Monday, July 27, 2009

Why I Love Animation: Kiki's Delivery Service - Part Two

Kiki has found a place to live in her new town and figured out how she will use her witch's powers to support herself. Now she has accepted her first job: delivering a toy cat to a young boy for his birthday. It's her first chance to prove herself as a reliable resident witch, so she is eager to do a good job.

It doesn’t take long for Kiki to run into trouble. She once again finds herself at nature’s mercy when a strong wind blows her off course and into a tree where some very territorial crows have made their nests. Kiki and Jiji escape unscathed, but soon discover that they toy cat fell out of the birdcage during the scuffle. The crows are still far too upset for Kiki to fly down and search for the missing toy. But Kiki promised that the toy would be delivered by tonight. It is her first job and doesn’t want to disappoint her customer. So Kiki comes up with a plan that will by her some time to search the forest on foot without being late with her delivery.

Jiji will pose as the toy cat until Kiki can find the toy and come back to rescue Jiji. It’s no surprise that Jiji does not like this plan. But his loyalty to Kiki wins out and he remains statue still as Kiki makes her delivery, even when the birthday boy starts carrying him around by his tail.

Kiki searches the forest for the toy and finally discovers it in the window of a small cabin. Though no one seems to be home at first, the easel, brushes, and tubes of paint Kiki discovers inside make it clear that this is the home of an artist. The artist in question is up on the roof sketching some of the crows that attacked Kiki before. Her name isn’t mentioned in the subtitles, but she’s called Ursula in the dub. Ursula ignores Kiki’s urgency at first, lost in her work. But once Kiki explains her predicament (offscreen), she is willing to help. I’m not entirely sure why Ursula mentions that she has grown fond of the toy cat, since she can’t have found it more than a few hours ago. When she hands it over, Kiki discovers that they toy’s neck has torn. Ursula agrees to repair the toy in exchange for Kiki helping out with some housework. As both of them get to work, they chat about Kiki’s year away from home, though Kiki remains worried about getting back to Jiji.

Back at the house, the birthday boy has lost interest in his new “toy,” but Jiji’s troubles are not over. Jeff, the family’s large, elderly dog, is aware that Jiji is not what he appears to be. As Jeff begins to take an interest in him, Jiji breaks out in a sweat, not the conventional anime single sweat bead, but numerous droplets all over his body.

Though he isn’t strictly comic relief, Jiji is the most cartoonish character in the film. While most of the other animals are rendered realistically, Jiji has a large round head, big eyes, and a range of expressions and reactions that beyond those of a real cat. He is Kiki’s friend and confidant first, cat second. Jeff, in contrast, looks like a real dog at all times. His face is devoid of expression. Because he is an old dog, his movements are slow and deliberate and his body language consists of wagging his tail once.

Fortunately for Jiji, Jeff does nothing worse than lick him and curl up around him protectively. While the family laughs over dinner about how much Jeff seems to love the “toy” cat, Jeff sniffs at the air, possibly realizing that Kiki is outside. He scratches at the door and takes Jiji out with him, reuniting him with Kiki. Jiji explains how Jeff helped him out and Kiki hands Jeff the toy to bring back inside in place of Jiji. Jeff returns to the house and shuts the door behind him, leaving Kiki and Jiji free to go home.

While they’re flying, Kiki mentions that Ursula wants her to model for a drawing. Though he is hungry and tired, Jiji can’t resist making a joke at Kiki’s expense after what she has put him through and asks if she will be posing in the nude, one of the reasons why I think his voice in the dub is clearly that of an adult male. Kiki is mortified and Jiji grins with satisfaction.

Though Kiki doesn’t know it yet, she has more new friends watching out for her than just Osono. Osono’s husband, who is never named in either the subtitles or the dub, has already been introduced as a strong, skilled baker who hardly ever says a word. Both Kiki and Jiji seem a little shy around him. Regardless, he is pacing in the shop window, waiting for Kiki to return. Hanging in the window is a beautiful new sign that appears to be sculpted out of dough, advertising Kiki’s new delivery service. Once he sees Kiki approaching, Osono’s husband runs off to the back room, suggesting that perhaps he is shyer around Kiki than she is with him. Kiki and Jiji land in front of the bakery and are delighted by the new sign. Kiki rushes inside and though there is no dialogue, it is clear that she is asking Osono about the sign. Osono’s husband returns to the front room and is flustered as Kiki thanks him with an enthusiastic hug, much to Osono’s amusement.

Sometime later, Kiki is minding the bakery. She complains to Jiji that she hasn’t been getting any customers lately, but her dry spell ends when she gets a call to come and pick up a delivery that afternoon. As she finishes taking down the details, Tombo walks in. Kiki is as cold to him as ever, but Tombo still isn’t put off. He hands her an invitation – addressed to “Miss Witch” – to a party being held at his aviation club that night. But he turns the tables, telling her he’ll be by to pick her up at six and leaving before she can refuse.

Kiki runs to Osono for advice. But surprisingly, her concern isn’t how she can get out of going to the party, but what she will wear. Osono assures her that her black dress makes her look beautiful and mysterious. Though Osono is Kiki’s surrogate mother, she is also impartial enough to be able to tell Kiki she looks lovely in her regular black dress and have Kiki believe it. It is Jiji who ends up asking why Kiki wants to go to Tombo’s party when she seems to hate him. But Kiki dodges the question by saying she can’t talk while flying with the heavy package in tow. It is not clear whether Kiki is just looking forward to the chance to have some fun and take a break from her work or if Tombo’s persistence is finally paying off.

Kiki drags the heavy package up several flights of stairs to it destination, then flies off to pick up her next delivery. The lady of the house’s maid, Bertha, answers the door. (The dub interprets the Japanese pronunciation of her name as “Barsa.”) Bertha is fascinated at having a real live witch in the house and even gives Kiki’s broom a try when she thinks no one’s looking. Bertha brings Kiki to the elderly lady of the house. (Neither the subtitles or the dub ever call her anything more specific than “Madam.”) The lady apologizes to Kiki; the delivery she wanted to Kiki to take to her granddaughter’s birthday party isn’t ready. Her electric oven won’t heat up, so she hasn’t been able to bake her special herring and pumpkin pie. (It may not sound appetizing, but like all the food in the film, it looks delicious.) Nonetheless, the lady insists on paying Kiki in full. But Kiki’s honest nature won’t let her accept payment for nothing. She offers help get the lady’s old wood burning over running so they can bake the pie. Jiji warns her that she will be late for the aviation club party, but Kiki is certain she will have enough time. She is familiar with the old fashioned over from her country upbringing and soon has the fire going and the pie baking. While they wait on the pie, Kiki helps out around the house and enjoys some tea with the lady. Realizing that it is getting late, the lady asks when Kiki’s party starts. Kiki tell her it begins at six, but that she has plenty of time to drop off the pie and get home before then. But Kiki has overestimated how much time she has, as the lady points out that the old clock in her house always runs ten minutes slow. The lady and Bertha rush to get the pie from the oven and send Kiki on her way.

Once again, the elements prove an obstacle for Kiki. A sudden rainstorm pours down on her as she flies. Jiji begs her to land and get out of the rain, but Kiki presses on. It’s not just that she’s worried about being late for her party; the pie will get cold if they stop to wait out the rain and Kiki isn’t going to let that happen after all the hard work she and the lady put into getting it ready. She arrives at her destination just as the clock is striking six, thoroughly soaked. The lady’s granddaughter opens the door and is dismayed to find Kiki there. The bratty girl complains that the delivery is soaking wet, despite Kiki’s best efforts to keep it dry and warm. When she discovered what her gift is, she is disappointed and totally unappreciative. “I hate Grandma’s stupid pies,” she scowls as she signs the receipt and shuts the door in Kiki’s face. Jiji can’t believe that the sweet old lady they met before could possibly be related to this rude, spoiled girl. Stunned, Kiki flies home in silence.

Meanwhile, a very well dressed Tombo has been waiting for Kiki at the bakery since before six. He finally decides that she isn’t coming and heads off to his party alone. Kiki returns just as he is leaving and Jiji points him out, telling her that she could still make it to the party. But she ignores him. She tells Osono later that it’s because she can’t go in her wet clothes. But a soaking dress isn’t really what Kiki is so upset about. Kiki worked hard and risked the party that she had been looking forward to so that she could deliver a birthday present, only to have all of her sacrifices go unappreciated by the recipient of the gift. Not only that, the lady who was so kind to Kiki and who used her talents to make the pie for her granddaughter had her gift cruelly rejected. The idea that she gave up her chance to go to Tombo’s party for nothing is just too much for Kiki to bear. She skips supper and crawls into bed, completely miserable.

The following morning, Osono goes to check on Kiki, only to find Jiji frantically scratching at the locked window to the attic room. Flying through the storm the night before has left Kiki with a bad cold. Between her misery and just being a teenager, Kiki has very little perspective on her situation and actually asks Osono if the illness is fatal, a question that Osono easily laughs off. While she tends to Kiki , Osono tells her that Tombo stopped by again and asked to come and visit once he heard she was sick. Kiki is horrified by the idea. Osono had guessed that she would be and politely declined the offer. As Osono leaves to let Kiki get some rest, Kiki starts to say something to her, perhaps to tell her the real story of last night’s ordeal, but decides against it.

The next day finds Kiki feeling much better. Osono hires Kiki to make a delivery to someone with the last name “Koppori” and insists on paying for it, even though Kiki protests that it’s an easy walk from the bakery. Osono does cryptically stipulate that Kiki must make the delivery in person.

Now that Kiki is feeling better, Jiji is free to roam around and runs into Lily, the fluffy white cat who snubbed him on his first day in town. She has evidently decided that Jiji is not so bad and Jiji is intrigued. By then time Kiki is ready to leave on her delivery, Jiji and Lily are getting to know one another. Kiki tells Jiji she can handle this delivery alone and leaves him to spend time with his new friend.

Kiki’s search for the Koppori residence takes her down by the ocean. It is a beautiful day and just being close to the shore puts Kiki in a good mood. While she admires the scenery, Tombo pops up at the top of a nearby wall. When Kiki nervously explains that she is looking for the Koppori home, Tombo reveals that “Koppori” is his family name. He heads down to meet Kiki as she realizes that Osono set her up.

For once, Kiki is in a position where she cannot simply reject Tombo. She has a delivery to make and she does feel bad – or at least embarrassed – about standing him up the night of the party. This causes Kiki to let her guard down, which gives her a chance to discover that Tombo is actually a nice guy. He isn’t at all angry that Kiki never showed up for the party. Instead, he invites her to his house where he proudly shows off his pride and joy: a bicycle with a propeller mounted on the front which will act as the engine of the man-powered plane that Tombo and his friends have been working on. He offers to take Kiki for a ride down to the beach where the “Freedom Adventurer” dirigible made a forced landing after being caught in the same storm that Kiki was. Kiki nervously admits that she has never been on a bicycle before, understandable since she can fly. Tombo thinks this being her first ride will be “even better.” He talks her through bracing the bike with her foot while he pedals to get the propeller started and leaning into the turns once they’re underway. He is always positive and encouraging and Kiki starts to realize that her first impressions of Tombo may have been wrong.

The bike ride comes to a bumpy end as the bike lifts into the air, sails over one car, nearly collides with another, loses its propeller, and crashes along the grassy hillside leading to the beach, throwing both Kiki and Tombo off. Kiki goes to make sure Tombo is all right, then starts laughing uproariously at his dirt-streaked face. Tombo maintains his good humor and merely asks “Does my face really look that funny?” Still laughing, Kiki apologizes and admits that she’s laughing partly out of relief that both of them are unhurt. Tombo agrees that the whole ordeal ended up being pretty scary and laughs along with Kiki.

Having survived their adventure, Kiki and Tombo sit down by the beach, watching the sea and the grounded blimp. Tombo finally gets his chance to talk to Kiki about flying and Kiki starts to discover that Tombo sees her not as a curiosity, but as an interesting person with an ability he sincerely wishes he possessed. Kiki opens up to him further, revealing that flying has been feeling like less of a joy and more of a job to her lately. It was fun when she could just go wherever she wanted at her own pace. Nut now flying is work, with places to be and deadlines to meet. It forces Kiki to meet certain goals and she is starting to lose confidence in herself. In spite of this, she tells Tombo she feels a lot better sitting by the ocean and that she is glad she came. Tombo quickly offers to take Kiki to the beach whenever she wants to go and she actually tells him that he is “a very nice person,” though she adds that she used to think he was “some sort of clown.” Tombo tells Kiki that his mother says the same thing about him and breaks into an imitation of his mother yelling at him to quit daydreaming and get back to his studies. Unlike Tombo’s comparing Kiki to his grandmother when they first met, this comment is more of a joke about his mother and an admission that Kiki is not the first person to see Tombo as a clown. The two of them laugh and it seems that they have become friends at last.

Just then, some of Tombo’s friends drive up in their same beat-up old car. Among them are two of the girls who Kiki passed by on her way to go shopping and the elderly woman’s bratty granddaughter. They call out to Tombo and tell him that they have some great news: they have been offered a tour of the dirigible and Tombo is invited. Almost as soon as Tombo’s friends show up, Kiki’s good mood evaporates. She has just worked up to interacting with Tombo one-on-one, but Kiki isn’t ready to just hang out with his friends. It isn’t that they are rude to her. Even the lady’s granddaughter merely tells her friends that she recognizes Kiki as the girl with the delivery service and the other girls are impressed to learn that Kiki is working at such a young age. But Kiki still feels like an outsider and can’t shake the idea that everyone is staring at her for all the wrong reasons. She declines Tombo’s offer to join them for the tour and walks home. Back at her room, she collapses on the bed and tells Jiji that she thinks something is wrong with her. Even she doesn’t completely understand why she feels so uncomfortable around people her age. This particular problem seems to have less to do with Kiki being a witch and more to do with Kiki being thirteen.

Strangely, Jiji only meows at Kiki to get her attention and runs off to be with Lily after Kiki finishes telling him her troubles. It seems inconsiderate of him and when he arrives late for dinner that evening Kiki snaps that he can’t show up late for every meal just to spend time with his new girlfriend. Jiji only meows in response and does so again when Kiki asks him why he is “talking like a cat.” Jiji grabs a piece of sausage and heads out the window. Personally, I kind of wonder if Jiji’s earlier departure was not about him rudely ignoring Kiki to spend more time with Lily, but a realization on Jiji’s part that his conversations with Kiki are becoming frighteningly one-sided. Whether Jiji knows what is going on or not, it is at this point that Kiki starts to realize that she cannot understand what he is saying. A terrible thought suddenly occurs to her. She grabs her broom and climbs on. The broom rises a few feet off the floor, only to crash back down a moment later. Kiki tries again with the same results. Becoming frantic, she goes outside to a grassy slope and tries with a running start, but only succeeds in falling and breaking her broom in half. There is no denying the truth: Kiki is losing her powers.

To be concluded....

All images from this article are copyright Eiko Kandono, Nibariki, Tokuma Shoten, and Buena Vista Home Entertainment Inc.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yes, It's a Meme (But With a Purpose)

Don’t worry. The Ink and Pixel Club is not going to turn into a daily onslaught of my results in a “Which Family Guy character are you most like?” poll, lists of fifteen random songs from my iTunes library or anything like that. I’m posting this particular meme here because I figure knowing some of the movies I’ve seen, which ones I loved, and which ones I hated could give you some idea of where I’m coming from, far better than me trying to write out a summary of my views on animation in general.

I’ve saved a “blank” version of the meme, so if anyone is interested I can post it in the comments for you to fill out and spare you the trouble of having to go through and delete all of my answers.

Keep in mind that I didn’t come up with this meme. If you disagree with how certain films are categorized, I’m not the one you want to get mad at.

- X what you saw
- O what you haven't finished/saw sizable portions
- Bold what you loved
- Italics for what you disliked/hated
- Leave unchanged if neutral

(I’ll be using a very narrow definition of “loved” and “hated” and a very broad definition of “neutral.” It’s rare for me to have no opinion whatsoever on a film, so I’ll just be marking the ones I have strong feelings about. I’ll also be adding a few comments where I feel I have something more to say.)

Classic Disney
[x] 101 Dalmatians (1961)
[x] Alice in Wonderland (1951)
[x] Bambi (1942)
[x] Cinderella (1950) – My parents tell me this was the first movie I ever saw, not that I remember that particular viewing.
[x] Dumbo (1941)
[x] Fantasia (1940)
[x] Lady and the Tramp (1955)
[x] Mary Poppins (1964)
[x] Peter Pan (1953)
[x] Pinocchio (1940)
[x] Sleeping Beauty (1959)
[x] Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
[x] Song of the South (1946) – Many years ago, when Disney wasn’t so embarrassed by it.

Disney's Dark Age (“Dark Age?”)
[x] The Aristocats (1970)
[x] The Black Cauldron (1985) – I haven’t watched it in a while, so I don’t really have a fully formed opinion of it.
[x] The Fox and the Hound (1981)
[x] The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
[x] The Jungle Book (1967)
[x] The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
[x] Oliver and Company (1986)
[x] Pete's Dragon (1977)
[x] The Rescuers (1977)
[x] Robin Hood (1973)
[x] The Sword In The Stone (1963)

The Disney Renaissance
[x] Aladdin (1992)
[x] Beauty and the Beast (1991)
[x] A Goofy Movie (1995)
[x] Hercules (1997)
[x] The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
[x] The Lion King (1994)
[x] The Little Mermaid (1989)
[x] Mulan (1998)
[x] Pocahontas (1995)
[x] The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
[x] Tarzan (1999)

Disney's Modern Age
[x] Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
[ ] Bolt (2008)
[x] Brother Bear (2003)
[x] Chicken Little (2005)
[x] Dinosaur (2000)
[x] The Emperor's New Groove (2000) – The first Disney film I skipped seeing in theaters, though I ended up liking it when I did see it.
[x] Fantasia 2000 (2000)
[x] Home on the Range (2004) – The second Disney film I skipped seeing in theaters, though I never enjoyed it all that much.)
[x] Lilo & Stitch (2002)
[ ] Meet the Robinsons (2007) – The first major release Disney film I never saw at all. Not a great sign.
[x] Treasure Planet (2002)

Pixar – I’m being very picky here, or the whole category would just be all bold.
[x] A Bug's Life (1998)
[x] Cars (2006)
[x] Finding Nemo (2003) – Only a few minor issues keep me from bolding this one.
[x] The Incredibles (2004)
[x] Monsters Inc. (2001)
[x] Ratatouille (2007) – Again, this is borderline bold.
[x] Toy Story (1995) – I think the only reason I don’t bold this one is that I love the sequel even more.
[x] Toy Story 2 (1999)
[x] Wall-E (2008)

Don Bluth
[x] All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) – I don’t remember this being very good, but I don’t think I’ve seen it since its initial release, so I don’t feel right italicizing it just yet.
[x] An American Tail (1986)
[x] Anastasia (1997)
[x] The Land Before Time (1988)
[ ] The Pebble and the Penguin (1995)
[x] Rock-a-Doodle (1991)
[x] The Secret of NIMH (1982)
[ ] Thumbelina (1994)
[x] Titan AE (2000)
[ ] A Troll in Central Park (1994)

[x] The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986) - A full-length film from Will Vinton (the California Raisins guy) and quite good.
[x] Chicken Run (2000)
[x] Corpse Bride (2005)
[x] James and the Giant Peach (1996) – If I could throw away the live-action parts, this might be boldable.
[x] Nightmare Before Christmas, The (1993)
[x] Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
[ ] Flushed Away (2006)
[ ] Coraline (2009)

CGI Glut (This is not a term I would use.)
[x] Antz (1998)
[ ] Happy Feet (2006)
[ ] Kung Fu Panda (2008) – It’s on my list of films to see, due to a lot of praise for it from people I trust.
[ ] Madagascar (2005)
[ ] Monster House (2006)
[ ] Over the Hedge (2006)
[ ] Polar Express, The (2004)
[ ] Robots
[x] Shrek (2001)
[x] Shrek 2 (2004)
[ ] Shrek The Third

[x] Arabian Knight (aka The Thief and the Cobbler) – I’ve seen both the “Arabian Night” cut and the “Recobbled” cut. The story isn’t great in either, but the “Recobbled” cut is well worth it for the visuals alone.
[x] The Last Unicorn (1982)
[ ] Light Years
[x] The Plague Dogs – Unlike my experience with “Watership Down,” I didn’t see this movie (by the same studio) until I was in college. Good thing too; if I had seen it as a kid, it would probably have destroyed me.
[x] The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
[x] Persepolis (2007)
[x] Waltz With Bashir (2008)
[x] Watership Down (1978) – I saw this at a fairly young age and was traumatized for about a week. Saw it again in college and made my peace with it. It’s a fine film, just not a good all-ages flick.
[ ] When the Wind Blows (1988)
[x] Yellow Submarine (1968)

Studio Ghibli/Miyazaki – Another category where I’m being pickier than usual.
[x] Grave of the Fireflies
[x] Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
[x] Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
[x] Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
[x] Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
[x] My Neighbors The Yamadas
[x] My Neighbor Totoro (1993)
[x] Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
[x] Only Yesterday
[x] Pom Poko (Tanuki War)
[x] Porco Rosso (1992)
[x] Princess Mononoke (1999)
[x] Spirited Away (2002)
[x] The Cat Returns
[x] Whisper of the Heart

Satoshi Kon
[ ] Millennium Actress (2001)
[ ] Paprika (2006) – I actually own this and haven’t watched it yet, which is incredibly lame of me.
[ ] Perfect Blue (1999)
[ ] Tokyo Godfathers (2003)
[ ] Memories - "Magnetic Rose" (1995)

Shinkai Makoto
[ ] She and Her Cat (1999)
[ ] Voices of a Distant Star (2001)
[ ] The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)
[ ] 5 Centimeters per Second (2007)

Other Anime Films
[ ] Adolescence of Utena
[x] Akira (1989)
[ ] Appleseed
[x] Appleseed: Ex Machina
[ ] Arcadia of My Youth (U.S. Title - Vengeance of the Space Pirate)
[x] Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2003) - I bold this in the name of the whole series.
[ ] The Dagger of Kamui (U.S. Title - Revenge of the Ninja Warrior)
[ ] Dirty Pair: Project Eden
[o] End of Evangelion – I saw parts of this while my husband was watching it. I hadn’t seen much of the rest of the series, so it made almost no sense.
[ ] Fist of the North Star
[ ] Galaxy Express
[x] Ghost in the Shell (1996)
[ ] The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
[ ] Lensman
[ ] Macross: Do You Remember Love (U.S. Title - Clash of the Bionoids)
[o] Metropolis (2001) – I was in the room while some friends of mine were watching this and for some reason I didn’t sit through it.
[ ] Neo-Tokyo
[x] Ninja Scroll
[ ] Patlabor the Movie
[ ] The Professional: Golgo 13
[x] Project A-ko
[ ] Robotech: The Shadow Chronicle
[ ] Silent Mobius
[x] Space Adventure Cobra – The first anime I ever saw in a theater.
[x] Steamboy (2004)
[ ] Sword of the Stranger
[ ] Unico and the Island of Magic
[ ] Urotsukidoji: The Movie
[ ] Vampire Hunter D
[ ] Vampire Hunter D: Blood
[ ] Wings of Honneamise: Royal Space Force

Cartoons For Grown-Ups
[ ] American Pop
[x] The Animatrix (2003) – I like a lot of the segments quite a bit, but it’s hard to judge an anthology like this.
[ ] Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon The Movie
[o] Beavis & Butthead Do America (1996) – A friend in college owned it on video and I came in about halfway through.
[ ] Cool World
[x] Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) - I found this very disappointing as a fan of the video games.
[x] Final Fantasy: Advent Children
[ ] Fire & Ice
[ ] Fritz the Cat (1972)
[ ] Heavy Metal (1981)
[ ] Heavy Metal 2000 (2000)
[ ] Hey Good Looking
[ ] Lady Death
[ ] A Scanner Darkly (2006)
[ ] South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
[ ] Street Fight (AKA - Coonskin)
[ ] Waking Life (2001)

Other Animated Movies I Can't Categorize
[ ] Animal Farm
[ ] Animalympics
[x] Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
[x] Batman and the Mask of Phantasm – In theaters, with roughly 5 other people nationwide.
[x] The Brave Little Toaster (1988)
[ ] Bravestarr: The Movie
[x] Care Bears: The Movie
[x] Charlotte's Web (1973)
[x] Fern Gully
[x] G.I. Joe: The Movie
[ ] Gobots: Battle of the Rock Lords
[ ] He-Man & She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword
[ ] The Hobbit
[x] The Iron Giant (1999)
[x] Justice League: The New Frontier
[o] Lord of the Rings – I saw part of it during college and was not impressed.
[x] Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1992)
[x] My Little Pony: The Movie
[ ] Pink Floyd's The Wall (1982)
[x] The Prince of Egypt (1998)
[x] Powerpuff Girls: The Movie
[o] Quest For Camelot (1999) – Caught a bit of this on TV once.
[ ] Ringing Bell – I honestly have no clue what this is.
[x] The Road to El Dorado (2000)
[x] Rock & Rule – One of my college professors absolutely loved the villain in this.
[x] Space Jam
[ ] Starchaser: The Legend of Orin
[ ] Superman: Doomsday
[x] The Swan Princess - It’s not a complete disaster, but it has huge story issues.
[x] Transformers: The Movie (1986)
[x] Wizards
[x] Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
[x] Wonder Woman

So that’s me, as represented by a handful of random films and my reactions to them. Do you agree with my likes and dislikes? Disagree? Are there great films on the list that I’ve missed seeing? What do you look like through this lens?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why I Love Animation: Kiki's Delivery Service - Part One

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the movie that made me fall in love with the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I had seen My Neighbor Totoro before and appreciated its beauty and creativity, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t click with me. It wasn’t until I sat down with a VHS copy of Kiki, a birthday present from my friend Jon, that I realized that Miyazaki’s movies were something I wanted to keep an eye on. By the time Princess Mononoke came out in U.S. theaters, I was completely hooked.

Like all the best fantasies, Miyazaki’s movies show audiences wonders unlike anything they have seen before, but ground their stories in the universal human experience. On its surface, Kiki is the story of a thirteen-year-old witch who journeys to a new town to train for a year. But at its core, Kiki is about a girl leaving home for the first time and learning to rely on herself.

The DVD of Kiki has both subtitles and an English dub, both of which I have watched. There is also a fan translation of the Japanese script online that may be a little more accurate than the subtitled version, which is based on the script from an earlier English dub of the film, not a direct translation. All three tell the same basic story, though the dub deviates from the other two versions at points and seems to have a weird aversion to silence, judging by the way the characters will frequently talk when their mouths are not visible, regardless of whether there is any corresponding dialogue in the original film. Feel free to watch it any way you please. For the purposes of this article, I am mainly following the subtitles.

Kiki is a thirteen-year-old country girl who also happens to be a witch. Thirteen can be an exciting and challenging age for any girl, but it’s even more exciting and challenging for a young witch. Tradition dictates that once a witch turns thirteen, she must move away from home to live and train on her own for a year. When Kiki hears the radio report that there will be lovely weather and a full moon that night, she decides that it’s time for her to go.

Kiki’s mother is concerned, as most mothers are when their children take their first steps towards independence. And since Kiki is not so much taking a first step as a first leap, she has all the more reason to worry. Kiki is still a novice witch. She hasn’t learned how to mix magical potions like her mother. The only thing she knows how to do is fly and even that can be a struggle for her. Kiki just doesn’t seem as ready to be on her own as her mother was at thirteen. “Nobody leaves home that young anymore,” her mother frets. Kiki’s father worries as well. Kiki’s decision to leave is so spur of the moment that their camping trip planned for the coming weekend is suddenly cancelled. Though he realizes that she is no longer just a child, Kiki’s father still sees her as his little girl, a view she reinforces by asking him to lift her up into the air the way he did when she was small. “How come you never told me you were growing up so fast?” he asks, holding Kiki in his arms as she hugs him back. Even Jiji, Kiki’s black cat and constant companion, thinks she should put off her departure for a month or two.

Jiji’s voice in the dub is the source of some controversy among fans of the film. His original Japanese voice is provided by Rei Sakuma, who also did the original voice of Shampoo in the Ranma ½ TV series and movies. It’s small, high pitched, and not unlike a little boy’s voice. In the Enligsh dub, Jiji is voiced by the late, great Phil Hartman, who sounded anything but childlike. Some fans feel like Hartman’s voice strays too far from the original. Personally, I think the different voices focus on different aspects of the character. Jiji is a very small cat and his Japanese voice reflects his size. But as we’ll see later on, Jiji is also an adult cat. The voice director for the English dub may have felt that some of Jiji’s lines would sound odd when paired with a voice that could imply that he was just a kitten. So his English voice is focused less on his size and more on his age.

Of course, being on her own does not mean that Kiki is free to do whatever she wants. When her friends come to see her off, Kiki tries to tell them that this is no pleasure trip and she will be working very hard, though she bursts into giggles when one of them asks whether the new town she settles in will have discos. She has to wear the traditional black witch’s robes, even though she would prefer something more modern and stylish. Right before she leaves, she argues with her mother over which broom she will be flying on: the cute little one she made herself or her mother’s old, dependable one. Swap out “broom” for “car” and this could be any parent and teenage child.

Kiki ends up leaving on her perfect moonlit night, surrounded by her friends and family cheering her on as she lifts off…and promptly crashes into first one tree, then another, and finally a third before she steadies herself and is on her way. She is leaving behind a world she has grown completely comfortable with, an everyone-knows-everyone sort of place where Kiki knows all the neighbors and all the shortcuts. Even Kiki doesn’t know quite what lies ahead of her. Her spontaneous decision to leave that night hasn’t given her much time to think about where she is going or what she do will once she gets there. Her only plan is to head south towards the ocean and she has given almost no thought to what magical ability she will use to earn a living.

When Kiki collides with the tree branches, it causes little bells hung on each of them to ring. This was put in the film at the request of Eiko Kadono, the author of the book on which Kiki is based. In the original story, Kiki’s mother hung the bells in the nearby trees to warn Kiki when would she let her mind wander while flying and start to lose altitude. Ms. Kadono asked that the film include a scene where the bells ring as Kiki leaves her hometown. The reasoning behind the bells is never mentioned in the movie, but between seeing Kiki ring them by crashing into the trees and a man in the crowd saying how he’ll miss hearing their ringing, viewers can make a reasonable guess at what their purpose is.

Flight is a recurring theme in Miyazaki’s films and he seldom misses an opportunity to celebrate the beauty and wonder it holds. Kiki is not always graceful in flight. The way she gets blown sideways by an errant wind and kicks out one leg for balance show that she doesn’t have total control of her broom. But it’s also clear that flying is something she loves doing, as she takes her hands off the broom and holds her arms out to the sides like a daring kid on a bicycle or smiles as she watches a plane pass by.

Once they are underway, Kiki has Jiji turn on her father’s radio, which she convinced him to give to her before she left. This begins the first of the film’s two songs, “Message in Rouge.” Since the song was not written for the film, the lyrics don’t have much to do with the film’s story. It has a sort of doo-wop feel to it, which fits in with the movie’s setting: a fictional 1950s Europe untouched by the horrors of World War II. Two completely different songs were recorded for the dub, so if you’ve decided to watch the movie that way, you’ll hear a song called “Soaring,” which is a little less 50s inspired, but more pertinent to Kiki’s situation. There are also some scenes in the dub that insert background music where the original soundtrack has none, another example of the dub being unable to let silence stand.

Flying does have its drawbacks as well and one of the recurring concepts in the movie is how much Kiki is at the mercy of the weather. Despite the forecast predicting a beautiful, clear night, a sudden rainstorm leaves Kiki and Jiji drenched and forces the to take shelter in a train car until the next morning.

Kiki reaches the ocean and spots a coastal town that seems like a good prospect for her new home. At first glance, it seems to have everything: ocean views, a majestic clock tower, and no other witches in residence. But if culture shock is bad for the typical country kid arriving in the big city for the first time, it’s even worse for a young witch. The city is packed with people and vehicles, including a bus that Kiki nearly collides with, almost causing a major traffic accident. When she tries to introduce herself as the new resident witch, people either seem disinterested or baffled by her. Even Jiji eventually gets snubbed when a fluffy white cat haughtily turns up her nose at him. A traffic cop nearly writes Kiki up for the accident she almost caused, but someone starts yelling “Thief!” and he has to run off to investigate. Already in trouble with the authorities on her first day in town, Kiki sneaks away, humiliated.

As she makes her escape, a boy on a bicycle rides up alongside her. He proudly announces that he was the one who yelled “Thief” to divert the policeman’s attention away from Kiki. His name is Tombo and he can barely contain his excitement at meeting a real live witch. But Kiki is in no mood to make friends. Embarrassed by her disastrous debut and at being regarded like a curiosity, she tells Tombo off. She didn’t ask for his help, she snaps, and it was rude of him not to introduce himself. Tombo is undeterred by Kiki’s standoffishness, but he digs himself into an even deeper hole, telling Kiki she sounds old-fashioned “like my grandma.” Understandably, Kiki is not won over and takes the first opportunity to turn down an alley and fly away. Tombo remains fascinated with Kiki, a huge grin on his face as he watches her take off.

Night is approaching and Kiki and Jiji don’t even have a place to stay. Jiji is convinced that they should move on and find another town where the people are friendlier. But Kiki’s luck takes a turn for the better when she encounters Osono, a big-hearted and very pregnant woman who runs the local bakery with her husband. When Kiki meets her, Osono is trying to tell a lady pushing a baby carriage that she has left her baby’s pacifier in the bakery, but the woman is well out of earshot. Osono is about to go after her when Kiki steps in and offers to return the pacifier herself and spare Osono the long walk. Osono happily agrees and watches in amazement as Kiki hops onto her broom and easily glides down to the street below to deliver the pacifier.

When Kiki returns to the bakery with a note for Osono from the lady with the baby, Osono insists on thanking Kiki for her help with some hot chocolate. It’s no surprise that Osono has realized that Kiki is a witch, but she also already knows about witches in training. As soon as she hears that Kiki has nowhere to stay, Osono offers her the spare room in her attic, which Kiki gratefully accepts. The room is separated from the bakery and other parts of the house by an exterior stairway, so Kiki can remain relatively independent. When Kiki decides to support herself with a flying delivery service, Osono gives her the use of the bakery telephone and free rent and breakfast, provided that Kiki helps her out in the bakery. Osono quickly becomes Kiki’s surrogate mother, providing Kiki with just the right balance between the independence she craves and the support and care she still needs.

On her first night in her new place, Kiki turns on her father’s radio. But the only broadcasts it picks up are English language, not Japanese. (There is no such distinction made in the dub; the radio just plays English broadcasts through the whole film.) It’s no longer the familiar reminder of home that Kiki had intended it to be. The television in her neighbor’s apartment, however, is still speaking Japanese and is tuned to a news report about the voyage of the “Freedom Adventurer” blimp. (The blimp is mentioned earlier in the dub, where it’s called “The Spirit of Freedom” as part of the forecast Kiki listens to before she decides to leave home.)

After helping out at the bakery and scrubbing the flour-covered floors of her new apartment clean, Kiki goes out to buy some food and home supplies. She is still not accustomed to city traffic and carelessly dashes out into the street without looking, nearly getting hit by passing cars. Jiji scolds her for her lack of caution. Kiki doesn’t seem worried, but it’s a different story when she encounters three girls her age walking in the other direction, chatting amongst themselves. “I’ve never been more embarrassed in my whole life,” one of them says, referring to some prior event. But it is Kiki who really feels embarrassed. Being around kids her own age makes Kiki feel extremely self conscious, especially when she compares their pretty, stylish clothing with her own simple robes. It doesn’t get any better when Tombo and some of his buddies drive up in a rundown old car. Tombo tries once again to get Kiki to talk to him, but makes this mistake of pointing out to his friends that Kiki never wears anything but her black dress. This only leaves Kiki feeling more embarrassed and she once again gives Tombo the cold shoulder.

Shopping for supplies for their new home, Kiki frets over the prices. Though he is normally the responsible one of the two, Jiji can’t resist pointing out a mug with black cats on it, which Kiki ends up buying. By the end of the shopping trip, their money is nearly gone and Kiki tells Jiji that they will be living on pancakes – evidently the ramen noodles of this time and place – for a while. Magic is never an easy solution for Kiki's problems. She still must contend with the everyday struggles, such as making enough money to live on.

As soon as Kiki gets home, Osono tells her that she has a customer, a regular at the bakery. She needs a toy delivered to her nephew for his birthday: a stuffed black cat that looks remarkably like Jiji in a birdcage. Though Kiki did have the foresight to purchase a map of the area, she still doesn’t plan ahead well and hasn’t given any thought to pricing. The woman hands her an amount that Kiki thinks is more than fair and she’s off on her first delivery.

To be continued....

All images from this article are copyright Eiko Kandono, Nibariki, Tokuma Shoten, and Buena Vista Home Entertainment Inc.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Breaking the Rules at Acme Looniversity

You’ve just seen an animated movie that absolutely amazed you. It’s not just good; it’s groundbreaking. It takes animation in directions you never even thought possible. You talk excitedly with your friends as you all leave the theater and one of them remarks “They really broke all the rules in that movie.”

It seems like a simple enough statement and you agree. But later on, you start thinking about what your friend said. What are “the rules”? Why do we even have rules for animation if breaking them can result in amazing films like the one you just saw? Are the rules just about keeping the status quo, or is there more to it than that?

There are rules, and there are rules. The first set could well be considered unnecessary and can be broken at will, but the second has far more substance and exists for a definite reason.

The “rules” in the first set aren’t really rules at all. They are a collection of assumptions that, for various reasons, have come to be accepted as fact. You’re probably familiar with some of them. “Animation is only suitable for kids.” “The only successful animated feature films are fairy tale musicals.” “Computer animation is a replacement for hand drawn animation.” And so on. Call them tropes, clich√©s, conventions, stereotypes, or whatever you want. But they aren’t rules. They have very little to do with the medium of animation and much more to do with cultural perceptions of animation. Not surprisingly, they don’t travel well. Mainstream America may still regard animation as primarily for children and families, but hop over to Japan and it’s a very different story. Further explanation of these so-called rules reveals that there is little real reason behind them. “That’s the way things have always been,” their defenders cry. And they have box office records to prove it.

Since these “rules” are based in the soft foundation of an ever-changing culture, filmmakers can feel free to break them. They are not defying the laws of animation, just the public’s perception of animation. That doesn’t mean it is any less of a revelation when talented artists show us that we thought were solid walls marking the boundaries of the medium actually have doors. Think of Walt Disney defying the pundits who were convinced that there was no audience for a feature-length animated film, or UPA turning away from the pursuit of naturalism in favor of a graphic style. Choosing to defy the conventional wisdom about what animation can and cannot be is not a guaranteed path to success, but neither is following the formula for what has worked before. The films that stretch the audience’s ideas about animation are the ones that set the standard and write the new definition of success that others will try to emulate.

So what are rules? Rules are ideas that describe the mechanics of animation. It doesn’t matter what country the animation is made in or what kind of story is being told; these rules hold true regardless. There is solid reasoning behind these rules, why they should be followed, and what happens if they are not. One such rule states that if a character is squashed, stretched, or otherwise distorted, it must always return to its original shape. This rule has its basis in observation of real life and how various objects and materials behave and react to different actions. Press your finger against a tabletop will spread out and flatten against the hard surface, an effect that is referred to as “squash” in animation. Remove your finger from the table and it quickly regains its original shape. Different materials will behave differently under the same circumstances. Soft objects deform more while harder ones deform less, if at all. Similarly, the style of animation and nature of the characters or objects will determine how much they squash and stretch. A cartoony character in a humorous story will probably squash and stretch a lot more than a realistic human character in a dramatic tale. Following this rule keeps a character consistent in size and mass, making him or her more believable. Though a character may stretch out long and thin while leaping into the air and squash down short and squat upon reconnecting with the ground, the audience still sees the character as solid, dimensional, and “real,” so long as he or she keeps returning to his or her original shape. If this rule is not followed, the illusion of believable form and movement can be lost. The audience no longer feels like the character has a defined weight and shape. At worst, suspension of disbelief may be lost entirely and the audience may start to see the character as nothing more than a series of drawings because the lack of consistency of form is so distracting. Holding a single distortion for too long is like keeping a joke going after the punchline and the laugh. Wile E. Coyote will sometimes get crushed by one of his own Acme devices and walk offscreen, still looking like a contracted accordion. The audience laughs, but if the Coyote looked that way through the rest of the cartoon, the connection between the action and the result would fade and the joke would be lost.

So does this mean that a true rule can never be broken? No. It is possible to break these rules, but not without an understanding of why they exist in the first place. Rules cannot be broken arbitrarily. An animator who animates a standard cartoon walk cycle where the character squashes and stretches without returning to his or her original shape for no reason will get nowhere. The result will look like nothing more than sloppy animation. The trick is to understand both the effect that the rule has and potential reasons for breaking it. An animator could decide to break this rule when animating a character that is made of something formless, such as smoke or water. In that case, it could be perfectly acceptable for the character to change shape constantly and never return to one original form. The nature of a story could also be a reason for breaking this particular rule. A story set in a dream world would be enhanced by characters whose bodies distort without returning to a fixed shape. This could either suggest a peaceful fantasy where characters slowly slip from one shape to another like clouds moving in the wind, or a nightmare world where nothing moves as you would expect, heightening the sense of disorientation. Or perhaps the story plays with the nature of cartoons themselves, as is the case with “Wild Takes Class.”

“Wild Takes Class” is a short cartoon in the Tiny Toon Adventures episode “Inside Plucky Duck.” While it is neither the mostly beautifully animated cartoon in the series nor the funniest, it does perfectly illustrate a good reason to break this particular rule.

Part of the premise of the series is that the classic Looney Toons characters act as teachers to the next generation of toons, instructing them in the fine art of animated comedy. As the title suggests, this cartoon begins with Bugs Bunny teaching the young toons how to perform wild takes. A wild take is an exaggeration that is meant to show an extreme of emotion rather than action. Fans of the classic Warner Brothers shorts will want to take note of the names of the takes Bugs demonstrates: the “Avery Aoogah” – an extreme eye-pop typical of wolves noticing attractive women, the “Friz Frizzle” – a spasmodic reaction to being zapped with electricity that results in a blackened bunny, and the “Chuck Outta Luck Pathetic-Eyes Routine” – a wide-eyed take commonly seen on a certain coyote about to be flattened by a boulder, accompanied by a tiny umbrella.

Young Buster Bunny watches attentively, but his pal Plucky Duck is less than impressed. He would rather be learning from his hero, Daffy Duck. But, as Buster points out, Daffy teaches the advanced class and the student toons need to study the basics before moving on to the wildest of wild takes. Plucky doesn’t care. He has been working on some of Daffy’s lessons on his own and demonstrates his new skills to Buster, culminating in the “Clampett Corneal Catastrophe” – a take in which Plucky’s bulging eyes fuse into a single giant eyeball that replaces his whole body except for his legs. Buster is impressed, until it becomes clear that Plucky can’t get out of the take and is stuck as a giant eyeball, as he will be for most of the cartoon.

“Wild Takes Class” has an excellent rationale for breaking the rules. Wild takes, the story suggests, are a technique requiring practice to master. Plucky is a novice, so when he tries to distort his body into an extreme take, he can’t return to his normal shape the way cartoon characters normally do. Interestingly, this is also a case where breaking the rule actually proves why the rule works in the first place. When it’s held for just a second, Plucky’s take has the intended effect of conveying shock or terror. But as he walks and bounces around as an oversized eyeball for the remainder of the cartoon, the effect is lost. In a regular cartoon, a take ceasing to suggest a high level of emotion could be disastrous, but in a short about cartoon characters in training, it works.

Rule breaking is not something that should be avoided at all costs. If the “rule” in question isn’t related to the medium itself, then breaking it can erase outmoded thinking about what animation is capable of. If the rule is truly related to the fundamentals of the medium, then an animator must tread carefully when deciding whether or not to break it. These are the rules that really are meant to be followed. Breaking them for the wrong reasons can cause all manner of problems. But an animator who understands the rules and chooses to break them only when the project will be stronger for it can help to elevate the art form and take it to uncharted new heights.

All images from this article are copyright Warner Bros. Home Video.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Famous Firsts - The Secret of NIMH

The Secret of NIMH was the first feature film made by Don Bluth and a group of fellow expatriate Disney animators. Disney, they felt, was putting the bottom line first, sacrificing story, character, and visual flourishes like shadows and reflections to save money. With The Secret of NIMH, Don Bluth Productions sought to bring the traditions and techniques of the classic animated films back to the movie screen. The movie was released in 1982 and was Disney’s first serious feature animation competition in a long time. But NIMH was not a box office smash. Why? There are many possible reasons. A lackluster marketing campaign did not help. The film was criticized as being too dark and frightening for a G-rated animated movie. While TRON – Disney’s big release of the year – had its own problems at the box office, a little film called E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial pulled moviegoing families away from NIMH in droves. Whatever the reason, NIMH faded into obscurity and is not well known by the general public today. So how does the film hold up almost thirty years after its original release? The answer is somewhat complicated. For while The Secret of NIMH is an ambitious film that sought to bring back classic hand drawn animation while simultaneously exploring new territory in story and theme, it also suffers from narrative flaws that keep it from being a great film.

The film is based on the Newbury award winning children’s novel “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.” (The main character’s name was changed to “Mrs. Brisby” for the movie to avoid a legal conflict with Wham-O over the similarity to the name of their flying disc toy.) Like the book, the movie tells the story of a widowed field mouse whose youngest son contracts pneumonia at the worst possible time. According to the cranky old doctor mouse Mr. Ages, little Timothy requires complete bed rest to recover, but the Brisby family home is in the path of the farmer’s tractor and if they don’t move soon, they will all be killed once the plowing starts. In her search for a solution to this impossible dilemma, Mrs. Brisby discovers a colony of escaped lab rats who have gained amazing intelligence from the experiments performed on them by the National Institute of Mental Health, also known as “NIMH.” Mrs. Brisby’s husband Jonathan was imprisoned at the same lab and aided the rats in their escape. Out of respect and gratitude to Jonathan, the rats agree to help Mrs. Brisby move her home to a safe location.

One of the film’s main strengths is Mrs. Brisby herself. What makes her interesting is not that she is an inherently brave character, but how her circumstances force her to overcome her fears. She loves her children dearly and her need to protect them is what drives her to leave her comfort zone in search of an answer to her problem. But this need does not immediately render her brave. When the farmer start to plow the field, Mrs. Brisby leaves her other three children with local busybody Auntie Shrew and runs off to try to stop the tractor. But she is in over her head and ends up curled up and shaking atop the tractor while the shrew cuts the fuel line and takes the terrified field mouse to safety. “I wish Jonathan were here,” Mrs. Brisby sobs, but of course he is not. Mrs. Brisby must start fighting her fears and if she is going to be able to save her home and her children. But at this early stage, she still needs to be pushed into taking risks. It is Auntie Shrew who insists that she seek advice from the mysterious Great Owl and reminds her that Timmy’s life is at stake when Mrs. Brisby protests that owls eat mice.

It is only through experience and literally reminding herself that she is doing these things for her children that Mrs. Brisby is able to take on the challenges that ultimately reveal a way for her to move her family without risking Timmy’s life. Her real turning point comes after she has met the rats of NIMH and learned of her late husband’s connection with them. The rats have already promised to move her home to the lea of the stone, where it will be safe from the tractor, so she has what she wants. Then, right as she is about to leave, she stops, turns around, and volunteers for the job of drugging Dragon, the farmer’s cat, so that he won’t threaten the rats as they move her home. Her offer seems to surprise her as much as it does the rats. “I must be crazy,” she says to herself repeatedly. It is even more remarkable considering that her husband was killed performing that very same task. But that is exactly why she has to do it herself. Jonathan is dead. The rats intend to leave for a new home shortly. If Mrs. Brisby is to survive and care for her family in the future, she needs to be strong enough to tackle the dangers that come her way on her own.

Much work and care went into the visuals of the film. Techniques such a backlighting to create glow effects and multiple exposures for transparent shadows that the animators had longed to use during their time at Disney make frequent appearances. Mrs. Brisby herself is colored in literally dozens of different palettes to reflect the difference in lighting when she is inside, outside, underwater, in shadow, lit by colored light, or in any other situation. The tractor that threatens the Brisby home is an enormous, clanking metal monstrosity, rust colored from years of use, but still capable of churning up earth and stone as Mrs. Brisby dangles perilously above the blades of the plow. It sakes violently as first Mrs. Brisby and then Auntie Shrew rush about in their frantic attempts to stop it. Intercut with images of little Timmy sleeping away as bits of dirt start to fall from the ceiling of his bedroom, these shots do an excellent job of conveying the tension of the situation. The creepiness of the Great Owl’s home is accented by the small bones strewn about and the translucent cobwebs that cover even the Owl himself, swaying and falling from his feathers as he moves about. Details like these create the lush look that the animators were trying to achieve and make the film a visual treat.

The movie is certainly more violent and outright scariness in it than audiences of the time were accustomed to seeing in a G-rated animated film. Death is a constant factor in the story, from the very first scene where Nicodemus, the leader of the rats, notes the loss of Jonathan Brisby in his journal. The central problem of the film is the dual threat to Timothy’s life: he will be killed by the plow if his mother does not move him, but his pneumonia could become fatal if she does. Death was certainly not unknown to animation before NIMH, but where the film really ups the ante is in the level of violence. Characters fight, shed blood, kill one another, and die onscreen. That, combined with moments like the Great Owl devouring a moth, Mrs. Brisby being chased by a rat guard wielding a spear charged with crackling energy, and the animals at NIMH quaking fearfully in their cages, being injected with various strange chemicals, and contorting in pain as the injections take effect, may have rendered the film too scary for some young viewers. But that really isn’t a flaw. Animation is under no obligation to be safe, scare-free viewing for all ages. The problem is more the comedic parts of the movie, like the bumbling crow Jeremy (voiced by the late Dom DeLuise, who would go on to play roles in several other Bluth films), or Mrs. Brisby’s adorable, bubbly baby Cynthia. While such comic relief moments do not feel completely out of place, some of them do come off as forced, as if the movie needs to stop so the audience can get a laugh in before returning to the real plot. What’s worse, the superfluous comedy takes time away from more important aspects of the film, such as developing the characters of the Brisby children. Timothy in particular should be a tremendously sympathetic character, but his actual role is so small that he might as well just be called “Sick Kid.” He has no lines until the very end of the story and is curiously absent from the movie after the first half hour. Why ignore a character who is so crucial to the plot in favor of pointless side stories like Jeremy’s desire to find a mate and settle down? It is not a huge failing, but unfortunately, the film has bigger ones.

The writers’ biggest misstep with The Secret of NIMH was adding magic to the story. Magic is not part of the original book, but that’s not why I have a problem with it being in the movie. The problem is that the magical elements in NIMH are poorly defined and end up distracting from the core concepts of the story. The thing that makes the rats of NIMH special is that they are highly intelligent due to the experimental injections they were given. But when Nicodemus is able to levitate objects and look into a magical sphere to views events past and present, I stop being impressed by the fact that the rats can read, write, and work with electricity. The reason why Nicodemus can use magic is never explained. He just can and magic just exists, a strange bedfellow for the science that grounds the origin of the rats. Had the writers simply changed the story so that the experimentation done on the rats at NIMH gave them magical abilities rather than super-intelligence, the inclusion of magic might have worked. As it stands, the two elements compete with each other and the more visually impressive magic wins out over the more believable but less showy intelligence of the rats.

The film’s central magical artifact is an amulet with a ruby red stone at its center. It and the idea of magic are both introduced at the beginning of the movie, which is better than bringing magic in as a “surprise” partway through the film. But the amulet too remains unexplained. It seems to have some connection with Jonathan Brisby, as Nicodemus says that Jonathan meant for Mrs. Brisby to have it, but where it came from is never made clear. More importantly, its abilities never get spelled out. It has some kind of power that can only be activated when it is worn by someone with a courageous heart. But since the nature of that power is never defined, the amulet becomes the obvious ace up the story’s sleeve. Once all other possibilities have been exhausted, Mrs. Brisby will be able to use the amulet to do whatever it is she needs to do to save her family. It gets to the point where the only way to bring back the suspense is to have the stone fall into the mud, after which it flies up into the air and returns to Mrs. Brisby for no apparent reason, other than that it’s magical and she needs it at that moment to save her home and her children.

One of the goals of The Secret of NIMH was to focus on character and story. While there are some interesting and compelling characters in the movie, story often takes a back seat to ideas that pack a lot of visual punch, to the point where the writers appear to have forgotten to check their work for consistency and to answer the questions their script brings up. The Great Owl is first set up as both wise and dangerous in a way that makes sense. The implication seems to be that when all other options have been exhausted, the animals of the field will risk seeking the Owl’s council and hope that he has eaten a big meal beforehand. Both Auntie Shrew and Nicodemus, watching from afar with his magical sphere, think it would be a very good idea for Mrs. Brisby to ask the Owl for advice, in spite of the potential danger. But when Mrs. Brisby tells Mr. Ages that it was the Owl who told her to seek out the rats, he is shocked because no one has ever been to see the Owl and lived. Finally, when Mrs. Brisby has an audience with Nicodemus himself, he refers to the Owl as “a dear comrade.” Huh?

This isn’t the only continuity problem. At the start of the film, Nicodemus muses that it has been four years since the rats escaped from NIMH. But later on, the young rat captain of the guard Justin tells Mrs. Brisby that the rat colony has been outfitted with electricity for four years now and Mr. Ages corrects him, saying it has been five years. There are many unanswered questions strewn about NIMH as well. The Great Owl clearly knows Nicodemus and at least knew who Jonathan Brisby was, but how did he come to know either of them? The rats have a plan to live without stealing from the farmer any longer, which is part of the reason they intend to move. So why are they first seen taking an electrical cord from the farmer’s house? Mr. Ages complains that Justin is always tiring out Nicodemus with “his silly nonsense,” but exactly what they talk about is never revealed. Nicodemus does attempt to explain to Mrs. Brisby why her husband never told her about his captivity at NIMH or his friends the rats, but his explanation makes very little sense. The injections that the rats and mice were given by NIMH also made them age more slowly, meaning that Jonathan would have remained young while his beloved wife grew old and died. It is a part of the original book, but in the movie it feels like a throwaway detail, and certainly not a good reason for Jonathan to keep his association with the rats a secret from his family. A few questions without clear answers would not have been such a big deal, but as they start to pile up, the movie becomes somewhat confusing and doesn't seem as well thought out as it should be.

The film runs into some trouble in the villain department as well. Most of the foes that the heroes face – NIMH, Farmer Fitzgibbons and his family, and Dragon the farmer’s cat – do not have any personal grievance with them. Dragon is a cat and although he is portrayed as more of a monster than a normal pet cat, he is still just a predator stalking prey. The Fitzgibbons family poses the most direct threat to Mrs. Brisby and her family, but their actions are driven more by a lack of concern for the mice than actual cruelty or malice. NIMH is a shadowy organization of anonymous scientists. They are always referred to collectively as “NIMH” rather than by individual names. None of this is necessarily a problem; it is entirely possible to have a strong story where the antagonist is not fully aware of the protagonist or the protagonist’s problems. It works in Bambi, a fact which Bluth and his colleagues were obviously aware of, since the scene where the animals abandon the field to escape the farmer’s plow borrows heavily from the scene where the deer flee the meadow in the Disney film. But it can be hard to show the hero as heroic when all of his or her foes are unaware of the hero, completely beyond reasoning with, and ultimately undefeatable. So the filmmakers took Jenner, a dissident rat who has left the colony before Mrs. Frisby arrives in the original book, and made him into a full blown villain, one that the main characters can talk to, argue with, and battle on his own level. It sounds like a good idea, but Jenner ends up hurting the story more than helping it.

The main problem with Jenner is that he does not have any real connection with Mrs. Brisby either. He is not so much her enemy as he is a foe of Nicodemus and Justin, or the rats in general. He does not care one way or the other about Mrs. Brisby so long as she doesn’t interfere with his plans. Before Jenner makes his actual debut, Nicodemus watches Jenner’s image in his magic “crystal ball” and talks about Jenner’s lust for power and his fear that Jenner may do harm to Mrs. Brisby. But since it’s never clear why Nicodemus believes that Jenner poses a threat to the widowed field mouse, it just feels like a feeble attempt to connect the villain to the hero. In Jenner’s first of only two direct interactions with Mrs. Brisby, he offers his services in helping to move her house, though his manner is transparently slimy. His real goal is to stage an accident during the moving of the house that will kill Nicodemus, clearing the way for Jenner to take over as leader of the rats. This would be disastrous for the Brisby family, but Jenner doesn’t care what happens to them any more than Farmer Fitzgibbons does. The fact that he is aware of Mrs. Brisby and knows that she and her children are thinking, feeling, creatures, makes his actions more unconscionable, but the Brisbys are still not his real target. It is only towards the end of the story when Mrs. Brisby warns the rats that NIMH is coming, threatening Jenner’s plan to keep the rats in their rosebush home and challenging his newly won leadership, that Jenner sees Mrs. Brisby as a threat and attacks her. Even then, it is Justin who ends up dueling with Jenner, taking his focus off of the main character once again. During the fight, Jenner notices that Mrs. Brisby is wearing the magical amulet and declares that he must have it. This is almost painfully forced. Nicodemus mentioned earlier that it would be very bad if Jenner were to take possession of the amulet, but Jenner himself has never even mentioned the stone before now. And since the one thing that is clear about the stone is that its power can only be unlocked by someone with a courageous heart, I don’t see how it would be of any use to Jenner at all. On top of that, Jenner is already going after Mrs. Brisby when he notices the stone, so his sudden need to get it from her does not result in any change in his course of action.

One of the issues that the filmmakers at Don Bluth Productions faced when they first started work on adapting the story of NIMH was that the original book is really two stories in one. There is the tale of Mrs. Frisby and her need to move her sick son before the farmer’s plow arrives, and the story related to Mrs. Frisby by the rats of how they gained their amazing intelligence and came to live in their current abode. It was eventually decided that the story of the movie had to focus primarily on Mrs. Brisby and her family. With that in mind, it is a complete mystery why the decision was made to add a villain who brings the focus of the story back to the rats and away from the Brisby family.

The Secret of NIMH was an ambitious experiment that may have tried to be too much. The multiple goals of creating a film to both compete with Disney and inspire Disney to start making high quality films again, returning to the classic style of film animation, crafting visuals to wow a modern audience, telling a strong story with great characters, evoking memories of past animated classics, and exploring dark themes seldom touched on before in animation might have been more than the team of first time filmmakers could handle. There are too many basic story flaws for me to truly consider the film a lost classic that just never got a fair shot at success. But it is not without moments of beauty and even brilliance. There is enough potential in the film to make me wonder how the industry might have changed if NIMH had been a financial success and what sort of strange, dark fantasies might have been a part of the history of theatrical animation.

Fun Fact: Mrs. Brisby two older children, Martin and Teresa, are voiced by a very young Will Wheaton and an almost as young Shannen Doherty respectively. Despite the connection, I still don't think we'll be seeing a Star Trek: The Next Generation/ Beverly Hills, 90210 reunion crossover anytime soon.

All images from this article are copyright MGM/UA/Aurora. The screenshots were kindly provided to me by Thorn Valley after I forgot to take my own before returning my rented copy of the film.