Tag Archives: fantastic cinema

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

News traveled very, very slowly in the late 1980s. I was talking in a recent post about how I’ve got no time for all that “good old days” nostalgia, but I confess that, of course, I’m fond of thinking about all the hoops we had to jump through to watch television and movies from other countries when I was a teenager. These days, I understand you can subscribe to a streaming service – a legitimate one! – and watch Japanese cartoons, subtitled, the same week everybody else gets to see them. There’s even a company called Discotek that specializes in licensing the most obscure titles imaginable, from stone-cold classics like Endless Orbit SSX to garbage like Chargeman Ken, with English translations by people who actually care about doing them accurately.

But back then, months and months would go by before VHS tapes would start to circulate. People would hear about new films and TV shows, but heaven only knows when anybody would see subtitled copies of them. If I remember correctly, I didn’t see a subtitled edition of this movie, then called Totoro of the Neighborhood, until either the 1989 or 1990 Atlanta Fantasy Fair. (And what I remember is dubbing my own copy of the movie while minding the anime video room, because that’s what we did in those wild west days.) A dubbed edition, made by a company run by the late Carl Macek, didn’t appear until 1993. I have a pan-and-scan DVD of this release which I bought to replace the VHS tape that my older children watched to death. It was redubbed under the Disney umbrella in 2005; I should probably have purchased a proper widescreen version of this dub before now.

(Madly, the release history of Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film, The Castle of Cagliostro, is more convoluted than that; I have the Manga Video/Anchor Bay DVD and that’s good enough for me.)

So anyway, My Neighbor Totoro is flatly one of my favorite animated movies, despite lacking the sort of plot-driven dynamic that I usually enjoy most. This isn’t an adventure movie; it’s a little character study about two little girls who meet some woodland spirits. The most that happens is that the younger girl gets lost. But it’s just so good. If you enjoy cartoons for perfect comic timing, then this thing is a masterpiece. There’s not a frame introduced too early or held too long in the legendary bus stop sequence. The scene is one perfect shot after another, and I have never watched it without laughing so hard that I cry.

And Mei, the younger girl, is an absolutely perfect creation. Every single thing that Mei does, from opening the same doors that her big sister opens to exploding with tears and stomping away with snot all over her face, just has me in stitches. So when she does get lost, it’s scary. Even having watched this movie two dozen times and knowing perfectly well that she’ll be fine, it’s still scary.

We gave our six year-old son a heads-up that the girls in this movie get scared, but that there is nothing to worry about and everybody in this film will be fine. Either it didn’t sink in or Mei getting lost really is that troubling, because our son was really, really worried for her. But overall he loved the movie, as all children do, and told us that the Catbus was – of course – his favorite character. Everybody loves the Catbus.

Totoro is a magical movie. From the color choices to the music to the nervous body language of the boy next door, it’s a movie with so much more attention to detail than I was expecting in the late 1980s. The 87 minutes you spend in this little rural community feel like weeks, and you won’t mind the time investment even slightly. Whether you’ve got kids or not, this movie is a must.

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Ponyo (2008)

Marie asked whether we were going to show our son Ponyo. I said nah, let’s throw him in the Miyazaki deep end with Princess Mononoke.

I’m kidding, of course. If you want to start listing reasons why Hayao Miyazaki’s films are so beloved in the United States, then you could get a little cynical and grouchy, or you could note that there are Miyazaki movies for every age. He’s directed films for eleven-at-hearts and for older audiences, but he’s also made a few that are absolutely perfect for six year-olds. So here’s the first of a couple that we’re watching this fall. Ponyo was released in Japan in 2008 and came out in the US with a very wide release in multiplexes all across the country the following year. It did pretty respectable business for a cartoon without any merchandising, and while it wasn’t a blockbuster, it attracted crowds beyond anime fans, and I just can’t believe anybody left without a smile of curiosity and amusement. It’s just so darn cute.

Our kid was absolutely hypnotized by it. The movie hits on similar themes of life out of balance that Miyazaki has explored in other films, but the core for children is a simple adventure film centered on a five year-old boy named Sosuke and his very odd new companion, a little girl who was a small fish when he first met her. They have a safe, not-frightening, but visually dazzling experience of looking for his mother after the little girl, given the name Ponyo, throws the world off-kilter by abandoning an underwater life of magic in favor of humanity.

I won’t say there’s a ton here for adults to really embrace beyond the beautiful animation. While the movie never drags and never annoys – given the unspeakable awfulness of modern American cartoons, that alone is a massive recommendation – the lack of any real struggle or danger keeps me from embracing the characters or situation. This is a movie to be shared with children, who will almost certainly be as charmed and captivated as ours was. Put another way, watched without a kid, then Ponyo is a treat for the eyes from a visionary director, but so lacking in meat and fire that it’s mostly forgettable. With a kid, this is exploring a vibrant and exciting little world. If you don’t have children of your own, sit down with somebody else’s and prepare for two incredibly satisfying hours.

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Pippi in the South Seas (1970)

You know how every once in a while, there will be an episode of Spongebob Squarepants that’s part live-action and there’s a comedy pirate called Patchy? If your child thinks that guy is hilarious, then your child is just the right age for Pippi in the South Seas, which is overflowing with pirates in day-glo colors, wearing eyepatches and striped shirts, and who have the swordfighting acumen of children.

Since the Pippi TV series had been a huge success in Sweden, the production team went straight to work on a pair of feature films co-produced with a German movie company. Pippi in the South Seas came first, and it was shot in the Mediterranean, it would appear, with not too many speaking parts, but an army of pirate extras. The plot, such as it is, concerns Pippi, Tommy, and Annika coming to Pippi’s papa’s rescue. He’s been captured by some other pirates and is held in a big sea fort, but thanks to the magic of messages in bottles, he’s able to get word of his plight to Pippi. Can the kids save the day before Papa is forced to reveal the location of his treasure?

For the under-nines in the audience, this is a fun little romp, with some very safe escapades and no genuine sense of danger. There’s some awful music, and pirates getting dumped in the water. The kids run rings around the adults, of course, and it’s a pleasant enough distraction, but it felt pretty long to me. Our kid was very pleased with the nonsense. He never had to hide, but neither did he jump up with excitement and thrills, either. Kind of a middle of the road production, I guess you’d say. Good, but not particularly inspiring. We’ll probably watch the second movie early next year, and I hope it’s not quite as burdened by the second bananas in the cast trying to be funny.

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Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Because it was a box office flop, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger seems to be overlooked, but holy anna, did I ever watch the heck out of this movie when I was a child. HBO showed it twenty times and my kid brother and I saw at least nineteen of the screenings. He even had a dream once where the ending was different, and when we saw it the next time and a big Ray Harryhausen monster didn’t survive – it never did – he started crying because he was convinced that “they” had changed the ending.

Anyway, since Ray Harryhausen movies took a heck of a long time to make, he and Charles Schneer began preproduction for the third Sinbad movie while the second one was still in theaters. By the time it was finally released, Star Wars was in the process of changing everything. It’s a fine adventure film, headlined by Patrick Wayne as Sinbad, with Jane Seymour and Patrick Troughton in good supporting roles, and a terrific villain played by Margaret Whiting, who is just awesome and gives a splendid performance. Apart from the memorable monsters, Sinbad movies had great bad guys. But the movie was seen as an old-fashioned throwback, and audiences in 1977 wanted outer space action.

Strangely, Taryn Powers, playing the daughter of Patrick Troughton’s character, is second-billed here despite a much smaller role than many of the other actors. She is the daughter of Tyrone Powers and didn’t have a really long career, but she must have had a good agent.

Our son was a little bit leery of this one, because while his memory isn’t exceptional, he definitely remembers the previous two movies being scary. This time out, the stop-motion monsters aren’t quite as memorable, though. It starts with some demon-things that interact with the live-action photography better than any previous Harryhausen fight scene, even bringing down a tent atop the human actors by striking the pole with a sword. But there’s a bronze clockwork minotaur that just steers a boat, and a big wasp whose actual size we can’t determine until it’s been killed, and a great big walrus, for some reason. But half an hour before the end of the movie, we meet a strange ally in the form of a grunting troglodyte, and “Trog” might be Harryhausen’s finest monster to that point.

But I specified monster for a reason. Sinbad’s big quest this time is to save an old friend, the rightful caliph of the city of Charak, who has been turned into a baboon. There are a couple of scenes with a prop monkey, but otherwise the animal is entirely stop-motion and the effect is just amazing. It’s almost as though Harryhausen decided to challenge himself by animating something with so much hair, and to have it be so expressive atop that is just icing. A crowd of skeletons meant less work.

Anyway, his verdict was that, like the previous Sinbad movies, he liked the film, but it was scary. I like it a lot: Wayne and Seymour are great together, Troughton is just about the most watchable actor around, Bernard Kay has a small part and he’s always worth seeing, and Margaret Whiting is just superb.

Weirdly, another film that I watched a dozen times on HBO, a few years later, was John Boorman’s Excalibur. I haven’t seen either movie in decades, and somehow my dwindling familiarity with the films long ago confused a mid-movie fate for Whiting, where her transformation from a seagull back into a human isn’t 100% effective, with that bit in Excalibur where Helen Mirren ages fifty or sixty years. Memory’s a weird thing, isn’t it?

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The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Our son told me “I can’t wait to watch the next Star Wars movie! It has Imperial Skywalkers in it!” I think he’s been getting peeks and hints from Angry Birds tie-in games. Forgetting, briefly, that they’re also called Imperial Walkers, I told him that they were AT-ATs and AT-STs. “Well, I want to call them Imperial Skywalkers.”

And speaking of things being called one thing and not another, I never realized that Boba Fett is never actually named in this movie. We all knew it in elementary school – we had the toy, we saw the Holiday Special – but here he’s just “the bounty hunter.” How odd.

But the anticipation buildup for this film was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen from our son. There have been times where he’s not entirely gung-ho to watch what we’ve selected, but he’s been on pins and needles for two weeks. This morning, he appeared at the top of the steps and announced that he was too excited to brush his teeth and wanted to start the movie right now. He didn’t want breakfast. We insisted. You’ve never seen anybody resent peanut butter toast so much in your life.

Like all of us, I love this movie. I love how the cast is full of familiar faces like Julian Glover, John Hollis, Milton Johns, and Michael Sheard. Apparently John Ratzenberger is in it somewhere, too, but I never spot him. Our son agreed, full of energy and excitement and worry about the oddest things – he grumbled that he hoped that Luke brought an extra oil can for R2-D2 when they land on Dagobah – and he was scared out of his mind by Luke and Vader’s duel. I made a rare intervention as he hid his eyes under a pillow and said “You better watch.” There are certain moments you’d never forgive yourself for missing.

Spoilers are strange things. When we were kids, the news that Vader was Luke’s father spread like wildfire, and we all went “OhmyGodREALLY?!” I lost that desire or need such a long time ago. I can’t stand having anything spoiled. I was in a grocery store checkout line about three weeks before The Phantom Menace opened and flipped open a children’s tie-in book to see the artwork. The book landed on “Qui-Gon was dead, but his–” and I darn near threw the book across the store. Our son seems to be one of the few who didn’t learn that Vader is Anikin beforehand. It didn’t blow his mind, but it’s a good hook to talk about before we watch the next film in four months or so.

I did try and talk him out of it. I don’t actually like the next four films. The most recent two have been great fun, but I’d honestly rather watch many other movies before Return of the Jedi. I’ve been overruled, though. He insists on seeing Darth Vader defeated, which somebody somewhere seems to have told him happens in “the last movie,” even if nobody told him who Darth Vader actually was.

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Dougal and the Blue Cat (1970)

We watched Dougal and the Blue Cat, a stop-motion film made in 1970 on the strength of the incredibly successful TV series The Magic Roundabout. This was a children’s series made in France and exported all around Europe. It became a cult favorite with kids and adults in the UK for good reason. It’s simple, charming, and Eric Thompson’s scripts are full of winking little gags for any grownups in the audience. Each little five minute episode is delightfully cute and if you don’t smile all through any given short, you may have a hole in your soul.

However, what works brilliantly in five minutes somehow pales when told in eighty. For the grownups, anyway. Our son was so captivated and charmed by this movie that it would be churlish not to recommend it for any under-eights in your own home. It’s certainly better than darn near any modern computer-animated cartoon, and even if your kid won’t quite understand that references to Blue Peter are actually gags, there’s enough fun here to keep them amused and not frightened.

Honestly, any movie that involves Zebedee losing his magic mustache to the machinations of a wicked cat called Buxton who thinks he’s the king and schemes to turn the garden blue can’t be called a bad movie. Just not really one I enjoyed, surprisingly. But the kid did, and that’s what counts.

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At the Earth’s Core (1976)

Well, if we’re miles beneath the surface fighting ten-foot tall telepathic pterodactyls, we must be in an Edgar Rice Burroughs story. After the big success of The Land That Time Forgot, Amicus hired actor Doug McClure to come back to London to make another Burroughs adaptation. At the Earth’s Core was first published in 1914 and was the first in a series of seven novels about Pellucidar, a gigantic land inside the hollow earth. These were hugely influential in their day, and in a very early example of crossovers in fiction, Burroughs’ most famous character, Tarzan, had an adventure in Pellucidar.

Amicus lacked the resources to make a lavish and wild adaptation of the novel, only a cramped and low-budget experience in what’s plainly a stage at Pinewood Studios. But for the kids in the audience, this is equally horrifying and thrilling. In an odd coincidence, our son was asking me about Godzilla earlier this week, and I told him that I didn’t think he’s quite ready for that kind of monster movie yet. He assured me I was wrong and that he was brave enough for Godzilla, and then the prehistoric monsters in this thing had him wide-eyed, hiding, and ready to give up.

It is kind of a shame that the villainous Mahars are such B-movie simpletons, with basic motivations and tame nastiness. The film is kind of hampered by the problem of not having any villains who speak English, but the Mahars don’t do anything that any other baddie in any other movie ever does. At one point, Doug McClure’s local tribal buddy is tied to a rock and he’s given a spear to defend his pal from a monster for the pleasure and amusement of his captors like a fight before the emperor in a coliseum. I kept waiting for the white Mahar to give a thumbs down.

I tease, but this is really an entertaining monster movie. Doug McClure is superhumanly macho, Caroline Munro is gorgeous, and Peter Cushing is amusingly absent-minded and daffy, and the monsters are all ridiculous and rubbery, but just realistic enough to shock and amaze elementary school kids. There are desperate fights, a fire-breathing dragon, twisty mountain labyrinths, quicksand, and hot lava. Amicus wanted to make a movie for boys under the age of ten, and I can’t think of a thing they skipped. They even kept the smoochy stuff to a minimum.

I don’t have much to add to that. It’s true that nothing here really stands out as worth watching for grownups in the way that you could watch The Black Hole just for the set design and music, but this isn’t a movie for grownups. It’s a movie for kids in that great time before they start scoffing at fake blood and firework explosions. If you’ve got a kid that age in your home, you really need to watch this ridiculous, lovely movie with them.

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Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Our summer season of Star Wars cash-ins comes to a crashing finale with the much-maligned Battle Beyond the Stars, a movie so derivative that it recycles sound effects from Battlestar Galactica, making it a cash-in of a cash-in. It’s also a remake of The Magnificent Seven, with George Peppard in the Steve McQueen role and Robert Vaughn in the Robert Vaughn role, which was itself a remake of The Seven Samurai… could you tell that Roger Corman produced this?

Actually, one of the most delightfully Cormanesque qualities of this movie is that all of the principal actors, except for John Saxon, who plays the Vader Villan Sador, were probably only required on set at the same time exactly once. Saxon never interacts with any of the principal characters, who also include Richard Thomas, Sybil Danning, Marta Kristen, and Sam Jaffe, who plays a cyborg. I think that if I were casting a movie in 1980, Sam Jaffe would not be the first name I’d come up with to work for about eight hours as a disembodied head stuck on top of a bunch of wires and machinery.

I can’t credit this turkey with much of anything myself, except that I was genuinely impressed with at least the first two-thirds of the script, which is lean and mean and moves absurdly fast, all character and nuance chopped for the bare bones of a fast-moving plot. It makes a huge error in breaking the battle against Sador into two chunks; the momentum vanishes when they return to the planet Akir (as in Akira Kurosawa) for the respite between fights with Sador. The last half-hour of the movie drags.

But it certainly didn’t drag when I was ten or so. This was one of those movies that was shown on HBO about thirty times over a couple of months and I saw most or all of it about twenty-nine of those times. I don’t know why bits of it were so unfamiliar this time around, though. I’d forgotten all about the collective-consciousness aliens who join the fight, but remembered Sybil Danning’s last line exactly. This is a movie that you watch when you’re a kid for all the space explosions and the illicit thrill of some mildly bad language because your parents see this and assume it’s more kiddie space junk and they don’t need to monitor it.

There are other cute little bits. I like that John Saxon’s character is in search of a new arm, and there’s one of the all-time great “Show me more of this Earth thing you call kissing” scenes between Thomas and Darlanne Fluegel, in a very early role. George Peppard’s Cowboy character has a belt that dispenses scotch, soda, and ice.

I nearly fell asleep during the last half hour, and my wife cringed and winced through the mess, as indeed she did with all the other outer space dramas we’ve watched this summer. But our son whooped and hollered and punched the air and had the best time in the galaxy again. He has, in that delightful way of six year-olds, decided that each and every one of the eight silly movies we watched during this season of cash-ins was better than the previous one, and this – this! – was the best of them all. I’d say that it’s not half as good as Starcrash or Message From Space, but it’s his opinion that counts the most.

We’ll head back to Earth for our next few Sunday movies, but we’ll let him see the actual sequel to Star Wars one day next month, so stay tuned!

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