Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Rank' Em: The Ghibli Films Part I

This is a special two-parter post running down the entire output of the studio, now that I've finally seen "When Marnie Was There," reportedly their last feature film for the foreseeable future. I'm bending the rules a bit to include a movie that's technically not a Ghibli picture, but it's difficult to discuss the rest of the films without.  Shaking things up a bit, I'll be doing this list in reverse, counting down to the best film on tomorrow's post.

22. Ocean Waves (1993) - A pleasant feature about teenage romance that was conceived of as a cheap, low-budget exercise to feature the talents of the studio's junior staff members.  It remains Ghibli's only television movie, and the only feature to be directed by Tomomi Mochizuki.  I remember it mainly for its gentle humor and slightly older protagonists than the Ghibli norm.  I have few criticisms of the film, and regard it as simply an unexceptional feature, which should indicate my regard for the twenty-one other Ghibli films on this list.

21. The Cat Returns (2002) - A feature starring the cat characters who appeared in "Whisper of the Heart" sounds like a great idea, but the resulting film is not what it could be.  It's a very slight, very silly cartoon romp aimed at young children, and done in a simpler animation style that doesn't even attempt to match the visual splendor of the original fantasy sequences in the prior film.  It's a perfectly good watch on its own terms, and certainly has its memorable moments, but and I can't quite get over the sense of so much wasted potential.

20. Tales From Earthsea (2006) - Goro Miyazaki's first time in the director's chair turned two of Usula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books into a very messy and uneven, but also very lovely fantasy feature.  Clearly far too much pressure was placed on the younger Miyazaki to carry on in his father's footsteps, and the studio's ambitions for the film were far too great.  Goro Miyazaki is clearly talented, though.  The film hits some impressive highs, and I love this version of the mage, Sparrowhawk, even though he's definitely not LeGuin's Sparrowhawk.

19. From Up On Poppy Hill (2011) - I maintain that this is the film that Goro Miyazaki should have directed first, a low-key, nostalgic romance that was scripted by Hayao Miyazaki.  The story is a little too outlandish for my tastes, and its young heroes too generic in construction, but I enjoyed the warm, easygoing look at the main characters' daily lives and the inviting little community that they inhabit.  The only reason it's this far down on the list is because I've seen a good chunk of the film's content  done before, and better, by others.

18. When Marnie Was There (2014) - I have such high hopes for Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the most prominent of the younger directors who have come up through Ghibli, and might possibly succeed Miyazaki and Takahata one day.  However, judging by his work so far, he's fonder of sweet, sentimental melodramas than the more boisterous adventures of his predecessors.  "Marnie" is a beautiful, pastoral fantasy with few thrills, one that strikes me as very old-fashioned and very Japanese.  It certainly has its flaws, but I wish Ghibli made more films like it.  

17. The Wind Rises (2013) - I really wish I liked this better, since it is Hayao Miyazaki's swan song.  However, I found the story of real-life aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi's quest to build a better airplane something of a disappointment.  It's well told and gorgeously illustrated, but I didn't find Jiro to be a compelling character, and the stakes never felt very high.  Then there's the decision not to address the fallout of Jiro's successes, which removes so much of the film's potential impact.  Certain sequences are great, but the film is not.

16. Arrietty (2010) - I've always loved the various adaptations of the "Borrowers" and its imitators.  The concept is so much fun.  This adaptation adds themes of environmental awareness and mortality, focusing on the relationship of our tiny heroine, Arietty, and the ailing boy whose home she inhabits.  It's a beautiful film to look at, full of well-observed details and clever conceits.  And spunky Arietty makes for a perfect Ghibli heroine.  I can't help wishing that there were more to the film, though, which seems to be over before it really gets started.

15. Pom Poko (1994) - Isao Takahata's ecological fable about Japan's tanuki, or raccoon dogs, who unite to battle the human encroachment on their forest.  It's one of Ghibli's funniest movies, full of wacky visual gags and caricatures, though some of the cultural oddities may not translate well for everyone.  Takahata was always the most eclectic Ghibli director, with the longest directing resume.  So it's fitting that "Pom Poko, which resembles nothing else in the studio's library in terms of its visuals, tone, design, or attitude, should come from him.

14. My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) - The studio's first entirely digital production was used to help recreate the simple pen-and-ink style of the "Yamadas" comic-strip, which the film is adapted from.  We follow the five members of the Yamada family through the little adventures and crises of their daily lives, occasionally taking detours through dreams and fantasies too.  Again, it's a Takahata film that doesn't look like anything else that Ghibli has put out, but it's a real charmer.  Though the movie looks small at first, it's heart and soul are anything but.

13. Ponyo (2008) - A cheerfully free-form, silly take on the Little Mermaid story, where a fish girl named Ponyo takes on human form and becomes friends with a human boy named Sosuke.  This one's aimed at grade school kids, with its bright colors, wild character designs, and winning flights of fancy.  I especially love the sequence where Ponyo and Sosuke explore their flooded town in a tiny boat, spotting sea creatures in the waters below them.  I've found that some adults can't handle the abstract weirdness of some of the content, but kids tend to like it just fine.

12. Castle in the Sky (1986) - A rip-roaring old-fashioned adventure story full of pirates and robots and all kinds of excitement.  This tends to be a big favorite among boys with like action movies and tales of derring do.  I always liked the quieter moments, with the kids exploring different corners of this universe or meeting new friends.  However, I've got to admit that the finale with its massive-scale destruction, is one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in an animated film.  Fans should also check out Miyazaki's old "Future Boy Conan" series, which almost plays like a test run for this movie.

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