it over the years to quietly pick up a copy to see whether my own eight to ten year-old might fall in love with it.

He really didn’t, but there were a pair of scenes that he enjoyed tremendously. It’s an old-fashioned feature, but one that still has a few tricks up its sleeve to resonate with today’s kids.

Horus – his name is pronounced “Hols,” which cleared up a little confusion about why a Norse myth adventure would star a kid named after an Egyptian god – was the first feature film directed by Isao Takahata, who’d later go on to form Studio Ghibli with a few choice associates and friends. I reminded our son that we’d seen his film Pom Poko last year and hope to see another in a few months. It’s a pretty straightforward good vs. evil adventure, as Horus, after the death of his father, returns north to the land of his birth to have it out with the frost giant Grunwald.

I was mostly pleased and impressed. It’s a movie full of movement and surprising choices, with some absolutely beautiful imagery. I particularly loved a scene where the camera tracks around some winterdead trees, and I loved the colors when Grunwald’s endless forest tries to swallow our hero. About the only quibble I have is with the old English language dub, which Discotek Media included on their 2014 DVD. Like a lot of dubs from its era, the voices are just fine, but technically it all sounds quite lifeless and flat, with no highs or lows to the dialogue or the music. (Actually, the neatest thing about the DVD is that it contains a commentary track by our old pal Mike Toole, which was a pleasant surprise to find, because I know so little about Japanese animation fandom that I didn’t know Mike did commentaries on these things. I’ll have to give this another spin to hear that soon.)

The neatest surprise of all comes with a little trick the movie plays in its second act. Like a lot of children’s films from the 1960s and 1970s – Willy Wonka and Pete’s Dragon are the first to mind – the movie stops dead in its tracks for a slow song, this one sung by a strange girl called Hilda. I was past the point of drumming impatiently on my knee and wondering whether I could get to the metaphorical concession stand and back and not miss anything when I realized this was deliberate. Hilda has an inevitable and unsurprising secret, and her song doesn’t just interrupt the experience of watching the film, but it interrupts the work within the film itself, as everybody who’s supposed to be working stops their labor and goes to listen to her. It’s still a dirge, but it’s a neat trick.

The second act was a little long for our son as well. It brought him around in the end with a splendid climax, but everybody made the mistake of presenting the best action sequence quite early on. Horus goes out to kill this enormous river pike that’s been eating all the smaller fish and starving a village, and our son was amazed by this scene. He was on the edge of the sofa and kicking furiously and held his security blanket tightly as Horus gets dragged underwater. And the very next scene was his second favorite, as Takahata went for a comedy relaxation point and the local kids chase Horus’s newly arrived pet bear with bows and arrows and the skeletons of fish that the ravenous people have quickly eaten since the pike was no longer blocking the stream. It kind of ran a little long for him after that, but I thought it was a pretty satisfying 80 minutes and I’m glad I finally sat down to see what all the fuss was about.

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