Studio Ghibli is the Japanese animation company that has produced some of the most breathtaking animated films in the past 30 years. Their list of award winning anime movies includes Princesses Mononoke, Spirited Away (2002 winner of the Best Animated Film Academy Award) and Howl’s Moving Castle. The films are often magical and shown through the innocence of younger characters. The latest film from Studio Ghibli was The Secret World of Arrietty, which opened in the U.S. this past January. In conjunction with the Blu-ray release of The Secret World of Arrietty, Disney — who distributes these unique films stateside — have also put out two of Studio Ghibli’s best known films, Castle in the Sky and Whisper of the Heart.
Castle in the Sky was made in the mid-80’s and this hand drawn masterpiece is a thrill ride. It’s beautiful to watch (all of Studio Ghibli’s films are traditional/hand drawn) and the story is full of excitement and wonder. It opens with an open air pirate attack that sees a young girl, Sheeta, drop from the aircraft she’s riding in and plummet to her certain death. However, the amulet she’s wearing covers her body with a magic glow and she floats down to the earth. There, she is rescued by an engineer’s apprentice, Pazu. When those pirates, as well as nefarious government agents, come looking for Sheeta, the mystery of the amulet and its origins send Pazu and Sheeta in search for a legendary floating castle in the sky, Laputa.
Directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, Castle in the Sky is a must see for anyone who enjoys fantasy and/or animation. This timeless story of courage and friendship looks stunning in its Blu-ray debut and it features the original Japanese score, which adds to the wonder of the film. The English speaking cast includes Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek (whose voice appears to have been sped up), Cloris Leachman and Mark Hamill. Purists should not fret, though, the option to watch the film in Japanese with English subtitles is available. Special Features include nice featurettes on the making of the film, original storyboards and a look at the record sessions with the English cast.
The most disappointing of the three new releases is Whisper of the Heart. Perhaps I had different expectations because the Blu-ray summary described a mystical cat that takes a young girl on an adventure. That cat doesn’t show up until half way through the film. Before it arrives I was fighting to retain my own interest. While it is just as wonderful to look at as the other two movies, the story drags. Whisper of the Heart is a coming of age tale that plays more like a YA novel rather than a mystical anime film. I love a good YA story, but the English dub of this movie doesn’t do the story justice. Switching to the Japanese voices with English subtitles made the film a little more interesting, but after watching Castle in the Sky, which was both emotional and exciting, I found Whisper of the Heart to be a major letdown. Perhaps someone out there has a deeper love of the film and wants to contribute a few lines in the comments section. The Blu-ray of Whisper of the Heart includes the film on DVD (as do all of these releases) and many of the same featurettes found on Castle in the Sky.
The Secret World of Arrietty is based on the book series, The Borrowers, written by Mary Norton. In the film, Arrietty is a daughter in a family of three Borrowers- little people who live in the walls and tiny places of our homes. Hidden from our view, these little people ”borrow” common items from houses, such as sugar cubes or pins, things we big people don’t miss or even notice gone. Arrietty and her family live beneath the ground and in the walls of a country summer home. Their lives change when a sickly teenage boy, Sho, comes to the country to rest before he has a major operation. Arrietty is discovered by Sho and an unusual friendship forms. Of course, life can’t be simple. When Sho’s caretaker discovers the Borrowers she doesn’t harbor the good will that Sho does; she tries to have them exterminated.
This film combines the coming-of-age storytelling of Whisper of the Heart with the visual excitement of Castle in the Sky. Although not quite the out of the world adventure as Castle in the Sky, The Secret World of Arrietty is a fun, beautiful film. The animators really captured what it must be like to only be a couple inches tall and have to function in our world. In addition, the sound design takes you out of our world and really places you in the Borrowers environment. The English cast is good. Disney cast two young actors from their TV stable as the leads, with Bridget Mendler (Good Luck, Charlie) as Arrietty and David Henrie (Wizards of Waverly Place) as Sho. Mendler really pulls of the role with the right mix of wide eyes innocence, spunk and determination. Henrie, on the other hand, is a complete bore, speaking mostly with a monotone delivery that gets frustrating halfway through the movie. Will Arnett, Amy Poehler and Carol Burnett are also featured and provide the right mix of professional comedic acting to the film.
The Blu-ray of The Secret World of Arrietty contains the DVD of the film, original Japanese trailers and storyboards, a music video by Bridget Mendler, ”Summertime,” and a music video for ”Arrietty’s Song,” by innovative singer and harpist, Cecile Corbel. Those of you unfamiliar with the work of Studio Ghibli should check out The Secret World of Arrietty and especially Castle in the Sky. Both are exemplary works and a great introduction to Japanese anime films.