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Castle in the Sky (1986)

Every once in a while, I’ll enjoy seeing a thread on a forum or Twitter where people will reminisce about the mountains we used to scale to watch old TV shows, or cartoons from other countries. Uphill in the snow both ways, you remember. In the mid-eighties, I watched a fair amount of Japanese animation, enjoying the camaraderie more than the cartoons it must be said, and lots of it was untranslated. Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 film Laputa – that’s what we called it then – was one of those movies. I think you had to either get it on a T-160 tape or get a SLP/EP copy of it because the darn thing’s a hair too long to fit on a proper T-120 on SP speed.

My SLP copy looked like garbage and had lots of tracking errors, not – this time – because I was too lazy and cheap to buy nicer quality tapes, but because I’d had one of those BASF T-160s in the red cardboard case snap when I rewound it. But I watched the heck out of it anyway, wondering what the dialogue was, and particularly baffled by the scenes deep down in the mine with Uncle Pom.

Certain films and shows possessed a real power to thrill me even despite the language barrier. I’ve always been interested in Miyazaki’s movies and shows even if I was watching them in the original Japanese. I figured out early on that lots of what we could get our hands on was either junk to sell toys and candy or it just wasn’t going to appeal to me in any language no matter how popular it was. I couldn’t get into Iczer One or Bubblegum Crisis or any of the many and varied forms of Gundam, but eventually two of my best friends went in on a laserdisc set of all 26 episodes of a 1978 TV series that Miyazaki directed called Future Boy Conan and I jumped. Seven tapes of that (SP, thank you, TDK E-HG) and I was set for weeks, leaving my college roommate absolutely baffled why I was watching a cartoon in a language I didn’t speak. They were such nice copies, too. Not a hint of a tracking error.

(Strangely, one of those said best friends doesn’t seem to have written an article about Conan at Let’s Anime, possibly because he seems to suffer from some major Miyazaki malaise. So read his story about Horus, Prince of the Sun instead.)

Anyway, so I’d struggled through the tracking errors and washed-out colors of my lousy copy of Laputa seven or eight times in the late eighties, and suddenly I had this beautiful old show which basically had the character dynamics between the young heroes that would be echoed in Laputa already in place eight years earlier. It was such a neat feeling, figuring out similarities in character and theme when I didn’t even know the names of most of the characters. Nowadays, Wikipedia figures it out for you.

Eventually, Streamline would release a dub of Castle in the Sky, as it would be renamed, and then Disney would redo it with James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, and Mark Hamill doing his Joker voice, and Cloris Leachman being absolutely amazing as the air pirate Captain Dola. I’ve always felt that Leachman is channeling Billie Hayes! Tell me that her Dola doesn’t sound like Witchiepoo. You’d be lying.

Fathom Events wrapped up this year’s run of Studio Ghibli films with Castle in the Sky this weekend. On my right, I had my son, who was probably more wired and more amazed in a theater than he’s ever been before, literally hopping in his seat during the train chase. On my left, a teen girl who started the movie insisting to her father that no, he had not seen this one, because she doesn’t own a copy, and who spent most of the two hours plus a hair quietly saying “Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God.”

And they weren’t the distractions. It was just me, wondering why the heck I can’t get a nice English dub of Future Boy Conan on Blu-ray in this day and age.

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Return of the Jedi (1983)

There used to be a magazine that I enjoyed called Sci-Fi Universe. In 1997, they published a story called “Fifty Reasons Why We Hate Return of the Jedi.” Most of it was the sort of nitpicking that gives Star Wars such a splendid reputation, but it was all really funny, especially one key problem that I had with it when I was twelve: “It’s just a bunch of Muppets.”

And so, when I was twelve, I didn’t watch this movie. I’ve mentioned how insufferable I was as a twelve year-old before; basically, take my present levels of obnoxiousness and ramp them up to eleven. And twelve year-old me saw publicity photos of Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks and the green pig guards and that piano-playing elephant and said “Nope, not for me.” I didn’t see this film until the early nineties. I didn’t buy a single trading card, and not one action figure. And it wasn’t like I had suddenly turned against kid-friendly sci-fi. I was addicted to DC Comics’ Legion of Superheroes in 1983, and was about eight months from discovering Doctor Who. I just had absolutely zero interest in Star Wars.

Not one frame of this boring movie has shown that I was wrong.

Regurgitating at length what I think is wrong with this movie would just be counter-productive. Overall, it just feels like a contractually-obligated hangover. I enjoy the scene where they go out to the Sarlacc, and nothing else. But this is supposed to be about evaluating or reevaluating movies with a six year-old and seeing what he sees, and he really enjoyed everything he saw.

All that physical comedy that seems like it was made for kids? It was, and it worked for him. He thought Jabba’s posse was full of frightening and menacing aliens, and the Rancor was scariness incarnate. The speeder bike chase amazed him, the space battle had him on the edge of his seat and furiously kicking his legs. I asked him to tell me more about what he thought.

“I really liked the Death Star exploding and the big fight, yeah, I loved those. And I loved that blue elephant thing, because it’s blue, and I like blue, and I like elephants, he was funny. The scariest part was when the Emperor was shooting out like, electric out of his hands. I did not like that at all, it was too creepy. The old characters were my favorites, but I also liked those furry things that were in the big fight, those little ones? I really liked those because I like furry things! The furry things caught everybody in a net, and R2-D2 cut the net and they went falling out of it!”

I would absolutely rather watch Message From Space or Starcrash than this movie. I’d rather watch any of the other Star Wars installments, even the prequels, which also suffer from Ian McDiarmid stinking up the place with his awful line delivery. But that’s great that the kid loved it. I’m glad he got to see it before he got jaded.

Actually, I will tell you what might annoy me most of all. The end of this film was likely to be the last time that the major characters ever appeared. For six years, they were just about as popular and identifiable as any characters in the popular culture of the time, parodied and imitated in equal measure. Star Wars wasn’t just some thing for children or nerds, it was mass culture and deserved its success. You might could argue that the toxic elements of fandom, along with Jar Jar Binks, eventually turned that around. Most people don’t care who or what General Grievous is, but every adult in the western world could identify Darth Vader in 1983.

The characters deserved a sendoff. We should have been able to say goodbye to them and share their final conversation together, their last words.

But we can’t hear a thing they’re saying because George Lucas figured we needed to hear the Ewoks singing their jub-jub song instead. Damn, I hate this movie.

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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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Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars celebrated its 40th anniversary this week, so we sat down to watch it this afternoon. Our son just hopped and squeaked with excitement. “My first Star Wars movie!!!” he yelled. We told him at the playground that we’d decided to watch the movie this afternoon instead of Sunday morning. He and some seven year-old immediately started swordfighting with imaginary light sabers.

It’s fascinating to watch this through the eyes of a kid and see what they know already, since its impact on culture has been so great that elements of it are simply as ubiquitous as football and pop music. My opinion on marketing might not be worth a whole lot, but I’ll say on my death bed that the absolute stupidest thing that Lucas or Disney or whoever did to this property was make Darth Vader not scary anymore. How is anybody meant to be frightened of Darth Vader when they turned him into a Mr. Potato Head? Boy, that wasn’t the case when we were kids.

But if you remember – and we’ll come back to this next week – none of us really went into Star Wars blind. The movie was released, they say, on May 25 1977, but I certainly didn’t see it until January or February the following year, and I think that’s the case for many people my age. But we had trading cards and toys. I’ve kept few of my treasures from childhood, but I’ve still got a mostly complete set of Topps cards – missing one green border and six yellows – and my classmates, friends, and I breathlessly assembled our knowledge from little pieces of ancillary information. Heaven knows the movie itself keeps its secrets. You wouldn’t know from watching these 120 minutes that Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles have lives outside the cockpits of their X-Wings.

My wife and I learned today that this continues. After R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawas, he’s carried off to a vehicle that our son recognized. “A Sandcrawler!” he shouted. He knew exactly what that was. He watches videos on YouTube that teenage Lego fans make about their constructions and Sandcrawlers, of all things, are remarkably popular.

Of course, some of it he didn’t actually understand. In some places that might be because Baby Harrison Ford and Baby Mark Hamill had not quite learned how to act yet, and their line delivery is occasionally kind of rushed and unclear. Thanks to them, our son thought that the “Jumbo Lightspeed” was a remarkably cool special effect. But my favorite of his announcements came when the flight squadrons started getting together on Yavin’s moon and he recognized an X-Wing but didn’t know what it was called. “Hey! A Star Wars ship!”

Indeed, he loved this movie to pieces. He was jumping and cheering during the final battle and would have been riveted for another hour, easy. Me, I thought it was a little odd and, especially in light of the later films and their casts of billions and hundreds of planets, small. I haven’t actually sat down to watch it in such an incredibly long time that I’d forgotten just how much stuff happens on Tattooine before they get to Mos Eisley. It’s a wonderfully busy film, and I think that in lesser circumstances, Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing would have easily dominated everybody and everything.

Imagine this movie made just five or six years before, without the set design and creatures and visual effects that keep your attention so focused on the solid reality of this incredibly unreal place. Think about how strange those mile-deep maintenance shafts are, and how for some insane reason the architects decided to stick the tractor beam controls right in the middle of a fall-to-your-death chasm. Guinness and Cushing would have stolen the movie outright if this had been a 1972 Hammer/Seven Arts film, in much the same way Cushing had walked away with At the Earth’s Core the year before. (We’ll get to that movie in a few months!) But Star Wars so masterfully presents its place that even the isolated case of overacting – really only that “ultimate power in the universe” guy that Vader Force-chokes – doesn’t take audiences out of the picture very much.

I really don’t have anything more to say than that. Star Wars, like The Wizard of Oz which we watched recently, has been written about so much already that the other things I did feel like mentioning have been done to death. Chewbacca didn’t get a medal, you know. Yeah, they’ve addressed that in at least two comic books!

So anyway, happy birthday, Star Wars. Thanks for all the memories, and we won’t make your newest fan wait three years to see what happens next.

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