Article from - San Francisco Chronicle June 9, 2005
ASIAN POP Feelin' Ghibli
A retrospective at PFA shows why Disney has a thing or two to (re)learn from Japanese animation kings Miyazaki and Takahata
Animation is by nature unpredictable, indefinable; the moments that make it magical are the ones that explode formula, not obey it. That being said, if you had to come up with a way of quantifying animation, you could do worse than to propose two basic units of measurement: the chuckle and the wow. Or, as a guy named Walter Elias Disney once put it, "Fun and wonder are the important elements [of great animation], in addition to quality in production and performance -- fun in the sense of cheerful reaction, the appeal to love and laughter, wonder in that we appeal to the constant wonder in men's minds, which is stimulated by imagination."
The first wow in the new masterwork from Japan's Studio Ghibli, "Howl's Moving Castle" (which opens Friday at Bay Area theaters), occurs just seconds into the movie, which opens on a blank, gray screen. The gray swirls and parts, and then, like an SUV designed by Rube Goldberg, a monstrous, shambling contraption rattles its way into view, no longer obscured by the thick cloud of steam that belches from its belly. It's a house -- a mansion, really, with turrets and balconies and chimneys thrusting out from every imaginable surface -- only this abode seems unwilling to abide in any one place very long. Instead, powered by some weird combination of magic and science, it manages to race crazily across the landscape.
Magic Kingdom -- Hold the Magic
If you're an animation lover, watching Disney over the past five years has been a bit like following the career of a past-his-prime athlete propped up by past glories and behind-the-scenes injections of go-juice. In the past half decade, the studio that lovingly birthed such classic toons as "Bambi," "Snow White," "Fantasia" and "The Lion King" has stamped out an embarrassing series of, ahem, nonclassics: "The Emperor's New Groove." "Treasure Planet." "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." "Brother Bear." "Home on the Range." With the exception of the deliciously anarchic "Lilo and Stitch," all the recent products of Disney's venerable feature-animation machine have been critical flops and financial failures.
"I think Disney became a victim of its own success; it evolved into something that's now generally regarded as a kind of soulless money machine," says Russell Merritt, a UC Berkeley professor and the author of "Walt in Wonderland" and the forthcoming "Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies."
The fact is, the few real gems on Disney's rhinestone necklace -- "Toy Story" and its sequel, "A Bug's Life," "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" -- have all been products of the studio's deal with rising digital giant Pixar, a deal that is now on the verge of expiring. In 2003, Disney's management apparently concluded that the reason for Pixar's success is its technological edge; the cel-based, hand-drawn animation that had served as the foundation of the older company had been outmoded by its computer-rendered counterpart. And so, that August, Disney terminated its traditional feature-animation activities, laying off hundreds of talented artists and shutting down its fabled Orlando studio. Henceforth, it was decreed, all their theatrical features would be created using those newfangled 3-D computer doohickeys. (Somewhere, Unca Walt's cryogenically preserved corpse is surely spinning in its refrigeration chamber.)
On hearing of this decision, fans and pundits alike were quick to put the "dis" in Disney, pointing out that people don't watch Pixar films to ooh and aah at ray-tracing algorithms. They're simply gravitating to films made with humor, humanity and heart. "Everyone, sadly including Disney, is trying to copy Pixar's success by going 100 percent computer animation," says Marc Hairston, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and a member of the volunteer team of "evangelists" who run Nausicaa.net. "No one in the top offices has figured out that Pixar's secret is not the computer graphics, but, rather, the fact that they focus on the stories first and foremost, and let the cool computer stuff take care of itself."
Ironically, it was Pixar's John Lasseter who finally got Disney to put some real effort behind its Ghibli releases. Lasseter and his fellow Pixarites are deep-dyed Ghibli fanatics; they've gone on the record to say that when they get stuck on a project, they go into a screening room and watch a Miyazaki film. When "Spirited Away" came along, Lasseter was adamant that it should get a U.S. release worthy of its caliber of craft. In Miyazaki's words, Lasseter "bulldozed" Disney into picking up their option for its U.S. release; he then personally supervised the translation, dubbing and localization process to ensure that it was handled with care and respect for its source. The film was released to phenomenal reviews and nearly five times the box office of its predecessor, "Mononoke." It then went on to shock the industry by winning the Oscar for best animated feature -- beating out two of Disney's homegrown projects in the process.
Since then, there's been what Cal's Russell Merritt calls a "great lovefest between Ghibli and Pixar -- a mutual-admiration society. It's ironic, because Miyazaki is the last holdout for hand-drawn animation; he's the only major animator who refuses to embrace any kind of computer assistance. Yet, despite their different technologies, Pixar and Ghibli have found that they have much to learn from each other. You'll notice that I say 'Pixar,' and not other parts of the Disney corporation."
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Rebuilding the House of Mouse
But it's the other parts of the Disney corporation that have the most to learn -- or relearn, as the case may be. Animation scholars generally shy away from directly comparing Miyazaki and Walt Disney: Merritt, for one, warns that the comparison has become a "sort of shorthand for introducing Miyazaki to Western culture, establishing how important he is in anime," noting that the contrasts are as stark as the similarities. But if there's one common ground the two animation masters could be said to have shared, it's a deep and abiding passion for their craft, and a sincere desire to delight their audiences -- adults and children alike.
And if Walt were alive, one could imagine he'd issue every Disney executive a mandatory pass to PFA's Ghibli retrospective to watch the poignant honesty of Takahata's World War II drama "Grave of the Fireflies," to embrace the enchanting innocence of Miyazaki's odes to childhood, "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service," to soar with Miyazaki's whimsical flying ace, the Crimson Pig, in "Porco Rosso," and to gambol with Takahata's shape-changing raccoon-bears of "Pom Poko." To experience the fun and wonder that make animation the most powerful tool for reaching the child in every adult, and the adult in every child -- and to sing a silly symphony of wows and chuckles, conducted by the greatest living maestros of the form.