When we think of animated films, one name inevitably comes up — Hayao Miyazaki. Even the folks at Pixar cite him as a master and an inspiration. In fact, if you look hard enough, you can spot a small homage to the Japanese auteur in a scene from Toy Story 3. Hint: think My Neighbor Totoro.
I have always been a big fan of Miyazaki’s work. However, recently my admiration for the filmmaker has grown. This is mainly due to my disillusionment with current American animated film. To put it bluntly, they just don’t make them like they used to.
As I see it, the animated medium in this country has irreversibly shifted. To begin with, hand-drawn animation is a thing of the past. Indeed, we have become so unaccustomed to traditional animation that Disney’s 2009 princess flick The Princess and the Frog promoted its hand-drawn elements as a novelty.
In this sense, Disney openly cast the movie as a throwback to an older generation of Disney features. The great irony, though, is that Disney’s last princess movie Mulan actually came out in 1998 — a mere eleven years earlier than The Princess and the Frog. That current audiences identified The Princess and the Frog as a “retro” movie shows us just how antiquated traditional animation is perceived to be.
This shift from hand-drawn to digital is a large change between contemporary animation and animation from a decade ago. However, it is not the only change. Unlike movies from my childhood, current animated movies usually include a cast of A-list celebrities, and a soundtrack with the latest pop hits. We are also on the brink of the next great evolution in animated film: 3-D.
A trip to the movies with a younger sibling has thus been transformed into a high-budget spectacle. It is a technological whirlwind filled with superstar voices and a soundtrack that could easily double as the latest “Now! That’s What I Call Music” compilation. If you opt for 3-D, you may even need equipment.
I think famed critic Rogert Ebert nicely sums up my frustration with the current trends in animation. In his review of the Princess and the Frog he began by exclaiming: “This is what classic animation once was like! No 3-D! No glasses! No extra ticket charge! No frantic frenzies of meaningless action! […] And it uses (calm me down here) lovingly hand-drawn animation that proceeds at a human pace, instead of racing with odd smoothness.”
Much like Ebert, I too am nostalgic for the charm and effortlessness of older animated movies. And my longing for a more traditional kind of animation has led me back to Miyazaki. A far cry from the overwhelming features of, say, Dreamworks, Miyazaki’s films manage to hold on to a simplistic beauty that is often neglected by Hollywood. Even his most recent film, Ponyo (2008), bravely stuck to hand-drawn animation.
For me, watching a Miyazaki film is rather like breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Any still from one of his movies could double as a painting. His images are done with painstaking attention and care, full of small details that require multiple viewings to catch.
Equally admirable, mindless plots do not detract from this beautiful imagery. Though his stories often take you into fantastical worlds — under the sea, a flying castle, a spirit world etc. — at their heart, his tales are incredibly human stories about childhood, imagination and love.
A perfect example of this, and one which is less well known than some of his others, is Kiki’s Delivery Service. This Studio Ghibli release from 1989 tells the story of Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch. As we learn, it is a rite of passage for young witches to spend a year on their own perfecting their magic. And so, Kiki flies off on her broomstick to the coastal city of Koriko, accompanied by her faithful pet black cat Jiji.
But Kiki soon faces trouble from the city authorities. They are less than thrilled that a witch-in-training is honing her magic skills on their streets. Luckily, a baker takes pity on her, and offers her room and board. To pay the baker’s small fee, Kiki starts to use her broomstick to ferry packages throughout the city — hence the film’s title. Kiki struggles, but she ultimately succeeds in making it on her own. She even overcomes the trauma of momentarily losing her magic powers, which she regains later through self-confidence, hard work and maturity. From the outset, we root for the spunky Kiki, who Miyazaki develops into a complex and believable character.
In the end Kiki’s Delivery Service is a quintessential coming-of-age story done to perfection. It successfully achieves what all good children’s movies should. It depicts a fantastical situation, but makes it feel real. And it doesn’t need the help of digital images, or “realistic” 3-D to do so.