Round 1: Strong Openers

The Castle of Cagliostro vs. The Secret of NIMH

 

 Doing the Source Material Proud

   Before Disney movies were constantly matched or upstaged byDreamWorks, Pixar (if they still count as separate), and other up-and-comingbrands, they went uncontested for a long time. But in the late seventies/earlyeighties, two passionate animators began their careers as directors, creatingsome of the first companies outside the Disney brand to make multiplesuccessful animated films for children. One was the Japanese Hayao Miyazaki,who was able to take anime films to new heights and put them on the map inAmerica. The other was Don Bluth, an ex-Disney animator who had left thecompany with a handful of fellow employees to start his own and beat them attheir own game. They both did some great work and, conveniently, they both havehad exactly ten theatrical features to date. So then, without further delay,who is the better director? Who reached the highest heights? Who sunk to thelowest depths?

           The Castle of Cagliostro: Early in his career, Hayao Miyazaki acted as co-director of thefirst anime TV series starring Arsène Lupin III, a character born from the ideaof “what if Arsène Lupin (a popular ‘gentleman thief’ character in France) hada punk/goofball grandson who was every bit as good a thief?” In 1979, he got todirect the second film appearance of Lupin III, his first feature-length movie,and though he wouldn’t direct another one for five years, it probably didn’thurt his career to have helmed one of the best outings of the already popularcharacter.

Though The Castle of Cagliostro is not really the type of movie Miyazaki is known for,it is definitely an enthusiastic and energetic adaptation. Lipin III is as muchfun as any anti-hero in recent memory, a breezy, comical-yet-confidentshowboater who enjoys every minute of his job, while wielding all the skills ofa perfect action hero. Miyazaki also expands his “gentleman thief” mentality(which he originally lacked), showing us his sweeter, more sympathetic side ashe embarks on a chivalrous mission to free the unwilling bride-to-be of the evil Count Cagliostro.

Though this isthe first movie of the franchise released in theaters, it makes few attempts toplay catch-up to any newcomers. It was a good call. When the old companions ofLupin III and his best friend Daisuke Jigen make an entrance, it’s not simplefan service, save perhaps for Goemon Ishikawa, the master samurai and part-timethird wheel on the team. Each one of them has an important role to play. Whothey are is made clear in passing, and this seems as good a time as any to meetthem, at least to a newcomer such as myself. After seeing the movie for the firsttime, I probably could have summarized most of them, from the affectionatelyantagonistic Inspector Zenigata, to the dubious ally/enemy/love interest FujikoMine. That all of them have had these adventures together before, and willagain, adds a nice effect. Lupin is a thief, but his escapades, never about the(usually absent) reward, are what those around him, Zenigata included, seem tolive for. Perhaps they provide the sense of purpose most of them wouldotherwise be missing. And they’re not about to stop anytime soon.

This one,however, may well be the best. The Count, with his castle full of outlandishtraps and henchmen wielding unbelievable equipment, is a true opponent forLupin. Even Lady Clarisse, the plucky,if entirely submissive, captive fiancé has trouble believing that her hero cansave her. In fact, sometimes Lupin is forced to resort to tricks that only workseamlessly in movies such as this, and to say the least, I’d have to call hishilarious leap to Clarisse’s tower a stroke of luck. Sometimes he seems alittle overmatched (enjoying himself all the more), but an old-fashionedunlikely partnership puts him right back in the game for round two.

  The Castle of Cagliostro is not one of Miyazaki’s biggest trademarkachievements, nor is it his most deep or meaningful film. But I’d behard-pressed to say when I’ve ever had more fun with another animated movie. Iexpected to like it. I didn’t expect it to end up on my animation favoriteslist. I guess that spot is just one more item on the list of things no onethought Lupin could steal.

Final score: 9 out of 10

 

The Secret of NIMH: Most who’ve heard the title probablyknow that The Secret of NIMH was originally the Newbery award-winning Mrs.Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, the story of a mouse widow who, to save herson, seeks help from the mysterious group of rats who considered her deceasedhusband a hero. The list of movies cashing in on Newbery winners has sincegrown longer, and several recent attempts have been shallow failures. But DonBluth didn’t have to make this. He didn’t have to leave Disney. He could havestuck around and probably had a satisfactory career as one of their best guys.But the man has true artistic drive, and he just couldn’t be happy with the cheapershortcuts Uncle Walt’s successors had taken to using. With his small companyformed around a handful of fellow ex-Disney animators who felt the same way, hewanted nothing less than to revive the golden age of animation with this movie.With little advertising, it barely made any money at all, yet through sheerquality it impressed people (namely Steven Spielberg) enough to jump-startBluth’s career. It’s not remembered as his masterpiece for nothing.

While Bluth isone of the most respected animators in the country, his detractors oftencriticize his ability as a storyteller. He understands the value of not shyingaway from dark material, but this seems to lend more strength to hischaracterizations, as his plotlines don’t always build on themselves as well asthey could. But with The Secret of NIMH, the award-winning story wasalready there, and Bluth adapted with respect to the source material while alsoworking in his own style.

Even as we findout the truth about the rats, and what made Mr. Brisby (apparently Wham-O justcouldn’t let “Frisby” slide) such an admired hero, Bluth’s trademark mysticalaspect keeps us wondering. The imagery really is something to behold; I’d haveto say the sheer quality of the animation is as impressive as most-anythingI’ve ever seen. And humble little Mrs. Brisby is a hero to root for. It’s notoften that your good-soul-in-a-shadow protagonist is one who really doesn’tcare about getting out of it. Her biggest flaw is that, for all her bravery,she’s a little too timid for her own good. Through the wholesomewhat-complicated adventure, she still gets a character arc, and the payoffis grand and satisfying.

The Secret of NIMH is among the cream of the crop in the long list of children’s moviesand deserves to be called an animation classic. What keeps it off my list ofselect favorites is that there’s nothing really pushing it over the edge. Asengaging, lovable, and thought-provoking movies go, it’s a good example of allof the above. There’s just not an overriding sense of anything in particularthat really makes it one of a kind.

Final score: 8.5 out of 10

  Winner: Thebetter animation is pretty much in Bluth’s offering this time. But where The Castle of Cagliostro is great, The Secret of NIMH is only good. It’snot as thoughtful as Bluth’s offering, but Lupin’s trips through the count’scastle and clock tower are even more exciting than Mrs. Brisby’s visit to thespider-ridden nest of the great owl or the underground fortress of the rats.And while Mrs. Brisby works as a protagonist, Lupin III makes everything aroundhim work better. As far as I’m concerned, The Castle of Cagliostro is a(slightly) better movie. Still, on sheer significance, The Secret of NIMH has an edge. It could be called the first real step in the renaissance ofanimation, starting off Bluth’s projects of quality animation that wouldeventually force Disney to rise to the challenge. Call it a tie?

 

 

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