June 15, 2012

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most respected animators to bring painted pictures to the big screen, and there’s a reason.  His films present a warm human-ness with flights of fancy that delight and have the childlike wonder that comes with the best of Walt Disney’s brand of animation.  He truly is a master, and two of his earlier works, one he directed, the other produced through his Studio Ghibli have hit Blu-ray.  They are Castle in the Sky and Whisper of the Heart.  Our reviews of both follow after the jump.

In Castle in the Sky, it starts with adventure. There’s a kidnapped girl named Sheeta (voiced in English by Anna Paquin) who’s being held by government agents. When the airship they’re on is attacked by pirates, she escapes with a mysterious blue stone, but falls off the vessel. The stone allows her to levitate and land safely. She’s found by Pazu (voiced in English by James Van Der Beek). His late father once saw a Castle in the Sky (also known as Laputa), that the father photographed. It turns out that Sheeta and the rock are connected to it.

Both are pursued by the pirates – headed up by Dola (Cloris Leachman) – and the government – headed up by Muska (Mark Hamill) – until they reach a mine where they find out the truth about her rock, and its ability to levitate objects. The two are captured by the government, and Muska makes a deal with Sheeta: if she helps, he’ll leave Pazu alone. So Pazu is sent home where the pirates have taken over his town. But it turns out they’re not so bad. Meanwhile Sheeta is shown a robot, which she has the power to activate.

The robots seam drawn from (sorry) the old Max Fleischer animated Superman cartoons, but it’s a great look, and there’s adventure and excitement here. This is one of Miyazaki’s best. He started by doing films like The Castle of Cagliostro, and he brings a lot of that Lupin the Third energy to this story. And Miyazaki is great at creating characters and then upping the stakes. He’s also great at beautiful designs, and this is one of his masterworks.

The Blu-ray comes with a DVD copy, and the film is presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and in English 5.1 DTS-HD master audio, and Japanese 2.0 DTS-HD master audio. I tend to prefer original language, though I’m less bothered with dubbing when it comes to animated films. The transfer is spectacular, the film looks flawless in this presentation. The film comes with an introduction (1 min.) by John Lasseter, and the entire film in storyboard form. “Behind the Studio” includes six featurettes on the making of and the three Japanese teasers and trailers. They are “The World of Laputa” (2 min.) “Creating Castle in the Sky” (4 min.), and “Character Sketches” with comments from Miyazaki, “The Producer’s Perspective: “Meeting Miyazaki” (3 min.) with comments from Toshio Suzuki, and “Scoring Miyazaki” (7 min.) with comments from Miyazaki, Suzuki, and composer Joe Hisaishi – though the latter offers more of an overview of the director’s work. “Behind the Microphone” (4 min.) gives the American dubbers their due.

Whisper of the Heart is a studio Ghibli film, but it comes from director Yoshifumi Kondō. This is much more geared towards little girls, and doesn’t feature the sorts of imaginative fantasy that often makes a Miyazaki film a classic. It was based on a Magna – no surprise – but the adaptation will have less appeal to animation fans who aren’t the target audience.

Shizuku (voiced in English by Brittany Snow) is a studious girl who’s always got her head in a book, and when she finds out that most of the books she reads have been checked out by a guy named Seiji, she’s curious about him. She also follows a cat off a train and sees a trinket shop, where she becomes interested in a cat statue.

There’s also a boy she finds annoying, who it turns out is Seiji (David Gallagher). There’s also drama because there’s other boys in her school and her best friend Yuko (Ashley Tisdale) has a crush on a boy who may have a crush on Shizuku. Shizuku gets to know Seiji, who it turns out wants to make violins, and that sends him to Italy to train. While he’s gone she begins writing stories about the cat statue, which she names The Baron (Cary Elwes). But that distracts from her schoolwork.

The kitchen sink drama applied to the animated story is clever enough of a premise to make this slightly better than boring, but it’s a very small film, and grown men (such as myself) are not the target audience. It’s a sweet film, though, but very mild.

The Blu-ray comes with a DVD copy, and the film is presented in English 5.1 DTS-HD master audio, and in Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD master audio, with the film presented widescreen (1.78:1). This is a stunning presentation, no doubt about it. Extras include the film presented in storyboard form, and a “Behind the Microphone” (8 min.) piece that gives the American dubbers a chance to talk about the film. “Four Masterpieces of Naohisa Inoue” (35 min.) shows how Inoue’s work became the backgrounds in the movie through dissolves. He starts with a more dot-and-splatter-like approach until he finds his background, and it’s impressive as all get out. Rounding out the set are Trailers and TV Spots (11 min.)

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