Tag Archives: Fairy Tale

279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

“We have tried to create a kind of ‘nether world’ that would seem timeless. A strange place that would be uncomfortably familiar.”–Dave Borthwick

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Dave Borthwick

FEATURING: Nick Upton, Deborah Collard

PLOT: When wasp-guts accidentally fall into a jar of artificial sperm, the resultant baby is a fetus-like boy about the size of a thumb. While Tom is still a pre-verbal toddler, men in black suits kidnap him from his poor but loving home and take him to their “Laboratorium” for study. Escaping with the help of a tiny dragon-like creature, Tom stumbles upon to other miniature people who live in a state of eternal war against the “giants,” before reuniting with his father.

Still from The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie’s plot is suggested by the fairy tale “Tom Thumb,” the oldest surviving English folktale, but beyond the presence of a tiny child there are few similarities to the ancient legend.
  • The movie was originally commissioned by the BBC as a ten-minute short to be shown at Christmastime, but they rejected the end product for being too dark. The station changed its mind after the short became an award-winning hit on the festival circuit, and co-funded this one-hour feature version of the story.
  • Tom Thumb was also partly funded by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who also wrote the theme song.
  • Besides stop-motion animation, Tom Thumb uses a technique called “pixilation,” which is basically the same idea but with live actors instead of models. Director Borthwick found that professional actors lacked the patience to sit still for the hours sometimes required for shots where humans interacted with puppets, so he used animators and technical personnel in the main roles instead (star Nick Upton is a primarily an animator specializing in pixilation).
  • After debuting on television, Tom Thumb toured the film festival circuit and even booked theatrical dates in the U.S., paired with the excellent and bizarre short “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s so much to choose from—particularly the surrealistic menagerie of disembodied body parts and mix-and-match homunculi from the Laboratorium—that the wilder images cancel each other out. In fact, it’s the faces of our two leads—the innocent, half-formed clay features of Tom and the greasy, beaming mug of his proud working-class dad—that stick in the mind. Indeed, for the poster and DVD cover images, the producers used such of scene of the two principal characters posing together (it’s a promotional still of a domestic scene that does not actually occur in the movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying syringe insect; crucified Santa; halo of vermin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tone of this fairy tale is hard to explain: equal parts silent slapstick, dystopian futurism, and ian surrealism, delivered through twitchy visuals that makes it play like a particularly restless dream. There is an unexpected sweetness to the concoction that helps it go down more smoothly than you might expect, but it still leaves a residue of nightmare behind.


Original trailer for The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

COMMENTS:The had been producing surreal, Continue reading 279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

CAPSULE: GIRL ASLEEP (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rosemary Myers

FEATURING: , Harrison Feldman, Matthew Whittet, Amber McMahon, Imogen Archer, Eamon Farren, Maiah Stewardson

PLOT: A socially awkward girl falls asleep at her disastrous and unwanted 15th birthday party and enters a fantasy world.

Still from Girl Asleep (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Content to dawdle pleasantly through a merely quirky opening, Girl Asleep doesn’t make a mad dash for the weird until its midpoint. It’s an eccentric and worthy entry in the feminine coming-of-age subgenre, but not strange enough for the List.

COMMENTS: Girl Asleep is like what might result if you put Labyrinth, Napoleon Dynamite, and a random movie in a blender. Other critics have been quick to pick up on the last two influences, but not so much on the first one, which is crucial to us. Girl takes a radical turn at the midpoint, when Greta enters a blatantly allegorical dream world, which takes it in a direction Anderson probably would never have gone. ( might have, but he would not have kept it so sweet).

But let’s back up a bit. Girl starts off simply enough, with soon-to-be 15-year old Greta at a new school on the first day. (The fact that “new school: first day” is written on a basketball being thrown up in the air is our tip-off that this film will have a spry and offbeat sense of humor—look out for objects with informational titles spread throughout  the film). Cue Elliot, the movie’s indefatigably upbeat nerd, who’s the first to strike up a friendship with the newcomer. Second to approach her are Jade, Sapphire and Amber, the school’s bitchy-cool girls, who “take a shine” to her like a team of Australian Heathers. Dad wears short-shorts and Mom wears denim pantsuits—this is the Seventies, after all, as the home’s gold-and-avocado color scheme informs us. Older sis is aloof, but her smooth-talking boyfriend’s plunging neckline and aquamarine party van stir instincts inside of Greta. After a string of ordinary teenage humiliations, things get really embarrassing when Mom plans a fifteenth birthday bash for the wallflower so she can meet the neighbors in the most awkward way possible. A magical realist album cover from chain-smoking heart-throb Benoit Tremet and spontaneous disco numbers keep a weirder-than-average vibe going through the first forty minutes.

Fleeing to her bedroom mid-party, an electric shock from a music box sends Greta into a dark Gothic woods to retrieve her symbolic innocence from a bird puppet and a mucousy swamp thing with a porn stache. It never gets uncomfortably weird, but she sees lots of strange sights in the woods, derangements that persist when she returns to her party. The easy-to-grasp analogies between Greta’s real life and her dream world, strengthened by the fact that the same actors portray characters in the fantasy, will remind experienced travelers of familiar psychic terrains (from Mirrormask and the aforementioned Labyrinth). The simplified sub-Freudian symbolism is appropriate for the target age group, just frightening enough to hint at the challenges of adulthood without tossing Greta into the frightening orgies of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. The plot’s zigs and offbeat jokes keep us on our toes and, despite the mild absurdism, the kids are as likable, flawed and realistic as any John Hughes cast. Overall, it’s a fun movie that will serve as a fine escalation of the possibilities of fantastic cinema for adolescents, while the quirky setting amuses adults.

Matthew Whittet, who also plays the dad, adapted Girl Asleep from his own play. Rosemary Myers directs. Although Whittet has an established career as an actor (appearing in Moulin Rogue! and The Great Gatsby), this is his first published screenplay. Girl is the first credit of any kind for Myers. Both have promising futures, as do Bethany Whitmore and Harrison Feldman, the film’s two young leads.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like the love child of Jane Campion and Guy Maddin, an otherworldly quinceañera that celebrates female rites of passage and the hallucinatory power of film.”–Serena Donadoni, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: TALE OF TALES (2015)

Il Racconto dei Racconti

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Toby Jones, , Bebe Cave

PLOT: Peace and harmony reign between three neighboring kingdoms, but all is not well with the countries’ monarchs: in her desire for an heir, the Queen of Longtrellis goes to extremes; trying to avoid marrying off his daughter, the King of Highhills accidentally dooms her to wed an ogre; and the King of Strongcliff attempts to woo an unseen (and unsightly) singer that won his heart.

Still from Tale of Tales (2015)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Director Matteo Garone weaves together three differently unsettling fairy tales with a sure hand and A-list actors. Sea monsters, giant fleas, and creepy albino twins are just a few of the wondrous sights to see in this medieval fantasy. The undercurrents of death, deformity, and violence make for an unsettling amalgam when coupled with picturesque castles and countrysides.

COMMENTS: An international cast, sumptuous European locales, familial conflict—yessir, Tale of Tales screams “Film Festival” and “Art House.” Fortunately for us, attributes like bloody murder, spontaneous gestation, and youth-bringing lactation also make it scream “weird”! Indeed, looking over some of the “Weirdest Search Terms” from my time here, I suspect at the very least that last one will notch 366 another visitor from the far corners of the web. Tale of Tales delivers a strong dose classic European fairy-tales without skimping on the grisly elements that made them such macabre stories.

Using three stories from Giambattista Basile’s early 17th-century collection of Neapolitan fairy-tales, director Matteo Garrone allows an unlikely group of fantasy characters to stumble toward their fates, occasionally stumbling into each other. The Queen of Longtrellis’ (Salma Hayek) husband is slain while killing a sea beast he hunted so that his wife could devour the monster’s heart—a solution, we are told, for the couple’s infertility. Attending the funeral is the kind-hearted King of Highhills (Toby Jones) together with his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave). We also meet the lusty lord of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel), appearing from beneath the skirts of two courtesans in his coach before arriving at the procession. Things bat back and forth between their tales throughout the movie, and needless to say, the roads these monarchs and their families take are a bit bumpy.

Judging the “weird” merits of a fantasy movie can be a challenge, for while unreal things necessarily go on, that is expected from the genre. However, the defense of my bold claim in the case of Tale of Tales is made easier because of the extremes the movie goes to with its material. The story of the Queen of Longtrellis alone cements things firmly in our realm of the weird. Not only did the Queen need to eat the serpent’s heart, but during the preparation thereof (by, as specified, a solitary virgin) the young cook becomes with child herself; both women are pregnant just one day before delivering, separately, identical albino twins. Disapproving of her own son, Elias[1], fraternizing (as it were) with the peasant’s son, Jonah[2], the Queen eventually makes a second Faustian bargain resulting in, to put it crudely, “Form of Bat!” …And on top of that there’s the mightily growing flea-pet of the King of Highhills and the sad tale of the two crones who accidentally steal the heart of the King of Strongcliff.

I’m generally skeptical of the “interlocking narrative” structure found in some films — I regard it as a poor excuse to cobble together what should have been multiple short ones. However, the tone in Tale of Tales is consistent throughout, and any potential disjointedness is mitigated both by the very smooth editing work and the presence of a troupe of carnival performers who appear at key points throughout the three narratives. And did I mention there’s ? Showing up barely in time for his own demise, I like how he can always be counted on to add a touch of pathos. Tale of Tales is a beautiful, weird movie that is a reassurance to fantasy genre fans everywhere.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There was already something wonderfully weird and carnivalesque about Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone’s past films… Now, the director has let his circus ringmaster’s instinct flower with the bold, barmy ‘Tale of Tales’… the sheer, obstinate oddness of ‘Tale of Tales’ sends crowd-pleasers like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Hobbit’ scuttling into the shadows of the forest in terror.”–Dave Calhoun, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

  1. “Elias” is a variant of “Elijah”, the prophet known, among other things, to be the harbinger of the End of Days; he twice fills this role vis-à-vis his own parents. []
  2. That a boy conceived by the consumption of the heart of a giant fish should be named “Jonah” is, in my view, more than a bit gratifying. []

249. BLANCANIEVES (2012)

Snow White

Blancanieves combines the characteristic language of documentary, a typical feature of Spanish realist cinema, with other devices from the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum (fades, magical connections, etc.), typical of silent film – which in some cases call to mind Luis Buñuel’s surrealist aesthetic. These paradoxical styles help to create a visual atmosphere which is appropriate to the somewhat sinister tale by the Brothers Grimm which serves as the pretext of the film.”–Jorge Latorre

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Pablo Berger

FEATURING: Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Sofía Oria, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Sergio Dorado

PLOT: Antonio Villalta is a famous bullfighter with a pregnant wife who is distracted in the ring and gored by a bull. The accident leaves him wheelchair-bound, his wife dies giving birth to his daughter, and he marries his nurse Encarna, a cruel and manipulative sociopath who only wants him for his fortune. Encarna at first keeps Carmen, Antonio’s daughter, as a servant girl and virtual slave on the estate, but orders her killed when she is found visiting her father against her stepmothers will; Carmen escapes and is rescued by a band of dwarfs who travel Spain performing a novelty bullfighting act.

Still from Blancanieves (2102)

BACKGROUND:

  • The folk tale “Snow White” was first set down in print by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.
  • Dwarf matadors (known as “charlotada”), who would warm up the crowd before the main event, were a real phenomenon in Spanish bullfighting.
  • Writer/director Pablo Berger cites ‘s Freaks (1932) as one of his main inspirations for the script.
  • Blancanieves was in development for eight years before filming began. This means that it was conceived before The Artist, the revivalist silent film that won the Academy Award in 2011.
  • The film won 10 Goyas (the Spanish equivalent of the Oscar), including Best Film and Best Actress for villainess Maribel Verdú. Spain submitted it to the Academy Awards but it was not one of the five foreign film finalists.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pablo Berger’s film utilizes simple tricks that would have been available to filmmakers in the 1920s, including frequent use of superimposed double images. The most effective of these is the shadowy skull that flashes over the skin of the apple as the wicked stepmother poisons it (using a syringe), while her intended victim basks in the crowd’s adulatory applause in the background, out of focus.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rooster cam; transvestite bullfighting dwarf; crying corpse

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: “I have this idea for a Snow White adaptation set among Spanish bullfighters in the 1920s, but how can I make it weird? I know! I’ll make it an expressionistic silent film, and make one of the dwarfs a transvestite and give the wicked stepmother a penchant for S&M!” Well done, Pablo Berger.


Original U.S. release trailer for Blancanieves

COMMENTS: As the early career of Guy Maddin reminds us, silent Continue reading 249. BLANCANIEVES (2012)

LIST CANDIDATE: TWICE UPON A TIME (1983)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: John Korty, Charles Swenson, Bill Couturié (“adult” version)

FEATURING: Voices of Lorenzo Music, Marshall Efron, Judith Kahan, James Cranna, Julie Payne, Hamilton Camp, Paul Frees

PLOT: With the help of a fairy godmother and a blundering superhero, two dreamland misfits try to stop the wicked Synonamess Botch from detonating nightmare bombs.

Still from Twice Upon a Time (1983)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The mix of a crazy dream/fairytale plot with luminous cutout animation that often evokes surrealist collage landscapes—the cartoon characters might find themselves inside a clock that looks like a Leonardo da Vinci notebook page, on a frozen beach with body parts sticking out of the sand, or attacked by office supplies—makes Twice Upon a Time a one-of-a-kind oddball adventure. The legendary backstory involving the film’s longtime unavailability, kid-unfriendly profanity, competing versions, and accusations of censorship (which turned out to be reverse censorship) doesn’t hurt Time‘s cult credentials, either.

COMMENTS: Coming out during Disney’s nadir, when cartoon features were out-of-fashion, Twice Upon a Time was simultaneously a throwback and an innovation. The movie was painstakingly animated through the never before (or since) used process of “Lumage,” where plastic cutouts are placed on a light table and filmed. The process makes the cutouts seem to glow at times, as well as creating planes that impart a weird three-dimensionality to the images. The effect has been compared to stained glass, although the movie’s soft palettes are more reminiscent of gently glowing pastel watercolors. Besides the immensely detailed painted backdrops, the cartoon characters of dreamland also frequently tromp on top of black and white stills representing the “real” world. The resulting work comprises shots of extreme beauty (the shadowy, tiered towers of Murkworks, contrasted with the construction-paper chaos of Frivoili) and wit (the camera pulls back to reveal that the hedges the villains are trotting through form a skull and crossbones, and the submersible tottering on top of a pile of junk is surely a tribute to stylistic precursor Yellow Submarine).

Structurally, the narrative can be charitably described as anarchic, with archetypal characters who are as two-dimensional as the plastic cels they’re made from. Our misfit heroes, a shape-shifting “all-purpose animal” and a mute esque Tramp, are joined by a Jewish fairy godmother (“FGM” for short), an aspiring actress, a superhero with a learner’s permit, and other jokey stock characters. Opposing them is nightmare tycoon Synonamess Botch (with “Nixon & Agnew ’68” tattooed on his chest), his fleet of  vulture bombers, a pet rat (presciently named “Ratatouille”), and “head scream writer” Scuzzbopper. Together, the opposing sides war for dominance in the minds of the monochrome denizens of our world, know to them as the “Rushers of Din” (as accurate a three-word summary of modern humans as I can imagine).

Many find the plot, which involves the necessity of stopping time by stealing a piece of a cosmic clock, confusing; but although the setup may be rushed, it falls far short of being truly baffling. Some very bad, rejected-for-a-Rocky-sequel 80s pop music over the credits detracts from the project’s artistic credibility, but helps fix it in its era. Despite minor reservations, Twice Upon a Time is a great, overlooked, imaginative oddity that is well worth rediscovering. It’s so strange that it’s hard to believe executive producer George Lucas ever gave the project his blessing (although it’s easy to see why Mr. Blockbuster didn’t champion it after it breezed through theaters, making barely a ripple in the public consciousness).

Twice Upon a Time‘s “censorship” flap merits an explanation. Per director John Korty, the story is that after the movie bombed, producer/screenwriter Bill Couturié  re-recorded some of Marshall Efron’s dialogue with “dirty” jokes (what today would amount to PG-13 rated scatology, mostly), with the studio’s blessing but without Korty’s knowledge or approval. The intent, apparently, was to re-position the flop as a cult movie for high school and college-aged kids. This “dirty” cut of the film originally played on HBO; when Korty discovered the fact, he supplied the network with the “clean” masters, which they then started airing. Angry viewers assumed that HBO had re-edited the film to remove the profanity and make it kid-friendly. Actually, it was a case of reverse-censorship: the racy material was inserted into the original to spice it up, not removed to appease the bluenoses. (And there was some mild profanity in the “clean” version, too). I prefer Korty’s cut (I don’t find fart noises all that funny), but they are not very different (the two versions are more than 95% identical). Still, the idea of a “blue” variation of an animated children’s movie is titillating. Wouldn’t it be a treat if studios went back and re-recorded a profane version of every flop kids’ movie?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in all honesty, it is never boring. Strange, confusing and color-convulsing, yes. Dull, never.”–Mike Watt, “Fervid Filmmaking

202. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

La Belle et la Bête

“Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things.
I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy…”–Jean Cocteau, prologue to Beauty and the Beast

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Marais, Josette Day

PLOT: A merchant who has fallen on hard times wanders onto a mysterious estate and plucks a single rose to take back to his daughter, Belle. He is suddenly faced with a bipedal Beast, dressed as a nobleman, who says that the penalty for the theft is death, but who offers to spare the old man’s life if he will send his daughter in his place. Against her father’s wishes, Belle volunteers to be kept as the Beast’s prisoner, but the longer she stays in his magical castle the more she sees the noble heart beating underneath the bestial hide.

Still from Beauty and the Beast (1946)
BACKGROUND:

  • Jean Cocteau considered himself a poet who dabbled in filmmaking, although today he is best remembered for his contributions to cinema rather than literature. La Belle et la Bête was his first narrative feature film after making the 55-minute Surrealist film Blood of a Poet [Le sang d’un poète] in 1932.
  • This version of the story is based on 1756 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont; it was a faithful adaptation, except that Cocteau invented the role of Avenant.
  • Cocteau suffered from a painful skin disease during shooting, and even had to be hospitalized once while filming continued (technical adviser Rene Clement directed in his absence). At times he wore a mask while directing to hide his inflamed countenance.
  • Jean Marais, who played Avenant, the Beast, and the Prince, was Cocteau’s lover. It is rumored that he convinced Cocteau to take on the project, thinking the role would launch his career as a French matinee idol (it did).
  • Minimalist composer and frequent film scorer Philip Glass composed an alternate soundtrack for the film (conceived of as an opera).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although it’s difficult to disregard the Beast’s magnificent makeup, it’s the candelabras made of living human arms lining the castle’s corridors that have made the strangest and most lasting impression over the years.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Handelabras; statues that watch you; the steaming Beast

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There is no movie before or since that manages to strike the same tone of dreamy believability as Beauty and the Beast. It’s a spectacle picture wrapped in the trappings of high art, mixing conventional storytelling with a smattering of Surrealist visuals. Too dry to entertain the very young, Cocteau nonetheless begs us to look at the film as if we were children; to surrender to the Beast’s enchantments and enter his mysterious halls lined with arms and statues that calmly watch us as we watch them.

Trailer for La Belle et la Bête

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau argued with his cinematographer, the Continue reading 202. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946)

A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001)

Once or twice a decade comes a film that polarizes audiences, particularly of the American variety. This is not surprising given that few Westerners, spoon-fed on undemanding aesthetics, even know how to watch film. Recent examples of divisive cinema include Noah and Birdman from 2014. Both appeared to be genre films of sorts.

The audiences going to Noah jumped off the church bus, expecting to see the cinematic equivalent of a Velcro bible lesson with rosy-cheeked prophet loading friendly snakes into his wooden yacht, capped off by a “Love American Style” rainbow. Instead, they were pounded by Aronofsky’s brass knuckles of mythological and theological diversity, with a Creator who actually cared about his planet. The result was widespread provocation.

Birdman was a sort of belated, near perfect follow-up to Batman Returns (1992) (never mind that it was a bird instead of a flying rodent). s Bruce Wayne was off-kilter as his alter ego, and the hyperkinetic actor was tailor made for this iconic role, revealing slivers of a manic-depressive personality as he played ringmaster in a freak show carnival. Birdman takes that development further, exposing the actor behind the actor behind the suit. Audiences, desiring more blockbuster mayhem, were treated to something far more idiosyncratic and original. By and large, they responded like a hostile bull charging to a flag of artsy-fartsy red.

Of course, both the Bible and comic books have scores of zealous adherents, particularly when it comes to cinematic treatments of the objects of their adulation. Science fictions fanatics are made of similar stuff. When ‘s Prometheus was released in 2012, the Alien fans were deeply offended by the lack of a guy in an H.R. Giger gorilla suit. In place of mugging Ritz Brothers and Bill Paxton was the beautifully enigmatic pro-choice seeker Noomi Rapace. Too original for bourgeoisie creampuffs, Prometheus stole the fiery expectations of the sci fi formula. Genre disciples screamed blasphemy and branded Scott as Judas.

Eleven years before Prometheus, there was the Steven Spielberg/ hybrid A.I., which was, perhaps, saddled with more preconceived notions and baggage than any film of the last half century.

The introductory obstacle was the Spielberg proselytizers, who hoped for heart-tugging family fare about a cute plush toy. Knowing that A.I. had been attached to the late Kubrick, Spielberg’s sycophants probably had the most misgivings.

Still from A.I.: Artificial Intelligece (2001)The second obstacle came from the church of Kubrick. Now that Stanley was dead, he was, of course, canonized. In that parish of holy auteurs, there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth among the parishioners. That populist antichrist, Spielberg, was not Continue reading A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001)

CAPSULE: THE TALE OF THE PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Isao Takahata

FEATURING: Chloe Moretz,  (English dub)

PLOT: A bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl in a bamboo shoot; he raises her and trains her to become a noble, and eventually a princess, although she has other ideas about life.

Still from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a gorgeously animated fantasy film, but not exceedingly weird until a final act push that’s too little, too late.

COMMENTS: Kaguya is an extremely beautiful film. At times it looks like it was drawn on rice paper scrolls in cherry blossom ink. A serious, reverential, and yet generally light-hearted treatment of Japan’s oldest written narrative, it will not appeal to young kids, who will stick with it through the opening but get bored long before the credits roll after 137 minutes. Girls setting out on their teenage years may identify with poor Kaguya, pressured to be a lady against her own heart; but, despite its fairy tale structure and youthful protagonist, this is reflective animation aimed at adults.

The tale can be broken into three parts. The opening describes how a humble bamboo cutter discovers tiny Kaguya nestled inside a bamboo shoot. The miniature child grows at a magically impressive rate, and even induces lactation in her surrogate mother (who declares “I’ve got milk!” in a breastfeeding scene that I’ll wager will be cut from the U.S. release). After discovering more treasures in bamboo, including fine silk robes, the cutter is convinced the girl is a gift from heaven and destined to become a princess, which sets the second act in motion. Here, Kaguya is taken from her rustic friends and trained to be an Edo-period lady. Despite chafing at the regimented lifestyle, her instantaneous mastery of the koto is taken as further proof of her divine origin and noble destiny. Conflict arises when a series of noble suitors seek to win the girl’s reluctant heart, and she sends each of them on a series of seemingly impossible quests. After escaping this trap, Kaguya’s true celestial origins are finally revealed, and the tale wraps up on a melancholy note.

Kaguya embodies a longing for things past, starting with the nostalgic preference for nature over culture. Kaguya’s days romping through the bamboo forests with her friends are an idyllic paradise, while she submits to the pressures of civilization morosely and only to please her status-climbing parents. A scene where the foundling sheds a single tear as her natural eyebrows are plucked out so they can be replaced by painted smudges reveals all. Thematically related is the film’s sadness over forsaken childhood; Kaguya’s assumption of the responsibilities (absurd as they may be) of a noblewoman represents the loss of innocence. From nature and childhood to civilization and adulthood, and last, the final trip home back from where she came: Kaguya spends a lifetime in her tale. The finale is a dreamlike elegy, with flying lovers swooping over meadows of wildflowers and a cloud-borne procession of krishnas and buddhas obliterating consciousness. The ultimate message is surprisingly humanistic and anti-religious; “life” in the heavens, cloaked in forgetfulness and free of grief and care, is a pitiable state compared to being alive on Earth and feeling both joy and pain. And yet there is also resignation beside the rage: “the waterwheel goes round,” the final choir sings. “Lifetimes come and go in turn.” Princess Kaguya may have been born of the moon, but she’s an earthling at heart, and her fate is the same as ours.

‘s retirement left Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) as the star of the Studio Ghibli stable of animators. His works have always proved popular with Western critics and connoisseurs, but he has yet to have the sort of crossover success with popular audiences that Miyazaki made look so easy. Kaguya won’t change that pattern, and it could be the last film the 79-year old Takahata makes, leaving Ghibli looking for fresh blood. (There are sad, sad rumors going round the Ghibli may close up shop permanently).

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is screening in very limited venues across the U.S. The DVD/Blu-ray release date is not yet set.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…cryptic in story and minimalist in form, this brave new offering from Studio Ghibli quietly dazzles… an embarrassing flop in Japan… [i]t may be better received by Western audiences, who will appreciate its strange qualities as innately Ghibli.”–Andrew Blackie, Film Ink (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall, Kathy Baker, , Alan Arkin, Robert Oliveri, Conchata Ferrell, Caroline Aaron, Dick Anthony Williams, O-Lan Jones

PLOT: Avon lady Peg (Wiest) finds a strange boy named Edward (Depp) with scissors for hands living in a Gothic castle next to her candy-colored suburban neighborhood. Since his father/creator (Price) has died, Peg brings Edward home with her. At first, the town embraces Edward’s landscaping and hairdressing skills, but when he falls in love with Peg’s daughter (Ryder), complications arise.

Still from Edward Scissorhands (1990)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because it’s probably the most personal film directed by Tim Burton, arguably the weirdest filmmaker ever to achieve consistent, mainstream success within the Hollywood studio system. Burton never fully defines the film as either fantasy or science fiction; Edward is something like the Frankenstein monster, with Price as a benevolent mad scientist.

COMMENTS: This unlikely vehicle was really the film that turned the photogenic Johnny Depp into a movie star. (Intriguingly, Depp’s first starring role was actually in Cry-Baby, directed by another iconoclastic filmmaker, .) With his dead-white skin and rat’s nest hairdo, Edward Scissorhands vaguely resembles Robert Smith, lead singer of the rock group The Cure. Edward’s hair also looks something like Burton’s.  This was also the first of eight collaborations so far between Depp and Burton, who obviously see each other as kindred spirits. The film itself is a fabulously Gothic fairy tale, with an unexpectedly downbeat ending, a great deal of Burtonesque humor, and any number of haunting images, all backed up by Danny Elfman’s beautiful and mournful music. Both Burton and Elfman have called this their favorite of their own films. The film is set in a full-blown Burton universe, with all of his strange quirks and eccentricities (he wrote the story; Caroline Thompson penned the screenplay). After Edward, all of the live-action films directed by Burton have been based on material created by others (Mars Attacks, Alice in Wonderland, etc.), but this is unfiltered Tim Burton, melancholy and delightfully weird. Somehow, this director’s Disney-in-Hell vision has been palatable to mainstream audiences, unlike, say, the Surrealist nightmares of . (It’s amusing to compare Burton’s satiric portrait of suburbia here with Lynch’s terrifying town of Lumberton in Blue Velvet). The movie is obviously semi-autobiographical for Burton, with Edward being only one of his many white-faced protagonists–Pee-Wee Herman, Barnabbas Collins, Beetlejuice, etc.–and Edward definitely does not fit in the suburbs, which is the way Burton has always said he felt growing up in Burbank. (Ironically, Burbank is a place that Burton, in a way, never left, since most of his films have been for Disney or Warner Bros, which are both located in that city, though Edward was produced at 20th Century Fox.) If any Tim Burton film can make the List, this, his most personal picture, should be the one.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One problem is that the other people are as weird, in their ways, as [Edward] is: Everyone in this film is stylized and peculiar, so he becomes another exhibit in the menagerie, instead of a commentary on it.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)