Round 2: Early Passion Projects

An American Tail vs. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Trademark Successes

                Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind: It was here that Hayao Miyazaki really started to establish himself. It was his first big hit, and his first time really pushing some of his favorite themes. With a story on an epic scale and a runtime long enough to cover all of it, one would think this has all the ingredients tobe the perfect Miyazaki movie.

Through the first act, we can see the potential. Nausicaa the princess is, to date, my favorite character of Miyazaki’s. And he’s had some great ones. Knowledgeable on her dystopian environment, Nausicaa has been raised to survive it, gaining some impressive skills (plus a fairly high tolerance for pain, nice touch). She’s grown up resilient, happy, and, strange for living in such a dystopia, completely removed from the darker side of humanity. She knows how to calm rampaging animals but isn’t at all familiar with distrust, greed, or lust for power, and she doesn’t expect it from anyone else. In a storytelling age where anti-heroes have grown especially popular, some would be quick to call her two-dimensional. I would too, if the reason for it weren’t so strongly implied; she’s just a product of her environment. In her corner of the world, she’s surrounded by loved ones and she’s learned how everything works, so she’s not inclined to see living beings as intentionally dangerous. When she’s hit with the reality of how cruel people can be, she makes us believe that she could be as hateful and self-serving as anyone. But while she’s forced to cope with this side of nature many more times, she’s able to overcome her one breakdown and hold to her values, because she really does believe that happy harmony is possible. She’s seen it. In some ways, her thinking is naive, and she does take things for granted that she probably shouldn’t. But I was quick to note the group’s crash-landing in the jungle, when an enemy Nausicaa saved, Princess Kushana, pulls a gun. Kushana tries to take charge, but Nausicaa points out that they’re in danger and she’s wasting their time. Kushana chastises Nausicaa for expecting anything else from her. Nausicaa compares her to “a scared little fox-squirrel” in need of reassurance. Who’s the unrealistic one?

We’re set up for a great conflict to come, and a lot to figure out before we get there. We don’t know much more than Nausicaa when her valley is invaded by neighboring nations. Though the movie pays tribute to respecting the environment, the issue that they’re plan raises is soon revealed as broader and more universal; simply man’s age-old desire for power and neglect in general for those we wield it over. According to Miyazaki, it stems from our fear, our need for self-preservation. If we were all sure that our needs could always be met, why would we care about controlling more than we do?

Unfortunately, after some adventuring in the “Toxic Jungle”, the movie stops building itsstory and characters and nearly grinds to a halt, with too much revealed to keep us wondering and not enough in play to be exciting. Eventually, we’re just meandering through explanations and back-story. But everything is redeemed when the conflict between the nations and the jungle animals starts to heat up, and Nausicaa’s determination to see both sides survive is put to the test. Exactly where said nations went wrong is up to interpretation, but we can see that understanding is the solution.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a refreshing reverse of villains informing us that good people in a different environment would know to stop pretending that they don’t only care for themselves. This movie starts out with the assumption that people are flawed and self-serving but offers the hopeful notion that, in the right environment, we can thrive as genuinely good individuals. It’s not the quintessential Miyazaki film it could have been, but it does stand on its own as a good example of his work.

Final score: 8.5 out of 10

An American Tail: After making The Secret of NIMH, Bluth struck a deal with Amblin Entertainment and got what he needed to direct his next film, along with a heavy dose of creative freedom. The result racked up huge box office numbers like no animated movie before it. Here’s another movie I had high hopes for going in.

An American Tail begins with a Jewish family of mice in Russia. After being driven out of their homes by cats, they immigrate to America. On the trip there, they cover the struggles faced by citizens of a couple countries with the memorable tune “There Are No Cats in America”, before reaching America and discovering that it also has cats. Brave little Fievel Mousekewitz, the main character, falls overboard on the trip over, and the rest of the story covers him trying to reunite with his family in America. This is Bluth still at him most ambitious. The problem is that he also adds several subplots and little side note adventures that don’t build on themselves or tie together as well as they could have.

Visually, An American Tail is rich, creative and fun, but watching it is often underwhelming. Other than Fievel’s search for his family, which is often put on hold, we’re just not pushed to care about anything in particular. It’s been called a sad film, but more critics might have been okay with that if it had emphasized its uplifting moments better. When Fievel washes up on shore, he’s found by a friendly pigeon, who sings him the song “Never Say Never”. If we’d seen him go into America with that mindset and stick to it through the tough times, there’d bemore to root for. Instead, he next finds out that there are cats in America, and for the most part afterwards, he’s only as positive as the scene he’s in. There’s so much potential, from the friendship he forms with the friendly cat Tiger, covered in all of one scene, to the scene near the end where he meets a group of cynical orphans, and the movie just doesn’t bring it out.

Still, there is a lot that works. The naive, adventurous Fievel is a different character than Mrs. Brisby, but he’s likable for some of the same reasons. A couple scenes hit some sweet notes, including the movie’s other memorable song “Somewhere Out There”, and several of the side adventures really are fun. My biggest complaint, I suppose, is that it was good where it could have been better. The first time I saw it, I was almost disappointed enough to recommend skipping it, but after a second look, I can tell, it really is a nice little movie; just one that wanted to be, and should have been, a nice grand, inspiring movie.

Final score: 6.5 out of 10

Winner: Both Bluth and Miyazaki were aiming high at this early stage in their careers and making exactly the kind of movie they wanted to make. Each was still getting the hang of cohesive storytelling, which is the biggest problem both ways. The difference is that you can’t really call it a weakness for Miyazaki, who still spins a pretty fine tale. He had a vision to go with his ambition. Bluth, it seems, was sure of little past the fact that he wanted to create movies as daring and well drawn as Disney had in their golden age. This one is taken by Hayao Miyazaki with room to spare.


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