Sunday, September 4, 2016

Animated Princesses

My family is not what you'd call up-to-date. We don't watch television. We do watch movies together, but it tends to be older stuff. We're not entirely out of pop culture, but at best we're usually a couple of years behind.

A big giant movie like Frozen comes and goes, and it's not even a blip on our radar. I see news stories about "viral videos" of people dressed like these two big-eyed girls singing some song called "Let it Go," and kind of scratch my head, and move on to another Mental Floss video, or maybe watch Mothra vs. Godzilla with my daughter.

But well-meaning adults tend to assume that Disney movies are some kind of universal touchstone that you can use to gain instant rapport with any child. Alas, that doesn't work with mine. They'll change the subject to the giant black leeches on The African Queen.

A friend recently gave my daughter, who's six, a shirt with the two princesses from Frozen. She wore it somewhat tentatively, but stated every time she did so that she felt awkward wearing a shirt for a movie she hadn't seen. Eventually she requested to watch it, telling us that she wanted to decide whether she liked it. So my wife rented it for the kids on a rainy day when I was away at something.

For several days afterward my daughter refused to say what she thought of it. She evaded the question when asked. It was plain that she was deep in assessment. At last, however, she dispassionately declared that she didn't like it, that she wouldn't be wearing the shirt in the future, and that in fact she wanted to place the shirt in our next yard sale. But she still wouldn't explain why she disliked it. After several weeks, however, I asked her again while we were alone, and she told me, somewhat exasperatedly: "Of course I didn't like it because it has too much love."

Now, I can't say whether my daughter's assessment is fair or accurate, because I haven't seen the movie. But my kids tend not to like any Disney/Pixar fare, and I can't say I blame them. They're all so bland, so repetitive, so perfectly smooth and rounded. My attention just slips right off them.

In the past several weeks, however, two animated movies have come to the rescue to prove to my kids that not all cartoons are meh: The Last Unicorn and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. They're both so well known in certain circles that anyone reading this has probably seen them, but I'm going to talk about them anyway.

Visually, both are products of Japanese animation. The Last Unicorn (1982) was produced by Rankin/Bass, of whose stop-motion Rudolph fantasies I'm rather fond. The screenplay is by Peter S. Beagle, the author of the novel, and it has excellent voice acting. I would describe it enchanting, sad, and whimsical in equal parts. My children were struck with its beauty from the first few frames. They told my wife afterward that it was "a cartoon but not really a cartoon because most of it is painted." I'm not sure exactly what they meant by this, but I think they were just struck by the freshness of its hand-drawn, hand-painted animation as opposed to the slick computer-generated stuff they've seen in more recent movies.

Flaming demon bulls and vicious harpy attacks don't faze my kids, incidentally, but there's one scene I don't quite understand, and wish hadn't been handled as it was in the film: the one involving the, er, tree. If you've seen the movie, you know what I mean. What were they thinking?

On the other hand, Nausicaä (1984), directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki and based on the manga by the same, is just about the most terrific animated film I've ever seen. I've watched it twice now in a single week, and I think I'm in love with it. How could I not have seen it sooner? High-speed battles between giant airships. Ruined cities. Monstrous biomechanical warriors. Ancient disasters. Jungles of poisonous fungi. Ceramic blades. Gigantic, intelligent insects. Swords and tanks together.

Most of all, a brave, kind, intelligent, resourceful, independent female protagonist. I mean, she's a princess who actually acts like one, as opposed to, say, an entitled tween with indulgent parents. She single-handedly brightened my daughter's dim view of the breed. The main themes – peace, harmony with nature, self-sacrifice – are straightforward enough for a child to grasp, but movingly and profoundly presented.

And it's all done in the loveliest animation I may have ever seen, accompanied by a delightful score that's sometimes enchanting, sometimes almost religious, and sometimes pop, Plus, the English-dubbed version features the voice talents of actors like Patrick Stewart, Edward James Olmos, and Uma Thurman.

Oh, yeah, and my kids liked it, too. Tonight, after watching it for the first time, my eight-year-old son said, "That's the best cartoon movie I've ever seen."

 I'm definitely going to be reading the manga sometime soon.


  1. Yes,read the nausicca manga! It takes a different direction then the anime. I love the anime, but the comic is better. The manga first came to the states in the late 80's and was called Warriors of the Wind. Google the cover for it when you get. Chance, it's bonkers.

  2. Correction: the ANIME came to the states in the 80's.