"Howl" overwhelms and "Totoro" charms in new lives @ 2 June 2013 02:10 PM
In their new lives as Blu-ray discs, two of the all-time best Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli animated features have finally arrived. It's a celebration for those of us who couldn't wait to enjoy them in the infinite detail of high def.

1988's "My Neighbor Totoro," last released on DVD in 2006, is a refreshingly gentle film with compelling characters and a deceptively simple storyline. Even though it seems to amble along, there is an undercurrent of unease -- not from any genuine threat, but from a mother's illness, unexpected adventures and most of all, the treasure of childhood innocence.

Elle Fanning voices Disney's English language version of 4-year old Mei, a very real little tot who pouts as well as laughs, radiates energy one moment and slips into weary sleep the next. (Coincidentally, she is playing Aurora in the forthcoming "Maleficent.")

I have never, ever seen a realistic child depicted in an animated film quite as perfectly as Mei. She is the essence of the joy in life's simplest things. My favorite moments aren't so much the far-flung fantasy as Mei's elation at rolling on the lawn or wiggling a rotten porch post. Everything is new and potentially magical to her.

Her older sister Satsuki, voiced by real-life older sister Dakota Fanning, is approaching what the Sherman Brothers called "The Age of Not Believing," yet she still revels in the world through Mei's eyes. Her father, voiced with warmth and restraint by Tim Daly, models the fact that adulthood need not abandon childhood fascination and fancy. Providing nuanced support is Pat Carroll as Granny.

The fantasy builds in a subtle, matter-of-fact way, becoming more of a reality as the real world becomes more complex. After a while, it seems perfectly acceptable that an invisible catbus exists, even though some cannot see it. The film is as accepting of the fantastic as the children are -- no lengthy explanations or exposition -- these things are just so, that's all.

Seeing the film on Blu-ray isn't so much an exploration of dazzle as it is a new way to see the simplicity without any interference from the limits of videotape, broadcast or regular DVD. This is sweet stuff, but sweet in a good way.

In this edition, all of the bonus features are on the Blu-ray, not the DVD.

Blu-ray & DVD include:
English version
French version
Japanese version

Blu-ray-only Bonus Features:
Original Japanese Storyboards
Creating My Neighbor Totoro
Creating the Characters
The Totoro Experience
Producers' Perspective: Creating Ghibli
The Locations of Totoro
Scoring Miyazaki
Original Japanese Trailer
Behind the Microphone

My family especially loves watching 2004's Oscar nominated "Howl's Moving Castle" over and over again. Second only to "Spirited Away," this is a household staple standing out in a sea of viewing options.

As adapted by Miyazaki from the book by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl (voice of Christian Bale) is a melancholy young wizard (considered a heartthrob by some of the book's fans) who lives in a castle with doors that open into completely different locales. A young boy and a fire spirit (Billy Crystal) are among his few companions.

Into his life comes Sophie (Emily Mortimer), a young haberdasher transformed into an old woman (Jean Simmons) by the selfish, corpulent Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall, voicing her second animated role). These are characters that all follow their own arcs with twists and turns aplenty.

"Howl's Moving Castle" is a spectacular viewing experience, rich in sweeping panoramas and astonishing detail, even for a Miyazaki film. You just cannot see it all in one sitting.

Pop in the Blu-ray and take a look at the scene in which Sophie enters Howl's chambers, infinitely adorned in glistening jewels, spinning objects and undulating formations. You can't even be sure how deep the space is -- seeing it in 3-D would only literalize it. Once the film was announced on Blu-ray, this is the scene I most wanted to see and it did not disappoint.

Blu-ray & DVD include:
English version
French version
Japanese version

Blu-ray-only Bonus Feature
Original Japanese Storyboards

Blu-ray & DVD Bonus Features

Behind the Microphone
Interview with Pete Docter (coproducer of the English version with Rick Dempsey)
Hello Mr. Lassiter: Hayao Miyazaki Visits Pixar
TV Spots and Trailers

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