We didn’t want Downsizing to be our official final film of 2017, so we rewatched Inside Out on new year’s eve, then after a couple of attempts, managed to make this early Ghibli feature our first movie of 2018. The early ones are cool, but we’re more taken by their later works (Mononoke and everything after).


A couple of orphan kids from different backgrounds meet and end up saving the world by teaming with pirates to stop a power-mad government agent from harnessing the destructive power of an ancient and abandoned floating city called Laputa. The boy Pazu (pronounced POT-sue in the Disney dub) is from a factory town, and the girl Sheetah is descended from Laputa royalty, and that’s about all we learn about them before the movie erupts into battles, pirate humor, and tons of flying machines.

Every Miyazaki movie has a standout piece of character or vehicle design – in this one it’s long-armed bird-loving robots.

Second movie I watched this week where the lead girl is told at the end to not look back. Some obvious parallels with other Ghibli movies – the romantic lead boy who transforms into a flying creature to work for/against wickedness (Howl’s Moving Castle), living dust sprites (My Neighbor Totoro), the lead girl nervous because she’s moving to a new house in the country, kooky/friendly old folks, villains who are maybe not so evil really, and fantastical beasts galore – like a Ghibli’s Greatest Hits thrown into a giant bathhouse. The greatest.

I thought I heard that this was the kid-friendliest of the post-Mononoke Ghibli movies, and maybe so, but it’s also one of the most unexpectedly bizarre. A magic fish-princess flees her underwater bubble-hatted environmentalist mad-scientist Liam Neeson-sounding dad and befriends a five-year-old boy, turning herself human to stay with him on land during a major flood.

After the flood, octopi and trilobites and eels and jellyfish waste no time moving in:

Most of Neeson’s activities are never explained:

Ponyo running on watery waves of blue fishes is some magical animation:

Human boy Sosuke and his mom meet Ponyo’s ocean-goddess mom:

The adventures of:
Heen, a coughing laryngytic dog
Markl, child with a fake beard
Turnip, a scarecrow

And also:
Sophie, a cursed girl
Howl, a bird-demon

And also:
Witch of the Waste, melty-faced after losing her powers
Calcifer, a fire-demon

Katy says large parts of the source novel were omitted in the movie version, which would explain why the war and dealings with evil queen Suliman seem underdeveloped. But as far as visuals and unique characters go, this movie is unsurpassed.

We watched this the same week as Princess Mononoke, and not long after Princess Kaguya, and it suffered by comparison. Also suffered by expectation, since it’s possibly the most beloved Studio Ghibli movie, providing the company their mascot. Surely it’s a good, enjoyable movie, but it’s simpler, more oriented towards kids. Gives a Coraline vibe, as kids move into a new house and find magic within. Coraline wanted everything to be more wonderful and centered around her, but these girls have real problems – mom in hospital with tuberculosis (see also: The Wind Rises).

The girls are excited about their new house, especially when the younger one crawls into a tree grove and discovers a Totoro (like a giant raccoon-bear that can fly on a spinning top and create massive temporary trees).

Then Totoro eats them.

No he doesn’t. An elderly neighbor tells them about the soot sprites (black dust balls with eyeballs) in the attic and the girls eventually meet the neighbor’s grandson, a silent, socially awkward boy. Gradually things get more real as we learn that their transplant to the country was prompted by a sick mom, and the youngest girl wanders off to visit her, but gets lost, prompting a search party and leading the older girl to seek out Totoro’s help.

Totoro summons the greatest thing in the history of movies: the catbus.

Then it eats them.

No it doesn’t.

Final movie we watched in 2014, if we don’t count the disc of Brakhage shorts I put on for New Year’s Eve. Katy was impressed at how weird and non-Disney it seems. There’s a magical nature god with healing powers whom the title character tries and fails to protect, then a fight over its severed head, after which the movie’s main character decides to join the mining town whose leaders have been trying to destroy the forest and its spirits all along. With a more straightforward Avatar approach, the forest-destroying, spirit-killing factions of humanity would be the villains, but here everything is more morally complex.

Most distractingly recognizable voice in the English version: Billy Bob Thornton as a mercenary monk. Minnie Driver led the mining town, Gillian Anderson played the giant wolf that Mononoke hangs with, and Keith David (the guy who fights Roddy Piper for an hour before putting on the glasses in They Live) was the giant blind pig.

Memorable: the cursed boar Ashitaka fights at the beginning, setting him off on a journey to find where it came from and un-curse his arm. And especially the bobble-headed tree spirits.

Emotionally similar to Grand Budapest Hotel, romance and work-obsession interrupted by WWII, with a sense of loss that doesn’t really hit until the movie’s final scenes, or a couple hours afterward.

Good movie, except when I am 100% distracted by the voice of Werner Herzog!

I didn’t catch the toy Totoro but made some other Ghibli connections. Arrietty stands on the boy’s shoulder like the fox-thing in Nausicaa. She’s a 13-yr-old girl making her first adventure into grown-up life (and making a mess of it) like Kiki’s. Also: too many songs with vocals. Adapted by Miyazaki from a novel that’s been filmed a bunch of times before. The title has been changed, but the miniature people, at least in the English version, are still called Borrowers.

The main rule, strictly obeyed for generations, is never to be seen by humans, but on her first night out to snatch a sugarcube with dad, Arrietty is spotted by a drowsy, sickly boy spending the summer with his aunts or whoever they are: a decent one and a horrible troll woman whose goal in life is to find and destroy the borrowers. So Arrietty’s family packs all their belongings to move away (aided by an awesome feral borrower named Spiller, while the boy tries to find Arrietty and be friends. Probably would’ve been cooler in theaters, but at home I kept finding myself wondering why I’d rented a kids’ movie and wasn’t watching Pola X instead.

Surprisingly lightweight after the spectacle of Nausicaa, part two of my afternoon at the Belcourt. Again, the dubbed version, with a recognizable Phil Hartman as the cat (his final voice role), Kirsten Dunst as Kiki, Tress MacNeille (returning from Nausicaa) as the baker, Janeane Garofalo as the painter and Debbie Reynolds as the old woman with a broken oven.

Kiki is an apprentice witch, off to spend a year in an unfamiliar city to finish her studies. She doesn’t seem to refine her witch-skills much upon arrival, instead using the fact that she’s the only person in town who can fly to start a delivery service. She has maybe three delivery jobs in the whole movie (there isn’t even a delivery montage implying others), also helps out at the bakery where she stays and poses for a painter who lives in a cabin in the woods. My favorite part was actually the saddest scene: a customer hired her to deliver a baked dish but upon Kiki’s arrival the dish wasn’t ready because the oven had broken. So Kiki helps with the woman’s old brick oven, then makes the delivery, getting sick in the rain and missing her first date with a nerdy boy, only to find the recipient a spoiled rich girl who doesn’t appreciate the gift.

Anyway the nerdy boy forgives Kiki, but she begins to doubt herself and loses her powers (exit Phil Hartman). She hangs out with the painter for a while, but finally gets herself flying again when the nerdy boy has a life-threatening blimp emergency and only Kiki can save him.