Round 4: Building on Trademarks

The Land Before Time vs. Princess Mononoke

 

Faraway Lands Collide

            Here is where both Bluth and Miyazaki take their trademark stories to the next level and achieve one of the greatest successes in their careers. This is a major win for whoever takes it.

The Land Before Time: Here we catch Bluth when he was just about on top of the world. He’d already put himself on the map by besting Disney at the box office with An American Tail. Here he did it again, setting a new record for the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, and it’s not the only way he surpassed himself either. This is probably where he achieved the golden age Disney-type of movie he had always wanted to make.

The opening of The Land Before Time goes from fascinating to grand with its depiction of prehistoric life and its authoritative narration. Some moments involving the baby dinosaurs’ births are still sort of cartoonish but not gratuitously. Bluth makes this world and its inhabitants exactly what they should be to the eye: impressive.

At first, we focus in on the small herd of “longnecks” and their newborn baby Littlefoot. Like most herds, they have trouble coping with the dying vegetation and begin heading west to find “The Great Valley”. Having started the series on one of the many pale-imitation sequels, I don’t remember what happens next being as much of a surprise the first time I saw it as it probably is. With enough conflict and story for a movie already in motion, the first encounter with a tyrannosaurus brings consequences that shift the story to a whole new playing field, stranding our baby dinosaur protagonist alone and far from the place he needed to reach. And in an age where dead parents in these movies is almost a syndrome, Bluth creates one of the most heartfelt and heart-wrenching scenes of them all. Two in fact; the follow-up is almost as moving.

Where The Land Before Time most improves over An American Tail is probably in its coherence. Characters and motivations don’t just disappear for awhile. Each new member of the group is important, from the friendly, immature Ducky to Cera, whose superior, stubborn-loner attitude in conflict with Littlefoot is a point that progresses throughout the movie. The other two are sort of dependent children even within the group; one is the zany but caring Petrie, and Spike, the benign and gluttonous mute, is a nice touch.

The movie subtly changes when the focus shifts to these five. You could say that we’re placed in middle of this world with them, instead of gazing at it from the outside. Their portion of the story doesn’t push the envelope especially far, as portions that hint at more are a little glazed over, but there’s nothing wrong with it as an adventure. The five are likeable, and the way they grow together is well done. Their challenges are fun to watch, and the issues large and small are concluded in a satisfying manner.

The Land Before Time still isn’t as good a story as Bluth’s opener, The Secret of NIMH, but there’s so much heart in it that it nearly closes the gap. It’s all treated with such dignity that the payoff is even more powerful than you’d expect, and the closing song fits perfectly. The original movie in the series is the only one that’s not a musical, yet it contains the best tune of them all.

   Final Score: 8.5/10 (I did have more of an “8” in mind, but it could be that the experience was hurt a bit from growing up with the rip-off sequels, which all have a different tone. I give it the benefit of the doubt.)

 

Princess Mononoke: Here we find Miyazaki in the same type of story as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. But this time, his storytelling is superior. He originally intended this to be his last movie, and after spending a long, long time creating it, he had something that would have been worthy of the distinction.

The movie wastes no time in showing us its phenomenal animation. We open on the village where prince Ashitaka, our hero, lives, right before it is attacked by a giant warthog covered in writhing, snake-like strands. Ashitaka confronts and ultimately kills it, only for his arm to be scarred by the strands, placing a curse that will slowly kill him. After a bullet is discovered in the boar, believed to be the cause, he leaves to find its source and cure himself.

He ends up involved in one of the more tense man vs. nature battles to be put on screen. The warthog, it turns out, came from the forest around Iron Town, a place developing gunpowder-based weapons by clearing out and mining from the forest. The separate packs living in said forest are led by individual nature gods, who speak for them. In these movies,“nature gods” usually possess wisdom and passivity that the human characters must learn to comprehend, but here they are a more accurate representation of nature, regarding the invaders the same way they are regarded; as an obstacle. It’s true that people started the battle, but the animals hardly discriminate between the innocent and the guilty when striking back. Iron Town, meanwhile, has good reason to thrive. The town is a refuge for outcasts, many from brothels, who are grateful for the faith that their fearless leader, lady Eboshi, holds in them. What everyone wants most is to survive, and we can clearly see that they all have a right and deserve sympathy.

As with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, it seems the problem is the need living things feel to lash out in securing their own survival, which can lead to the need to gain power. However, instead of following a total innocent who believes life is possible with this removed, we are placed in the middle of a struggle in which it is simply a way of life, and there is no easy solution. Sacrifices must be made, and the tone is sometimes, with good reason, unpleasant. This is one of those movies that I probably admire more than I like. And I like it as much as the standard good example of Miyazaki’s work.

Princess Mononoke, a description/nickname for a girl whose real name is San, is an adopted daughter of the wolf tribe. She’s as bitter as the rest of them for the attack on the forest and strikes back with the same brutal ferocity. She is, however, the one living being on either side that Ashitaka might connect with the opposing one. That both of them start to develop feelings for the other probably doesn’t hurt this cause.

Ashitaka is not the most interesting protagonist ever, but he is sympathetic, and he’s an appropriate character to follow. Nausicaa, in a movie with a simpler goal, was a pure force for the cause her story supported. Ashitaka can’t be sure which side to take, or even if supporting anyone will help. From his upbringing, he knows the whole thing is a shame, but he doesn’t have a solution.

Worse, as invaders from foreign lands start to take the area, Ashitaka grows short on time to save both the tribes and himself. Not to mention that a scheming man named Jigo, it seems, has plans to put his own stake in this. San grows more willing to work with him, but she’s unlikely to stop loathing the people of Iron Town, or people in general. The only other creature whose care might extend beyond one tribe is the mysterious and elusive Forest Spirit, the most powerful of them all, who saves Ashitaka’s life but can be pushed to strike back when damaged enough.

Princess Mononoke is one of Miyazaki’s most powerful films, as well as his most epic in scope. It’s not quite my favorite, only one of them, because we, the audience, are a bit more distanced from its characters, and I believe Miyazaki has reached his greatest heights with his humanist effect. But in this kind of story, one which definitely carries a lot of weight, such is virtually a requirement. At this point, it’s probably just personal preference.

Final score: 9/10

Winner: It’s almost a shame to take one side, as both movies are a wonderful triumph for each director. Box office results might be an indicator that Bluth’s had more universal appeal, though from what I can gather, Mononoke took in more money overall. But Princess Mononoke is a movie with more maturity and depth, and probably the more powerful overall, which secures it the win. Still, only Bluth’s, dark as it gets, is really appropriate for all ages.

 

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