As a father of kids 10 and under, I’ve seen more than my fair share these past few years of movies aimed at youngsters, most of them not live-action but CG-animation and most, sad to say, forgettable.
Some, however, have been quite good, with the offerings from Pixar, until recently, at the top of that list. Then Pixar was purchased by Disney, whose own feature animated offerings had faltered in recent years by comparison.
With Disney’s acquisition, Pixar principal John Lasseter became the head of both studios and now it looks as though the balance has shifted toward the Disney side, if the phenomenon known as “Frozen” is any indication.
While recent Pixar releases “Brave” and “Monsters University” were met with a cool reception, “Frozen” has been hotter than a supernova. When Disney reported its quarterly earnings recently, “Frozen” was cited as one of the company’s bright spots.
I saw “Frozen” in November as a member of the Writers Guild of America — or, as I like to say, as a barely member of the WGA. But I’ve got a membership card and it gets me into the guild screenings (its Film Society, in which one had to pay to see screenings, is now defunct) at its theater in Beverly Hills.
It was there where we saw “Frozen,” which both of my children enjoyed thoroughly, and in a first for my daughter, Akari, she bought a copy of the soundtrack on CD with a Target gift card she got for her birthday. She loves to sing and dance to it. Even Jameson sings along.
On the macro level, I’m pretty sure there are thousands of other youngsters who connected with the movie, and on the micro level, I’m happy my kids were able to also connect with it so well, considering all the CG movies they’ve seen.
More recently, at last Saturday’s guild screening, we saw “The Wind Rises” (Kaze Tachinu) from esteemed animation director Hayao Miyazaki. (It’s slated, according to BoxofficeMojo.com, for a Feb. 21 theatrical release.) I actually interviewed him for this column (Sept. 30, 1999) when “Princess Mononoke” arrived on these shores. Unlike “Frozen” — actually, unlike most cartoons these days — “The Wind Rises” is a traditional, hand-drawn work, not CG. While it is out with English-language overdubs, I’m happy I saw the subtitled version.
Just as this style of animation seems on the way out, so too it seems that Miyazaki is done. He has reportedly said “The Wind Rises” will be his last directorial effort. (I remember him saying he was ready to retire when I interviewed him 15 years ago. I wrote: “The physical toll of animation at his age is tough. Miyazaki said that he will make at least one more film, but beyond that, younger people will have to take over.”)
However, since 1999, he went on to direct three animated features that were released here that I know of: “Spirited Away” (2001), “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) and “Ponyo” (2008). “Spirited Away” won the Motion Picture Academy’s first feature animation award, but he famously refused to come to the U.S. to accept his accolade in the post-9/11 environment.
Among all of Miyazaki’s works, “The Wind Rises” is probably the one most grounded in reality. That’s not to say it doesn’t include some fantastic elements, especially in the dream sequences. But there are no teenage witches, no fanciful creatures of the forest, no talking animals — it’s just people.
In that regard, “The Wind Rises” is probably the most personal of Miyazaki’s works. Protagonist Jiro Horikoshi — based on the actual aircraft designer behind Mitsubishi’s so-called “Japanese Zero” — is a morally upright boy who dreams of flight. But he’ll never fly planes because he is too near-sighted. Instead, guided in his vivid dreams by an Italian airplane designer named Caproni, Jiro instead becomes an aeronautical engineer.
But the dream of flight via airplanes, Caproni tells Jiro, is cursed because as wondrous as flight may be and as beautifully as the planes may be designed, humans will inevitably choose to use the invention as a weapon of war.
Despite this, Jiro is obliviously apolitical in his quest as he goes about obsessively designing his warplanes. Though a connection between his creation of the deadly aircraft and the eventual death of his wife — the only other love in his life besides aircraft design — is never explicitly made, one can connect the dots and see a message conveyed by Miyazaki of how our actions may be the source of our own sadness.
Miyazaki and fellow Japanese anime director Katsuhiro Otomo (“Akira”) were just honored Feb. 1 at the 41st Annie Awards (see http://rafu.com/2014/02/otomo-miyazaki-among-annie-award-winners/). Both “Frozen” and “The Wind Rises” are Oscar-nominated this year for best animated feature; “Frozen” is also up for best song (“Let It Go”). The other Oscar-nominated animated features are “The Croods,” “Despicable Me 2” and “Ernest & Celestine.”
I predict “The Wind Rises” will get the best animated feature nod, in deference to Miyazaki and this being his last feature, with “Frozen” winning the best song Oscar. (Both movies are distributed by Disney’s Buena Vista releasing arm.)
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.