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Nicolas Cage and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance might be getting most of the press this week, but for animation lovers, it's no contest -- the biggest release of the week is The Secret World of Arrietty, Studio Ghibli's spin on the classic children's book The Borrowers. Stateside fans have been waiting for Arrietty to reach these shores since the movie came out in Japan way back in July of 2010, and to celebrate its arrival, we're taking a fond look back at every other Ghibli movie that's received an American release. Get ready for lots of strange creatures, magic spells, and mysterious journeys -- it's time for Total Recall!
Following in a parent's footsteps is rarely easy -- and when you're a young filmmaker whose dad is the legendary Hiyao Miyazaki, joining the family business has to be particularly daunting. Credit for chutzpah, then, to Goro Miyazaki, who made his directorial debut at the helm of Tales from Earthsea, Ghibli's long-mooted adaptation of the Ursula K. Le Guin series of bestselling books. The elder Miyazaki reportedly expressed his misgivings about having his son take the reins of such a difficult project -- and his concerns were echoed by many of the critics who reviewed Earthsea, which ended up becoming the studio's worst-reviewed release. Still, it had plenty of defenders, including Film4's Daniel Etherington, who wrote, "Miyazaki Jr. has a long way to go before he can hold a candle to his father's work, but Tales From Earthsea still carries the Ghibli mark of quality."
A fairly thorough visual departure for director Isao Takahata -- not to mention Ghibli in general -- My Neighbors the Yamadas represented the studio's first foray into all-digital animation, albeit one that used the technology to obtain a flat drawing style and washed-out palette rather than 3D images and realistic textures. A series of vignettes depicting milestones in the life of a family, Yamadas may not be one of the better-known Ghibli releases, but it earned an Excellence Award from the Japan Media Arts Festival and impressed Tim Brayton of Antagony & Ecstasy, who wrote, "For all that they are cartoons, the Yamadas never court buffoonery... In fact, it's surprisingly observational, based in the way that people honestly act and feel."
An eco-friendly fable inspired by Japanese folklore about the raccoon dogs known as tanuki, 1994's Pom Poko topped Japan's box office in 1994, entrancing audiences with the moving tale of wildlife continually encroached upon by -- and eventually forced to fight against -- the constant threat of human development. Less overtly cartoonish (and, ultimately, more melancholy) than most Ghibli films, Poko impressed critics like MaryAnn Johanson of Flick Filosopher, who called it "Deeply affecting and visually mesmerizing" and "one of the best animated movies I've ever seen."
Hayao Miyazaki came out of retirement to direct this adaptation of the Diana Wynne Jones novel, hewing loosely to the basic plot outline (about a teenage hatter whose friendship with a cursed wizard lands her in the center of a conflict between him and a vindictive witch) while adding some quintessentially Ghibli touches, such as feminist themes and a pacifist subplot. It all added up to an experience altogether different from the book, but that didn't deter filmgoers (who made it one of the most successful releases in Japanese history), Academy voters (who made it a Best Animated Feature Oscar nominee), or critics like Bruce Westbrook of the Houston Chronicle, who said it was "So richly detailed and colorful that one almost aches from the beauty."
The sole directorial effort of Yoshifumi Kondo, who was being groomed to succeed Ghibli mainstays Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata when he passed away suddenly in 1998, Whisper of the Heart explores some of Miyazaki's favorite themes (which isn't surprising, since he wrote the script): independence, the end of childhood, fantasy, and young love. While lacking the gleefully childlike spirit of some of Ghibli's other films, Whisper captured the imagination of plenty of critics, including Tim Brayton of Antagony & Ecstasy, who called it "Perhaps the most unadulterated coming-of-age story in Ghibli's canon" and "a film of truly excellent observation."
A lasting cultural touchstone in Japan and a major launchpad for Miyazaki's worldwide success, My Neighbor Totoro wraps a heartfelt message about the value of rural living inside an irresistible fable about two girls (voiced in the Disney release by Dakota and Elle Fanning) whose fears for their ailing mother are soothed by a giant forest creature and his bizarre woodland companions (including a cat shaped like a bus -- or is it the other way around?). "What Miyazaki has animated," argued Eye for Film's Anton Bitel, "is an idyll, that most melancholic and nostalgic of genres, where landscapes vanish, innocence is lost and death is as much a part of nature as life."
A stunning retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid (and Miyazaki's most commercially successful American release), Ponyo may not have earned quite as much rapturous praise as some of his earlier efforts, but as many of this list's other entries prove, he'd already set the bar pretty high -- this film is a triumph that, in the words of Radio Times' Lucy Barrick, "is a million miles away from the garish and crude cartoons that American studios often churn out, and serves as a reminder that animated films can be imaginative, enchanting and exciting while still telling a sweet, good-hearted story."