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Okko's Inn, a disarmingly charming, instantly likable Japanese animated feature, is the sort of family-friendly movie rarely seen from a lot of western productions of this type nowadays. While most kiddie flicks I've seen these days tend to go for loud, noisy, in-your-face schtick and disgusting scatalogical humor for the heck of it, this one instead aims to be a more gentle, down-to-earth sort of tale. Whatever humor we get is thankfully brief and of the clean and clever kind. More importantly, it's a film with a lot of heart. It's only weakness may be that it may fall somewhat short of the standards often set by, say, Studio Ghibli, but director Kitaro Kosaka (himself, incidentally, a Ghibli veteran) still manages to make this a delight for kids and adults while emerging as a beautiful work in its own right.

The main character of this tale is Oriko Seki (aka Okko), a 12-year-old girl who is tragically orphaned within the first five minutes when her parents' car crashes into a derailed truck while traveling home from a performance. Miraculously surviving this incident, Okko is subsequently sent to stay with her grandmother, who happens to be the proprietor of an inn in the countryside. The inn in question, which doubles as a hot springs house, goes by the name of Harunoya, with a philosophy that all are welcome.

Naturally, it does take Okko some time to get settled into this new establishment. She is befriended by three ghosts -- two of which are children who passed away years ago: the spunky but friendly Uribo, and the sassy, mischievous Miyo -- and a pesky "demon" known as Suzuki. With encouragement from these three (invisible to all but the little girl), Okko aspires to be a "junior innkeeper". Predictably, she starts off on the clumsy side and makes some poor calls of judgment, but gradually gets better, learning lessons about selflessness and valuing life. Over the course of Okko's coming of age journey, we meet a variety of other characters, among them a sullen teenage boy, a friendly fortune teller called Glory Suriyo (who takes her on a memorable shopping trip), and a bratty rival junior innkeeper named Matsuki, who treats Okko contemptuously at every opportunity. Of course, at the major core of the story is Okko coming to terms with the fact that her mother and father are no longer with her.

A lot of this movie's subject feels strikingly similar to Hiroyuki Okiura's A Letter To Momo, as well as numerous other animated tearjerkers such as My Neighbor Totoro, Coco, and Kubo and the Two Strings, but Okko's Inn manages to carve out its own niche thanks primarily to its plucky cast of characters. Okko is an easily relatable protagonist, and her similarly likable ghost buddies provide moments of gentle humor without treading into "annoying" territory. Only Matsuki comes across as downright unsympathetic -- at least for a good majority of the film -- until we find out that she, too, has troubles of her own. (As you might expect, the ending is a bit of a tearjerker, but not so much that it makes the movie downright depressing.)

In lesser hands, this tale could potentially tread into draggy territory. Thankfully, Kosaka keeps an energetic pace throughout all 96 minutes, making even the more quieter, slower moments flow without draining interest. That said, there are a couple of moments when the development of some moments feels a bit hasty, notably in the handling of Matsuki's character. Some additional scenes where we get to see her being nicer would have been welcomed, but that's honestly my only complaint.

Despite being directed by a Ghibli veteran, Okko's Inn was animated at Madhouse Studios, whose output has ranged from gritty productions like Ninja Scroll and Perfect Blue, to somber, friendlier stuff such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. If you're not familiar with this studio, these works you may have been fortunate to see. Okko's Inn, naturally, being among the more softer offerings of this studio, has a predictably sunny, beautiful look to it. There is a digital sort of look to the animation, but it still offers the sort of warmth that hand-drawn craft is usually known for. On occasion there are uses of computer images, but thankfully they don't stand out in all the wrong ways.

I went to see the dubbed version, provided by NYAV Post. It's yet another quality effort, with terrific performances by all involved. Madigan Kacmar does an outstanding job as Okko, providing the character with just the right amount of warmth, spunk, and heart. She has terrific chemistry with K.J. Aikens' somewhat smart-alecky but lovable Uribo as well as her other co-stars. Carly Williams' Matsuki is as snarky and prissy as you'd expect, while Tessa Frascogna's Miyo and Colleen O'Shaughnessy's Suzuki complete the trio of ghost companions for Okko. Glynis Eliis is also great as Okko's grandmother. NYAV Post has turned out excellent work lately, notably in the form of of big hitters such as A Silent Voice, Mirai, and even the flawed, forgettable Fireworks. It's gratifying to see them continue to live up to their standards here.

There have been a lot of great contenders for emotionally resonant animated features from Japan lately. Okko's Inn may be among the lesser known of them, but it certainly deserves a following. If you ever decide to check out this charmer, I highly would recommend doing so.

Everyone has stories about bullies and victims, but there have been very few features, namely animated ones, which actually dare to show the raw emotional honesty of such situations, particularly from the West. Luckily fans of traditional animation have a great contender for this subject: A Silent Voice, directed by Naoko Yamada. Based on a similarly titled Japanese graphic novel series, this movie doesn't hold back on showing the true tragedies of the story it tells, making its uplifting resolution all the more meaningful.

A Silent Voice tells the tale of both the growth and redemption of a former bully, Shoya Ishida. We first meet him as a High School teenager as he solemnly contemplates suicide on account of guilt for his past behavior, and for the first 20 minutes we get to see what drove him to the point. In Elementary School, Shoya mercilessly ostracized a new classmate, Shoko Nishimiya, a deaf girl who occasionally talked but mostly communicated in sign language. The cruelest thing he did was to rip out her hearing aids and throw them out the window. Eventually, Shoko transferred to another school, and then he too was bullied by his former classmates, arguably as punishment for his actions. At this point the film transitions back to the present, but rather than throwing away his life, Shoya decides to make amends. He takes sign language classes, and eventually encounters Shoko again for the first time in five years. Gradually, the two become friends. Simultaneously, Shoya also makes friends with another boy, Tomohiro Nagatsuka. Due to his guilt, however, he hesitates to look at people in the eye, and eventually comes to realize that Shoko, too, has feelings of self-resentment and must help her overcome her troubles.

In lesser hands, this story could come across as a preachy, melodramatic soap opera, but director Yamada and her staff at Kyoto Animation manage to avoid this pitfall and succeed in making this a relatable tearjerker with a lot of heart. The development between the two leads is compelling, richly tragic, and emotional, and will no doubt wrench tears from the iciest of viewers. There are a plethora of other characters who make up the story who are rounded in varying degrees, although not to the same extent as we get to see from the leads. Occasionally the plot does rush some minor developments (on account of trying to compress a six-book manga into a lengthy film), but while careful concentration is required to fully discern the occasional subplots, nobody in this story comes across as truly unsympathetic. The only exception might be Naoka Ueno, a rather nasty and bitchy character who arguably comes across as worse than Shoya, never showing any major growth from her misdeeds and instead continuing to bully poor Shoko. One scene where she openly confesses how much she detests the deaf girl is particularly mean-spirited.

Aesthetically, A Silent Voice might not be as lavishly detailed or colorful as, say, a Studio Ghibli production, but frankly, having said that, the actual animation is no slouch. The backgrounds are lovingly rendered and the character designs, while distinctively "Anime" in appearance, all have a distinct look and feel to them that makes each easy to identify. There are occasional uses of computer imagery (such as a brief but nonetheless thrilling scene where we go on a roller coaster ride at a carnival), but mostly Yamada chooses to execute the film in a rather stylish way. This is done through the use of different camera cutaways and lavish shots, such as fish swimming through a brook and occasional fireworks, giving A Silent Voice a bit of an "art film" tilt. To illustrate Shoya's isolation we see X's marked on the people he avoids making contact with, which may seem as a bit too "on the nose" at times, but having said that, it's a clever approach that works wonders. Kensuke Ushio's primarily piano-driven (and sparse) score is also a nice touch. It's also to the film's credit that the film backs off on dialogue in certain occasions when it needs to, rather than dumbing everything down to its audience.

Further complimenting A Silent Voice's atmosphere is its English dubbing. NYAV Post has done a lot of great dubs over the years in no small part to the talented duo of Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh. This yet another winner for them, and certainly up there with their best, with excellent performances from everyone involved. The real triumph of the dub is the casting of an actual deaf actress to portray Shoko, Lexi Crowden. Every second of her turn comes across as very believable and convincing. The end result is all the more tangible and authentic because of it. The same is true with the casting of the children for the Elementary School scenes, a practice that I continue to applaud NYAV Post for still going through with.

A Silent Voice clocks approximately over two hours, which may cause the film to come across as a bit lengthy at times, but that it manages to keep a good pace on its story and maintain interest even when it occasionally slows down is a testament to its success as a film. There's a reason why Makoto Shinkai, director of Japan's current highest-grossing feature your name (released the same year, incidentally), expressed enthusiasm about A Silent Voice; it deserves every ounce of praise. This is a modern day winner filled with genuine heart, and offers a most relatable and universal message without being preachy.

Ridley Scott's first fray into fantasy is one of those movies that *could* have been a classic if not for some unfortunate shortcomings that harmed its chances. After making darker, sometimes horrifying fare such as Alien and Blade Runner, the director wanted to make a less intense, accessible story. Teaming up with writer William Hjortsberg, Scott fashioned a fairy tale fantasy involving loss of innocence, unicorns, dwarves, temptation, redemption, and occasional Biblical overtones. Thus, Legend was born.

Following an atmospherically haunting opening sequence in a nighttime forest, the movie follows two innocents: Jack (Tom Cruise), a "forest boy" who communicates with animals, and his girlfriend, a princess named Lili (Mia Sara). Against his better judgment, Jack takes Lili to a forbidden grove where she is entranced by the sight of unicorns. She reaches out to touch one of them -- a fatal mistake which eventually leads to the unicorn having its alicorn severed by a trio of nasty goblins (their ringleader played by the raspy-voiced Alice Playten). Almost instantly a blizzard showers down on the forest, and Jack and Lili are separated. It turns out that the ringleader behind the plot is the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry), a horned, demonic presence who wants to destroy sunshine and spread his evil across the world. Soon Lili is kidnapped, too, and Jack must get her (as well as the unicorn's alicorn) back. He's accompanied by Honeythorn Gump (David Bennett, voiced by Playten), a sprite-child who strums a violin, a pair of bickering dwarfs (Cork Hubbert and the late Billy Barty), and an emotionally distraught fairy.

Legend aims to be an atmospheric fantasy epic, and in many ways it succeeds. The production design is staggeringly spectacular, even for a movie shot primarily on sound stages. The colors in the forest scenes are lush and rich with detail, and the set/creature/costume designs perfectly encapsulate the mood of the subject. The goblins and dwarves look pretty much how you'd expect, but Tim Curry's Lord of Darkness is easily the triumph of the film. Completely unrecognizable in prosthetic make-up supplied by Rob Bottin, Curry not only looks terrifying, but his delivery is truly evil personified. Every scene he's in is an unbridled delight.

Unfortunately, as mentioned, the film has its share of problems. For one, it moves at a snail's pace (Scott's movies tend to do so, but for some reason that's a drawback here), never really coming alive until the end of the film. Secondly, the characters are pretty much archetypal and lacking in depth. Finally, as good as Curry is, the rest of the cast doesn't quite reach the same heights. Alice Playten, Billy Barty, Cork Hubbert, and Robert Picardo all embrue their characters with quirky, goofy humor and in the cases of Miss Playten and Mr. Picardo, nasty and brittle. David Bennett conveys the sprite-child effectively (although his voice is sometimes grating, dubbed by Alice Playten). Tom Cruise, unfortunately, is the weakest link of the cast. In all fairness, it's not his fault; he has shown himself to be a solid actor in many other productions, but his role as the hero doesn't provide him the opportunity to showcase the talent that made him truly famous. It is not by any means a bad performance; there are moments when he does deliver, but even Cruise admits that he isn't particularly proud of his work in this movie. It's serviceable, but not great. Mia Sara actually fares better as the princess, especially in the latter scenes of the film where she dons a revealing costume and is wooed by Curry. (Her scenes with Cruise aren't as effective, but again, that's down to the writing of both roles than the actress.)

But there were other shortcomings even when production wrapped up. Scott's director's cut of approximately two hours was so poorly received by test audiences, that Scott ended up cutting the movie down to 95 minutes. Furthermore, Scott had commissioned Jerry Goldsmith to write a luscious, deeply haunting score which arguably enhances the whole movie, but Universal executives, fearing the film needed to be more "mainstream", displaced it with an inferior and ill-fitting synthesizer/rock score by Tangerine Dream. To add insult to injury, the film was recut in the style of an MTV video to barely an hour and a half. The result was a messy, confusing, choppily edited trainwreck that unsurprisingly died at the box office. (The cutting also affects the credibility of Tom Cruise's performance, making him seem more monodimensional and confused than his character actually is in the director's cut.) Although the movie has since earned a cult following, the damage had already been done.

Thankfully, Universal has provided the Director's Cut on DVD (thought to be lost forever until recently discovered); having seen both versions, I can safely say that the film works better in its longer, symphonic version than the American cut. Goldsmith's score is a ravishingly gorgeous, haunting work of art that compliments the atmosphere of Legend far better than the synthesized rock score. (On the flip side, there is at least one scene where there is temp track music that feels out of place, but luckily not as gratingly distracting as the Tangerine Dream score.) Some people may take issue with the inclusion of some singing, but it's at the very least a more fitting alternative to the misplaced rock songs at the end of the U.S. cut.

Of course, Legend is not a perfect movie even in its restored form--the faults still exist--but at least it adds more depth and feels more "complete" as an overall experience. The U.S. version, for the curious, can be found on the "Bonus Material" DVD (and it does add a scene that unfortunately didn't make it into the director's cut -- the restoring of the unicorn's alicorn), but personally I recommend the Director's Cut--it's a better experience by far. Also worthy of note is the 45-minute documentary on how the making of the film and its unfortunate fate due to the cuts and score swapping.

Legend has polarized audiences to this day, and even the director's cut has received is share of detractors. It remains an oddity in Scott's portfolio, but it's an intriguing source of fascination regardless.

Without their beloved founder, the Walt Disney Studios fell into some rough times during the 1970's. Much of their output was going downhill and lacking the magic touch that made them so memorable, and a lot of promising projects ended up misfiring. The studio did have a few successes during this era, though, but even then, such hits were a double-edged sword. One of these was 1977's Pete's Dragon, which came at a time when the demographic for family films was not resonating with the kind that Disney was putting out. George Lucas's Star Wars had conquered both the box office and imaginations of moviegoers alike, so much so that this movie as well as Disney's other release that year, The Rescuers, paled in the light of the competition.

Pete's Dragon was never really meant to be the live-action/animated musical hybrid it ended up becoming. Originally, it was supposed to be a psychological drama in which the title character is a figment of an abused orphan's imagination. It would have been an edgier story that would have appealed to then Disney animator Don Bluth, who ended up with the job of animating the title character (more on that later). But somehow it got decided that this movie could work as another Mary Poppins. It even received a similar marketing campaign and premiered at Radio City Music Hall. Unfortunately, as with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Pete's Dragon, while commercially successful, had nowhere near the same impact as its far superior "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" predecessor achieved.

The film opens in Maine where we see a runaway orphan named Pete (Sean Marhsall), escaping from his mean adoptive family, the Gogans (their leader portrayed to shrill extremes by the late Shelley Winters). His only companion is Elliot (voice of Charlie Callas), an animated (by Bluth) emerald skinned dragon who can reappear and disappear at will. The pair end up at Passamaquoddy, where Pete gets into trouble with the townsfolk as a result of his dragon friend's clumsiness. Eventually he finds a home in a lighthouse kept by the tipsy, alcoholic Lampy (the late Mickey Rooney) and his daughter, Nora (Helen Reddy), while Elliot is relocated to a nearby cave. Unfortunately, the Gogans are still on the hunt for Pete and will stop at nothing to get him back. Matters become further complicated when a fraudulent "medicine man" referring to himself as Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) and his sidekick Hoagy (the late Red Buttons), appear in town, learn about the dragon's existence and set up a trap to capture the beast for exploitation, using Pete as bait. When an approaching ship on the harbor gets caught in a storm which takes out the lighthouse wick, it's up to Elliot to save the day.

The major selling point of Pete's Dragon is the animated title character. Perhaps because he's animated, Elliot comes across as much more interesting and engaging than most of the human cast. He's genially sweet, behaves like a puppy dog, possesses a childlike innocence and playful nature. Communicating only with a series of grunts and gibberish talk, he is endearing from the start, in major part because of the chemistry he shares with Marshall. It helps that Marshall actually believes that the dragon is actually there since he was animated in post-production. Although Bluth expressed dissatisfaction with working on the picture, his work here is commendable, as he does succeed in breathing fire to a character who blends in well with the rest of the atmosphere. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is when a drunken Rooney and superstitious Buttons venture into his cave, describing a horrible monster of sorts, and an unsuspecting Elliot, tiptoes along with them and gets terrified of his own shadow! Another sweet moment is when he plucks a tear from Marshall and holds it up to his eye. Not only is this a great technical achievement, it exudes genuine heart.

Technically, the movie cannot be faulted for its effects. Aside from Bluth's animation, the movie generally succeeds in its technical wizardry of giving the illusion of an invisible dragon treading across town, making footprints in wet cement, knocking over a fence, colliding with strangers, and whooshing underwater like a torpedo to demolish an approaching boat of opposing bullies. The scenes where he picks up Pete and rocks him around during a musical number are also well executed; never once does the viewer spot anything in the way of visible wires that would destroy the illusion. Most impressive is a climactic showdown at a warehouse where Elliot's would-be-captors drop their nets on the dragon and try to bound him. The dragon's figure is flawlessly rendered in the tangle of nets, even when we don't see him, to the point that where he's turning around, we genuinely believe that he is there.

Despite all this, however, something is missing from Pete's Dragon. Although the scenes between Elliot and Pete are memorable, the storyline, as mentioned, could have used more interesting, fully fleshed out characters. The villains are one-dimensional, and a potentially neutral character like a harsh schoolteacher is too nasty to be believable, especially in the unsympathetic manner she runs her class and strikes students unfairly for punishments they don't deserve. Lampy serves more as comic relief with only a few moments where he's allowed to exude other warmer emotions, and Nora is too bland a character to truly register with audiences.

The primary problem with Pete's Dragon is that it drags at an unnecessarily overlong two hours. Its plot lacks depth and emotional sophistication to justify its length, with many scenes coming across as padding more than anything else. In particular, the sidestory involving Terminus feels unnecessary, and frankly, is not very interesting, especially since his character little more than just a mustache-twirling buffoon. A similarly pointless subplot involve Nora's long lost boyfriend Paul, which, if not for the aforementioned lighthouse climax, otherwise feels superfluous.

The songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, although pleasant for the most part, are also guilty of stalling the momentum and add very little to the movie. The only songs that resonate are a gentle duet between Pete and Nora "It's Not Easy" as well as Reddy's "Candle on the Water", which was lucky to get an Oscar nomination. "Brazzle Dazzle Day," although catchy, feels both irrelevant to the movie and out of place with the narrative. The remainder of the songs, which include the Gogans' intolerably obnoxious "Happiest Home in These Hills", Terminus and Hogey's "Every Little Piece" are not particularly memorable, or frankly, even engaging. I think Pete's Dragon would have worked better if it was portrayed as its initial concept, because the end results of making this a musical feel tacked on instead of genuine, unlike Mary Poppins.

Another fault is that too much of the movie is played primarily for shrill comedy. Part of this is down to a majority of the acting, which, for the most part, borders on ridiculous hamminess to the point of caricature. This is especially true of Winters, Dale, and Buttons, who spend so much time chewing scenery or mugging that they never come across as genuinely menacing, nor frankly, even funny. They're just too goofy to be believable baddies. Rooney is genuinely likable when he is down-to-earth and warm in scenes such as where he is teaching Pete to paint and in a few moments of intimate discussion with Nora. Otherwise he is required to do little more than overact, which unfortunately is the majority of his screen time. Only young Marshall's sincerely believable turn as Pete rings true, in part because of his scenes with Elliot, but also because he plays it mostly straight for the most part. Reddy is pleasant enough as Nora and she at least brings some warmth, but her specialty is in singing, not acting (although her actual performance isn't as bad as declared).

Pete's Dragon is by no means a bad movie. It's pleasant enough for the most part and has its share of charming moments. Kids will certainly enjoy it, particularly ones who don't demand sophistication when it comes to family movies. Sadly though, it's no Disney classic.

Makoto Shinkai's your name achieved what would arguably be a most improbable feat: it dethroned Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away to become Japan’s most successful film. And what a movie it is! Heartfelt, hilarious, moving, thrilling, and enthralling, this movie cleverly mixes together the central idea from Disney's Freaky Friday with a bit of Back to the Future for good measure.

It's about two teens -- Taki and Mitsuha -- who somehow find themselves switching places in their bodies periodically. (A running gag involves Taki waking up in Mitsuha's place noticing "his" breasts.) Stakes get higher in the latter half when the two star-crossed strangers use that connection to avert a tragedy. Sounds like a bizarre story for an animated film, doesn't it? But it works.

The first half in particular, where we see the difficulties that Taki and Mitsuha experience during their supernatural "body swapping" episodes, is hysterically funny. It's only in the second half when things get a little slower, but even then, Shinkai manages to maintain a lot of interest for the viewers, notably in the form of a stylized "time travel" sequence and of course the chemistry between the leads.

The dubbing is very well done as well, as per usual by NYAV Post. Both Mike Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh voice the lead characters (and apparently directed each other as well), and turn in great performances. The show stealer, though, is young Catie Harvey as Mitsuha's little sister Yotsuha, who arguably gets the best lines in the film: "I see you're not touching your boobies today!" she snarks at her sister.

your name is more of a story for teenagers and adults, but kids might enjoy watching it, too, for aside from the occasional sexual innuendo (which is mostly played for laughs and frankly, is tame compared to what you would see in raunchier Anime), there's little else to offend.

Studio Ghibli had long established itself as the pinnacle of Japanese animation starting in the 1980's, but recently the studio went into hiatus, leaving most of its younger employees at a dead-end. Not to be discouraged, some of these employees decided to start a new facility of their own. Now christened as "Studio Ponoc", this team of former Ghibli animators, led by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There) begin their career with Mary and the Witch's Flower, based on a children's book by the late Mary Stewart. The end result could very well be described as basically a "Greatest Hits" of Ghibli as opposed to something that would establish a new identity for the studio, but considering the alternative, which would be a complete extinction of a beautiful form of art, for once, this isn't a flaw.

Probably the best way to describe this feature is that it's a sort of Kiki's Delivery Service meets Harry Potter, with a dash of Spirited Away, and occasionally Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, as well as Castle in the Sky for good measure. While Mary and the Witch's Flower doesn't quite live up to the standards of those titles, it is nonetheless a pleasant enough venture. It's also refreshing to see an animated feature targeted at kids and adults which goes all-out on being ambitious. In fact, the film's action-packed opening scene, in which we see a mysterious girl flee from a burning laboratory on a broomstick while chased by dolphin-shaped watery-like creatures, provides a great start.

After this thrilling sequence, we meet Mary (voiced in the English version by Ruby Barnhill), a bored little girl who has just moved to the countryside to stay with her aunt. She's friendless, depressed, and even clumsy. The only other person her own age in the town she has recently moved into, a boy named Peter, also rubs her the wrong way: he jokes about her red hair, which for some reason she is sensitive about. While pursuing a runaway cat into the woods beyond her house, Mary discovers both a little broomstick and a glowing flower. Before you know it, she is suddenly transported to Endor College (no, it's not a reference to Star Wars), an elaborate fortress of a university which doubles as a school for witches. She is "welcomed" by the school's domineering headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and scientist Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent). But things get ugly when she takes a spellbook that doesn't belong to her and accidentally puts Peter's life in danger. The last act of the movie involves Mary trying to correct her mistake, building to an edge of your seat climax with just enough pyrotechnics and thrills to please any fan of such suspenseful finales.

It's evident that director Yonebayashi is paying homage to his former master with every scene in his film. More often than not, there are visual references that one will make to classic Ghibli films along with visual touches of its own. Endor College is located on a tall mesa stretching above the clouds, bizarre assortments of chimera creatures abound in cages, and there are also the sort of rubbery, shape-shifting, ooze-like creatures that can be found from Howl. At one point our heroine crash-lands in the forest, with her broomstick broken in half. And the entire climax involves scaling a massive tree which houses scientific technology. The animation is also as richly detailed and colorful as anything from Studio Ghibli, with the character designs each containing Miyazaki's signature style, from the cherub-like faces of the protagonists to the grotesquely proportioned "caricature" creatures.

Musically, too, Mary and the Witch's Flower excels. Although Joe Hisaishi's musical services are missed, Takatsugu Muramatsu supplies a beautiful orchestral soundtrack with occasional Hammer-dulcimer strummed interludes for good measure. There are times when the director does allow the music to take a back seat and let occasional still shots filled with environmental sounds do the talking instead of spoon-feeding us.

Perhaps the only issue with this otherwise enjoyable feature is that it doesn't quite achieve the same heights of Ghibli's classic films. It might be due to Yonebayashi trying to do a bit too much within 104 minutes or so, but there are a few plot points that feel a bit unresolved. I was unclear about Mary's issue regarding her hair, for instance, especially since the film decides to discard it in the second half. Her relationship with Peter also could have used a bit more fleshing out as well -- her sudden shift from annoyance to wanting to rescue him feels abrupt, even for a kid her age. The ending itself, while thrilling, also seems a bit rushed as well. Moreover, Mumblechook and Doctor Dee aren't all that scary for being antagonists, and despite Yonebayashi's claims that they are "misunderstood", all we're permitted to see in the film is both characters mostly engaging in despicable acts.

Probably the most interesting character in the movie is the one that doesn't utter a word, and that is Tib, a black cat who very much resembles Jiji from Kiki's Delivery Service. He pretty much acts like any ordinary cat would. He meows, prances, acts independently, and mostly communicates with facial expressions. For good measure, Tib even has a girlfriend. Not that the other characters are unlikable by comparison, but these two animals, for some reason, really stand out.

Following in the tradition of the Ghibli movies, this movie also employs some well-known actors and actresses to provide the voices for the dub -- only this time, the dub is recorded at England's Tambourine Studios, resulting with a mostly British-accented cast. Considering that this is based on a British children's book, this provides a nice change of pace, and is arguably all the more fitting for this film perhaps because of that. (None of this is a slight against any of the Disney-produced dubs for the Ghibli library -- they're still excellent, warts and all.) Oddly, the only performance that took a while to grow on me was that of Barnhill as Mary (recently seen as Sophie in Steven Spielberg's The BFG). Her voice is a bit grating at first, with the occasional moment of tentativeness, but she gradually steps it up as the film goes on and by the end her Mary grew on me. Broadbent and Winslet are fine in their roles as Mumblechook and Dee, by contrast, while Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Andy Serkis from The Lord of the Rings fame) speaks appropriately for the role of Peter. Strangely, my favorite performance of the dub might be that of Ewen Bremner as as Flannagan, a pompous fox-like character who chastises Mary for how she handles her broomstick. The Scottish accent is a great fit, and he brings a lot of character. There are a few moments where the lip sync is less than perfect, but not distracting enough to take away from the film. I can't speak for the Japanese version, as I haven't seen it.

In the end it doesn't matter which version you watch. Mary and the Witch's Flower, inferior though it may be to Ghibli, is nonetheless lovely and a great way to spend two hours. Although it does little to set Ponoc apart from the studio it takes inspiration from, there's plenty to enjoy. That it comes at a time when hand-drawn animated features like these are scarce (at least in America) is a blessing as well.

Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Wicked City, based on a similarly titled book by Hideyuki Kikuchi (who also wrote Vampire Hunter D) has its share of devoted fans who consider this a classic in the halls of Anime, but I stand firmly behind this review.

This is a disgustingly vulgar, reprehensibly distasteful, and needlessly gory animated mess with little in the way of genuine appeal. Despite a promising start and a potentially interesting plot, Wicked City goes all out on shock value at its most repulsive level -- to the point that whatever virtues it may have are all but forgotten. It's misogynistic as well, with extensive scenes involving a female character being raped (three times!), and other two femme fatales who use their sexuality as a weapon to deceive and/or kill unsuspecting prey. As mentioned, it's also quite violent, with plenty of moments involving blood splattering, again for no specific reason other than violence for the hell of it. Shock value for shock value's sake does not a good film make, animated or otherwise.

Too bad, because Wicked City does have a few moments of redeeming qualities, although as mentioned, they aren't enough to elevate my star rating.

The film's opening half hour is arguably the best; sans again another sequence that will make one queasy. The sequence in question involves Taki Renzaburo, a salesman by day, spy by night, who lands a "date" of some sort with a pretty girl at a bar after winning a bet. She takes him to her home, and, after an extensive sexual intercourse session, she transforms into some sort of monster with spidery legs. Her vagina, of all things, even transforms into a fearsome maw with sharp teeth! Taki survives the encounter, and his boss reminds him to "be a little more sexually cautious from now on." Shocking and revolting as that opening scene is, it is practically nothing compared to the other graphic bits that happen throughout this seemingly never-ending 80-minute "thriller."

Following that unpleasant episode, we learn that Taki is a spy for some sort of "Black Guard", which apparently helps keep tensions between humanity and the "Black World" (in other words, monsters and ghouls) in check. He is assigned to protect an ancient (200 years old) midget named Giuseppe Mayart who has come to sign a peace treaty that will ensure public safety. Taki also meets Makie, a beautiful but skilled Black World woman who becomes his partner and something much more besides. Their mission to keep Mayart safe from attacking "Radicals" who want to sabotage their efforts proves to be anything but easy. Mayart, incidentally, is a most unpleasant character. He's a repulsively lecherous, crude, and generally foul-tempered pain in the butt who arguably proves to be more troublesome than one would expect. He refuses to stay put when his guardians take him to a hotel for his own good, goes off gallivanting to a "soapland" where he gets into trouble with a demon posing as a slut, and acts contemptuously toward the people who are in his best interests.

At this point, the film devolves into a back and forth series of violent confrontations involving nasty, nightmarish creatures, mostly in the form of rapists and seductive temptresses. The most sickening of these creatures isn't even the last obstacle our heroes have to encounter. Midway through the film, Makie and Taki are attacked by some sort of "parasite" no bigger than a tongue (I kid you not) which burrows its way into the former and bursts from her stomach, transforming into a phallic tentacle which takes the unfortunate girl captive and begins to sexually assault her. As if that isn't enough to make one uneasy about seeing more, we are also treated to two other such scenes, both of which involve Makie being violated, and our hero coming to save her. And so on and on it goes, to the point where it becomes tiresome.

If this is the sort of stuff viewers of Japanese animation demand, then Wicked City certainly delivers, but I found it to be very off-putting and too overdone. Part of this may be because I am of the standard that works involving violence and sexual assaults should present the material in question if the plot commands for it, or at the very least doesn't do so gratuitously. Satoshi Kon's far more interesting and arguably more terrifying Perfect Blue found the right balance in its effort to tell a "break the innocent" sort of story in which the protagonists is subjected to such atrocities and feels rightfully terrified because of it. Here, however, the unpleasant bits are thrown at the viewer in non-stop fashion that whatever story it tries to convey ultimately becomes forgotten. That, to me, is poor filmmaking, and it's a shame that Kawajiri's efforts are wasted on such a wretched work.

To Kawajiri's credit, however, Wicked City does sport an appropriately gothic, smoky atmosphere. The animation, although at times limited, is smooth and legitimately frightening as opposed to being cheap and nasty. Produced by the folks at MadHouse, who are legitimately known for lavishly animated and often times disturbing series, the monsters are imaginatively drawn and while the transformations may again rub viewers the wrong way, they are at the very least convincingly depicted without looking hokey. On that level, Wicked City does at least excel. Kawajiri also treats the picture like a live-action movie, and it shows from the skillfully edited and choreographed action bits. It's almost enough to make the viewer forget that they're watching an animated feature.

The film, interestingly, received two different dubs around its release. The version most American viewers are familiar with are done by Streamline Pictures, while international audiences had to endure a somewhat censored cut by Manga UK. Neither is a particularly outstanding effort, but of the two, the Streamline dub, surprisingly, is more effective, which is not something I usually say when it comes to their output. Their dubs have often been hit and miss, with most of their efforts (with the exception of Fox's My Neighbor Totoro) being in truly dreary territory. This is actually one of their better ones, with appropriately cast voices and smooth-sounding dialogue. Greg Snegoff gives Taki a very natural, tough-guy persona to match his personality, while Gaye Kruger, Mike Reynolds, and the late Jeff Winkless all excel. The Manga UK dub, on the other hand, is a seriously awful, laughable, choppy, stilted embarrassment with both bad acting as well as phony (and out of place) accents. Save for some characters like Makie and Taki's boss, everyone else is miscast. The dialogue adaptation is also needlessly profane, with smatterings of f-words every fifteen seconds as well as lines that come across as either rushed or so bad they're funny such as "Don't ever think you can win this battle, you pathetic ANIMAAAAAAAAL!" Not having seen the Japanese version, I can't say how either version compares, but if it's English you want to hear this movie in, the Streamline version is the less cringeworthy one.

Discotek Media has recently rescued Wicked City from the morgue of oblivion, including both dubs in their rerelease, with superior video quality to boot. Considering the company's track record, fans will surely be pleased. I, on the other hand, absolutely detest this film and I can not recommend it to anyone who is faint at heart or even for pleasurable entertainment. Or for ANY reason. So... take my review with a grain of salt.

Having scored a box office success with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki was on his way to becoming a respected animator in his native country of Japan. Yet this was only the beginning; with the help of Isao Takahata, Miyazaki enlisted the backing of their financial distributor, Tokuma Shoten, to establish their own animation company, known today as Studio Ghibli. Under this new facility, Miyazaki directed his third feature--and the first to be produced under the "Ghibli" banner - a rollicking, fast-paced action-adventure tale called Laputa: The Castle in the Sky. The basis for the film's title is derived from Jonathan Swift's famous book "Gulliver's Travels", in which there is a chapter dedicated to floating islands bearing the name "Laputa". But wait a minute--"Laputa" is an offensive phrase in Spanish. Swift was aware of this when he wrote his book, but Miyazaki wasn't. It did cause for an obstacle in bringing the film stateside, though, hence it was decided to re-title the film as just Castle in the Sky for its North American release. (So this is what I will be referring the film as from this point on.) Initially, the film wasn't as financially successful as Nausicaa in its Japanese debut, proving to be something of a box office disappointment. But Castle in the Sky has nonetheless earned its legion of fans over the years and is today hailed as a classic... and rightfully so.

For viewers who may be more familiar with Miyazaki's later work, such as Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and even Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky might seem more like a "simplistic" good vs. evil fairy tale, and it unashamedly is. Its characters are based on "archetypes" and are consequently not as multi-layered as the aforementioned films. That said, the film maintains all the ingredients for the kind of timeless classic Miyazaki is capable of: Breathtaking animation? Check. A wondrous musical score? Check. A solid and intriguing plot? Check. An aural of warmth and wonder? Check. Memorable characters (despite the aforementioned issue)? Check. So in short, one can easily pinpoint how this movie differs from most of Miyazaki's output, but there's so much to appreciate in Castle in the Sky that one would be hard-pressed to dismiss it.

The film begins with a bang, literally, when a magnificent airship is attacked by a gang of "sky pirates" and their leader, a wizened but still vigorous woman named Dola. The pirates are in search of the airship's prisoner, a lonely little girl who has been taken away from her home. Her name is Sheeta, and she possesses a crystal that contains mysterious powers. Just when they are about to grab her, she escapes by climbing outside her cabin and dropping through the clouds. (All of this, before the opening credits!) As she falls, the crystal around her neck sparkles to life, and Sheeta literally floats down from the sky, landing safely into the arms of Pazu, a boy her own age who works as a miner.

When she stirs from unconsciousness, Sheeta learns that Pazu is an instant friend and eager to help her in any situation. But the genial youth has a tragic burden on his shoulders: his late father once discovered a mysterious floating island named "Laputa" and took a picture of it while astride an airship, but nobody except Pazu believes it exists. As further proof, he shows Sheeta a book which contains further evidence of Laputa, including its people and supposed treasures. He is eager to clear his father's tarnished name by building an airplane to discover Laputa for himself. Just then, however, the two find themselves on the run from Dola and her sky pirates (which include a trio of burly but not very smart or brutish "boys" who refer to Dola as "mom", when the latter always chides them, "Call me Captain!"). After a thrilling chase on a train chugging over a steep chasm, Pazu and Sheeta escape into the mines where they meet a kindly old man named Uncle Pom, who "speaks" to the rocks underground--he tells them that Sheeta's crystal is a long forgotten mineral (volucite in the original, aetherium in the English version) that was used to empower the island of Laputa. If Sheeta's crystal is misused, he warns, the world will suffer great unhappiness. Pazu and Sheeta set off again, only to be captured by military soldiers under the command of the shady Colonel Muska, who, it turns out, is also interested in Sheeta's crystal and will stop at nothing to unlock its darkest secrets. In a surprising turn of events, Pazu is sent back home, where he finds Dola and her gang; these guys transition into true allies as they help Pazu rescue Sheeta and set off in search of Laputa before Muska does.

It's not hard to guess how the story is going to turn out, but Miyazaki nonetheless manages to cram in enough interesting plot points, depth, and momentum to keep audiences interested for two full hours. Part of this aspires to how he designs the world of Castle in the Sky. Aside from settings underground, above ground, and, well, above the clouds, the artwork is rich with detail and imagination. From Pazu's simplistic hometown (based, incidentally, on real-life Welsh mining villages) to the haunting caverns with shimmering rocks, from the dreary interiors of the army's stronghold to the titular structure itself, everything is as fully realized and gorgeously rendered as any of Miyazaki's other worlds. Contrasting the primitive settings are the technological marvels that are very reminiscent of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. There are airships (from the ominously powerful, zeppelin-like Goliath that the army provides, and a much more run-down, comical craft called Tiger Moth), dragon-fly shaped flight-crafts called "flapters", trains, and robots. These particular robots (who incidentally bare no resemblance to Transformers, or any other Anime with shape-shifting "mecha" such as "Evangelion" or "Escaflowne") are extremely powerful and can decimate anything with massive laser blasts, but at heart, they are gentle creatures who only serve to look out for remnants of the citizens of its home country.

Speaking of which, Miyazaki's love for nature is also highlighted in this film: in the latter half of the story, when our protagonists finally find Laputa, the wonders it holds are similarly fascinating. At its heart-a grassy garden with beautiful plants, and a gargantuan tree serving as its center. The only creatures who dwell there are the aforementioned robots as well as birds and little animals (in fact, the robots who protect the garden seem to be especially fond of the creatures). In what may also be an amusing bonus, fox-squirrels from Nausicaa (probably Teto's cousins) make a cameo appearance in this very scene.

Adding to the charm are the characters which populate this tale; Dola, in particular, is arguably the most memorable of the cast. An initially gruff and bossy elder, mainly driven by greed, is actually softhearted (however hard she tries to show otherwise), and it is endearing to see her gradually transition from a potentially villainous character to a true ally. (This is a common trait of most Miyazaki films.) Impeccably voiced by Cloris Leachman in the Disney dub, she provides for the funniest moments in the picture, as do her boys, the brash but shy Louie (Mandy "Inigo Montoya" Pantinkin), burly Shalulu (Mike "Friar Tuck" McShane), and freckle-faced Henri (Andy Dick). One particularly hilarious scene involves a street brawl between the pirate boys and Pazu's boss, in which both men compare their muscles before rushing into a punching match (this can be seen as a somewhat "cartoonish" moment in the film, but not at all to its detriment). In another, all three become fascinated with the sweet-natured Sheeta, requesting her to bake desserts and even resorting to helping her out in the gally... or rather, competing to do so. Some viewers have found this latter scene somewhat creepy, but honestly, it's handled mostly for laughs. (Videogame fans should also notice that a character on Dola's ship bears an uncanny resemblance to Dr. Eggman/Robotnik. This is because the creator of Sonic The Hedgehog was inspired by this film.)

Muska also deserves mention, mainly because he serves as the major antagonist of the film. Most Miyazaki features are often devoid of a villain with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and that's what makes Muska stand out--he is obsessed with power and is simply evil personified. He's manipulative, smooth, sly, and dangerously treacherous--when Muska unveils his true colors, he becomes totally psychopathic and ruthless. Like Dola, he commands every scene he's in with a deliciously villainous aura and is all the more memorable for it. In what may be a clever casting choice, his voice is supplied by Mark Hamill, who has had quite a career in voice acting after Star Wars. It helps, too, that the character is a dead ringer for the former Jedi Knight. Even the supporting players, from the kindly Uncle Pom, to the army soldiers (including their easily exasperated but not very intelligent General), Pazu's boss, and even the high-pitched little girl who chases a pig out of a house are all memorably defined. In fact, the supporting cast is so strong that the lead characters, Pazu and Sheeta (as played by James van der Beek and Anna Paquin, respectively), may seem like the least interesting characters in comparison. They're likeable, skillful, and loyal, and develop a very nice relationship. But that's really all they really are. That said, it really is not a deal-breaker--and other than that, both are very much worth rooting for. (It is also to Miyazaki's credit that, even though Sheeta does have to be rescued, she still manages to show some backbone.)

Viewers spoiled by the more lavish, flashy backgrounds found in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away may find the visuals in Castle in the Sky somewhat dated, as the film was, after all, animated more than thirty years ago. As such, there are some places in which the animation comes across as a bit jerky. Frankly, however, compared to many other films produced in this era, Castle in the Sky looks phenomenal. The character designs are classic Miyazaki, and every frame is lovingly crafted with skill, detail, and wonder. The animation is all the more spectacular during the action set pieces of the film, which are every bit as exciting and thrilling as a George Lucas/Steven Spielberg blockbuster... perhaps even more so.

Longtime Anime buffs may notice that this film bares a strange resemblance to Gainax's "Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water", in which the characters and storyline share a similar formula. As charming as that series is, though, it suffered from taking a complete 180 degree turn at its midway point, turning into something unbearable and mind-numbing. (In all fairness, though, the show does end with a bang.) Castle in the Sky, meanwhile, remains more consistent in its flow and never once derails into campy nonsense (as mentioned, there are some cartoonish parts to this tale, but not exaggeratedly so), and it's arguably all the better because of it.

The major attraction to Castle in the Sky, however, is in its musical score, as provided by Joe Hisaishi. The main theme for the title structure is haunting and melancholy, and the rest of the pieces have a distinctively beautiful style that the composer has become synonymous for. Every note of this score enhances the images onscreen and inject the overall tale with a quality that goes above and beyond its requirements. Interestingly, the score has also become a major source of debate for many fans of the film. The original Japanese version has a rather sparse approach to its music, totally contributing to about 45 minutes of the overall film. It's also obvious that the score was produced electronically, as there are certain cues that come across as somewhat dated in their gratingly synthy nature. In the Disney-commissioned English version, Joe Hisaishi was commissioned to extend and rework his score for a full performance with a symphony orchestra. Purists absolutely excoriated the new score, declaring it to be "a crime against all humanity." Miyazaki, however, didn't share the same sentiments. As a matter of fact, he approved of the end result. It's easy to see why; with its deeply rich orchestrations and crisply rendered sound quality, the new work expands and in many ways improves on the (still beautiful) original, particularly an initially acapella choir piece at the end of the picture (which is abruptly cut short); in this new version the orchestra gradually crescendos as the piece reaches its climax. Not that the original Japanese version isn't effective; but hearing this new score really showcases Hisaishi's progression as a musician, and honestly, as much as I prefer the newer work, either score fits the movie just fine.

Touching on Disney's English version (produced in 1998 but delayed until 2003), it is admittingly a much more boisterous interpretation as opposed to the more subdued native language track, but that doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, the dub excels in many areas, and at times, rivals the original. As mentioned, Hamill and Leachman play their roles perfectly and arguably the biggest hitters in the whole show -- both are arguably among the best performances of any Ghibli dubs. Patinkin, McShane, and Dick all sound like they're having a great time with their parts, while Jim Cummings as the General, Richard Dysart as the kindly Uncle Pom, and the ubiquitous Tress MacNeille in a memorable cameo as the wife of Pazu's boss all turn in fine performances.

As with Kiki's Delivery Service, scriptwriters John Semper and Jack Fletcher remain fairly faithful to the original, rewriting the dialogue only for natural and/or lipflap moments (with one major exception toward the end). There are places, though, where they do seize opportunities to include some extra lines of incidental dialogue. Sometimes this approach works well: the pirates, for instance, are much more fleshed out with the banter supplied to them, and there's a very amusing moment where Sheeta tries to talk like a pirate to a disgruntled Dola. Both of these are harmless little bits which expand on the character interaction of the film. That said, there are some places where Semper and Fletcher do go overboard, such as Pazu and Sheeta commenting on things the audience can clearly see when they explore Laputa in the latter half of the film. None of which are deal breakers by any means, but they seem a bit like much. However, I do have at least one major criticism about the adaptation, and that may be the alteration of the last part of Sheeta's speech to Muska toward the end of the film. I personally think it would have worked much better if Disney had left it as "you can't survive from Mother Earth", as the replacement "the world cannot live without love" feels out of place. As mentioned, though, the core storyline remains the same, and I don't think it's necessary for the script to be word-for-word with more sparse subtitles in order to get the point across.

Some fans have also taken issue with the voicing of Van der Beek and Paquin as Pazu and Sheeta, as sound more like teenagers as opposed to their more higher-pitched counterparts in the Japanese version. Personally, I was never bothered by either of them. James may not be the best casting choice to play Pazu, but while it is a bit jarring to hear his distinctively mature voice coming out of a character who is drawn somewhat younger, he nonetheless makes up for it by providing enough warmth, charm, and exuberance. (He's also not as shrieky as his Japanese counterpart, either, so at least that's a plus.) Anna does have the occasional stiff moment, but otherwise she's fine as Sheeta; the low-key delivery is fairly fitting for her role, and she does put emotion into her part when it is required. The somewhat mixed-up New Zealand/Canadian accent she speaks with actually works in favor of her character, too, even though its shifts from dialect to dialect can be odd at times. In short, Disney's dub may be too jarring for those who grew up on the original version, but despite its faults, it remains a worthwhile listen in its own right, and one that I can recommend wholeheartedly.

For the record, I also liked the Japanese version, but I don't consider it better or worse than Disney's, only different. In short, both are great entertainments, but getting the most out of one or the other may depend on what you bring with you to it. And both are miles better than the hideous '80s dub made for Japan Air Lines, which, in all fairness, is more "accurate", but is absolutely bottom-barrel in every way imaginable, featuring some of the very worst voice acting I've ever heard. Though the leads sound younger in this older dub, neither of their actresses turn in anything of the way of an inspired performance and are actually more lifeless compared even to James and Anna. Even the rest of the cast, despite being made up of Streamline regulars misfire, sounding totally detached from their roles and, in cases like Muska, distractingly robotic and stilted. He speeds through his lines with zero emotion or menace and only evokes chuckles instead of fear. (Even with the argument that Jeff Winkless was trying to copy the Japanese voice actor, his turn still doesn't work.) Dola's voice actress is also insufferably shrieky and not at all pleasant to listen to, overacting madly and with no charm. Leachman is a far better Dola in my opinion; the same is true with Hamill as Muska. The voice direction is probably to blame for these turns in the older dub; Disney's dub had an experienced team and accomplished ADR director, Jack Fletcher, at the helm, while this version was obviously rushed. The dialogue is choppy and poorly written as well, with lots of cringeworthy lines such as "I'm as hard as a brick moppet!", "We can go all the way!", and "Now say bye-bye!" Such lines only succeed in adding unintentional humor, which is something that Disney's script, for all its liberalness, never does. It really is no wonder Streamline Pictures' Carl Macek, who picked up the dub for a brief theatrical release in the 1980s', wasn't particularly thrilled with how it turned out. (In fact, he wanted to prove he could do better, and he did with My Neighbor Totoro.) In short, it's not worth the trouble of importing the 2002 Japanese DVD just to hear this older dub unless you're a diehard fan who happened to hear it long ago.

There's an interesting history regarding the different releases of this classic. Aside from its original Japanese release in 1986, the film took seventeen years to be released to DVD in America. Inbetween, Streamline Pictures, as mentioned, temporarily picked up the JAL dub for a brief theatrical screening in 1987-1988 before pulling it from memory. That version never saw a proper video release except on a Japanese laserdisc and a now out-of-print 2002 Japanese DVD release. The Disney version most casual fans may be familiar with (to those who aren't super-fans of the original Japanese who won't so much as go near the newer edition without so much as shredding it for whatever reason; much less the few who saw the JAL dub) was planned to follow Kiki's Delivery Service's home video release in 1999, but various factors pushed it back. It finally debuted on April 15, 2003. It wasn't a perfect release by any means; the literal subtitle track was noticeably mistimed for fans of the Japanese version and the video quality suffered from an overuse of edge-enhancement. Whatever purists said about the Disney dub, it still carved out a niche, finding new fans.

Seven years later, however, Disney reissued the film on DVD, with noticeable alterations to the dub track; the extra lines were all but dialed out, and so was the rerecorded score. In its place was the original synthesized score by Joe Hisaishi. Perhaps it was of purist backlash (Kiki's Delivery Service's dub was altered for similar reasons), but fans of the Disney dub were disappointed by the alterations -- to them, the newer dub offered a fresh, quirky experience that its pared down version couldn't replicate. More distracting were instances when certain lines were cut, resulting in moments when characters' mouths are gaping with no sound. It's particularly noticeable during one instance when Pazu is being tickled by his pigeons and yet he's not making any sound. Regrettably, some of the better added-in lines suffer from being pared down, too, with memorable bits like "We'll all find her, and call me Captain!" and "You little brat! Goodbye! Enjoy the ride!" being chopped in half. Yes, there were some lines that were probably a bit of a nuisance to some viewers, but the cuts were done clumsily. Perhaps more disappointing was the use of dubtitles for the Japanese language track. As the dub had been written primarily to synchronize with the English mouth movements and was noticeably chattier, it was distracting to the fans who would rather watch the film in its language track. On the flipside, the rerelease offered more extras than the first Disney DVD -- which only had a pointlessly gushy, pandering intro from John Lasseter, a behind-the-microphone featurette, Japanese trailers, and storyboards. In the 2010 edition, those same extras were ported over along with newly videotaped interviews from Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki.

Two years later, when Disney issued the film on BluRay, the same contents from the 2010 DVD edition were ported over. The picture quality on the Disney BluRay was fantastic and arguably better than the previous DVD releases. It helps that the film was remastered from the original 35mm negatives. But for fans who had grown up on the Disney dub as it was issued in 2003 and fans of the Japanese language track, having the altered dub track and the dubtitles was a deal-breaker. Ironically, the Japanese BluRay made a surprise modification to the Disney dub -- although the extra lines and additional sound effects were still dialed out, the rescore was miraculously restored! For fans who prefer the new score but found the added in lines a bit overbearing, this was arguably the best of both worlds, but it would be an expensive venture to embark on given how much the Japanese BD costs.

Recently, however, GKIDS has picked up the Ghibli library from Disney and has reissued the film yet again on BD and DVD. For the most part, it's corrected many of the problems with the previous releases. The video quality retains the spectacular quality found in the Disney BD, albeit with the highest bitrate count. It's the other areas that get a bit of a work out. For fans of the Japanese version, there are properly synched AND literal subtitles. (The SDH subtitles which correspond to the dub track are on another one.) Perhaps more intriguingly, for fans of the Disney dub, there are TWO different mixes provided -- a DTS-HD 5.1 mix featuring the new score, AND a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix featuring the original score. This is a "best of both worlds" situation for both sides. Although some fans of the Disney dub may be irked by the missing moments of dialogue, the option to have either score to choose from might arguably be for the best. Also to be included are the Disney extras from the previous editions (minus the John Lasseter intro), as well as a fourteen minute "promotional" video from 1986 covering the making of the movie, in which we see a young Miyazaki and his team at Ghibli making the film. This extra has been exclusive to Japan for many years, and while the subtitles are crudely translated, it's still amazing to have this featurette domestically available for the first time.

Ideally, it would also be best to have the unaltered Disney dub and maybe the JAL dub for those who insist on hearing it (or for unintentional humor), but as it is, this will have to do for now.

Regardless of any edition or however you choose to view it, Castle in the Sky remains a mesmerizing, thrilling, funny, and ultimately delightful film that could very well be considered Miyazaki's most accessible film. Even if the plot is predictable, it is told with skill and manages to keep one intrigued. Its characters are endearing, it looks fantastic, even after all these years, and is simply great fun. Be sure to put this film on your "must-see" list if you're going to discover Miyazaki--it's one of his best films ever, and I highly recommend it.

What more can be said about My Neighbor Totoro? Get this movie. Immediately. Without a doubt one of the best animated features ever made, Japan or otherwise, Totoro is an outstanding original creation from Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.

It's about two sisters -- Satsuki and spunky little Mei -- moving with their somewhat scatterbrained but loving father to a new home in the Japanese countryside. But the place isn't just deserted; wonders galore lie within their household. Tiny, fuzzy black balls of soot ("dust bunnies", or "soot gremlins", depending on which dub you watch) scatter every nook and cranny of the walls, frightened away only by laughter. A tall, luscious camphor tree towers above the other trees in the back yard. And, lastly, the Totoros themselves, absolutely adorable little creatures who look like a cross between a raccoon, rabbit, owl, and guinea pig (a personal bias here, since I used to own one who reminds me so much of the Totoros here), live in this very forest, carrying acorns, making huge trees grow at night, and playing ocarinas on the branches of the trees. There is even one really big Totoro who sleeps under the tree, so cuddlesome and gentle that you'll swear that he's the equivalent of your pet. Of course, he doesn't just allow Mei to snuggle on his chest. He lets out thunderous roars, shake the ground by jumping with full force, grins as wide as a Cheshire cat (albeit with warmth and generosity), helps others when they're in trouble, and gives acorns wrapped in bamboo leaves in return for gifts.

The story isn't all hearts and flowers, however. An emotionally charged subplot involving the sisters' ailing mother (shades of Miyazaki's personal life here) gives My Neighbor Totoro a dramatic edge. This is particularly evident in the third act, when the girls receive a distressing telegram about their mother. Both Satsuki and Mei are extremely traumatized by this as any real child would be if such a situation occurred in their lifetime. What follows is a tearjerking sequence that builds to a truly happy ending. This mixture of real-life situations, emotions, and magical discoveries found in your nearest back yard make My Neighbor Totoro feel authentic (even with its fantasy elements). One cannot help but find this quality in any of Miyazaki's films, this one included.

My Neighbor Totoro was not a box office success in either Japan or America, but the film has won over millions of children around the world as well as animation buffs for its gorgeous animation style; the backgrounds are lavishly detailed and imagination is galore in much of the sequences. (It was Kiki's Delivery Service that would catapult Miyazaki's animation company, Studio Ghibli, into box office success status.)

The movie was originally dubbed into English by Carl Macek and his infamous company, Streamline Pictures in 1993. Believe it or not, this was one of the "best" dubs they've ever produced, with everyone involved, particularly Lisa Michelson and Cheryl Chase as Satsuki and Mei, turning in very fine performances. As Disney has acquired the rights for Ghibli's movies, though, it was inevitable that they would produce their own version. Many longtime fans of the former version were furious, declaring that the Disney version is an abomination of something from their childhood. However, I beg to differ. As someone who fell in love with My Neighbor Totoro with the Macek version, I have to say that this new Disney production is entertaining in its own right. The script is a fresh new translation from the original Japanese (clarifying the origin of Totoro's name), and remains faithful to the meaning of Miyazaki's screenplay, despite a few line changes here and there (nothing major, though).

At first, I was a little worried about hearing Dakota and Elle Fanning as Satsuki and Mei, but both ended up captivating me from the start; personally, I think it was great for Disney to cast two actual sisters to play the young girls--it helps their chemistry come alive. Elle is actually the juicier of the two, although that's mainly because she's blessed with a great role to begin with. That isn't to discredit Dakota, though; my only quibble is that she underplays some of the more emotional scenes toward the end, but otherwise I have no problems with her performance. The only issues is that neither are Lisa nor Cheryl, but that's just it: they are bringing their own interpretations to these characters, not copying the originals. The other actors, including a warm, understated Tim Daly, and delightful Lea Salonga provide similarly top quality work. My favorite performances? Pat Carroll, displaying maternal charm and whimsy as Granny (not sounding anything like her most-famous role, Ursula from The Little Mermaid), and Frank Welker, who does outstanding vocal foley for both Totoro and the Cat Bus.

Probably the only (minor) false note of Disney's dub is in the handling of the opening and ending songs. The translated lyrics are the same as in the FOX version, but the singer is different. Unlike the warm tones of the nameless singer who delivered "Hey Let's Go" and the showclosing "Totoro", respectively, these songs are instead handled by one Sonya Isaacs. Her voice is competent enough and she hits high notes appropriately, but her approach to the opening song has more of a "gung-ho" attitude and as such, is a bit less charming. She does fare a little better in the ending song, particularly in the bits that she harmonizes parts of the last couple of verses. One other difference is that the songs sound more crisper and vibrant in the new dub but come across as somewhat scratchy-sounding in the older one. So, basically, there are pros and cons to both versions: one is more soothing but more "old" in terms of clarity, while the other offers technical improvements but not so much on the singing end.

Otherwise, however, there really aren't any major quibbles I can find with Disney's dub of My Neighbor Totoro. There is no denying that the FOX dub is a classic of its time, but the newer reinterpretation is by no means a disservice. While the arguments over which version is superior may rage on until the very bitter end, it's obvious that the creators of both dubs are fans of Miyazaki, and it shows in both takes. Each takes their own approach to the story, and are neither better nor worse. They simply are what they are.

FOX's initial release of My Neighbor Totoro was a pan & scan DVD which contains only the Streamline dub and zero extras. The first two-disc DVD set from Disney provided a widescreen presentation of the film as well as the original Japanese language track. Disney issued the film again, oddly enough, in 2010, with a considerable amount of new extras on the second disc. In addition to newly recorded interviews with Miyazaki, there was also a half-hour documentary detailing the different locations Miyazaki went to in order to bring the world to life. Of course, if you already own either DVD release, then this newest edition may not be necessary. Disney later brought the film to BD, sans the Streamline dub of course, but the extras ported over and an absolutely magnificent visual transfer of the movie. Even on DVD, it's never looked this good. GKids recently picked up the Ghibli rights from Disney and provided their own release of this film. The content is virtually identical in both, other than a new textless opening and ending scene which was mysteriously omitted from the Disney BD. But either way, if you already own the Disney BD, the GKIDS may not be necessary, as there was nothing wrong about the Disney one. (Of course the old dub still isn't there.)

Either way, however, My Neighbor Totoro is far from just another kid's story. With a little bit of luck, grown-ups (and those who consider themselves too "sophisticated" for cartoons) will enjoy it too.


The first thing I should mention about Big Fish and Begonia is that it is visually stunning. I do not recall seeing many Chinese animated productions (although I wouldn't be surprised if I had inadvertently stumbled upon one without realizing it), but this is one of the most visually impressive I've seen from the country. Like a magnet, it seduces you from the first frame and keeps you entranced for all 100 minutes. In a way, this film reminded me a bit of Laika's recent Kubo and the Two Strings. That film, while not a tightly plotted story, was nonetheless so visually stimulating that one could not help but be glued to their seats throughout. Big Fish and Begonia is the same way.

Describing the plot, it's sort of a mixing pot of The Little Mermaid with shades of Spirited Away and Chinese mythology. Basically, this film imagines an "alternate world" way beneath the ocean -- a sort of mythological Chinese flavored kingdom whose inhabitants are some sort of humanoid "spirits" with powers who are responsible for guarding the balance of nature. One of its residents, 16-year-old Chun, participates in a sort of "coming of age" ceremony, in which she is transformed into a crimson colored dolphin and swims to the surface world. Here she comes face to face with a human boy and his little sister. But the visit turns tragic when she is trapped in a fisherman's net. The boy courageously rescues her, only to drown. Feeling responsible, Chun travels beyond the boundaries of her village to some sort of one-eyed demon (Lengpo, the Lady of Souls), where she strikes a Faustian bargain. The boy will be reborn as a dolphin, whom she will have to tame and grow until he is old enough to return to hid world. But the price is two-fold. First, she must give up half of her life force to revive the boy in question (whom she names Kun), and whatever pain he receives, she'll receive too. The second and more dangerous outcome involves unnatural disasters such as rainstorms, maelstroms, and even snow which threaten to destroy her world's existence. Only her closest friend Qiu, who secretly harbors a crush on her, might be able to set things right.

As mentioned, Big Fish and Begonia is absolutely breathtaking to look at. The film is also rich with metaphorical imagery, particularly when talking about matters such as life and death. In one scene, for instance, when an old man dies, he is reborn as a tree. His similarly deceased wife, incidentally, is some sort of peacock who comes to rest on the tree in question. In terms of character development, Big Fish and Begonia isn't very heavy on it, but Qiu, oddly enough, emerges as the most interesting of the characters. When we first meet him he appears to be somewhat mischievous and playful. But he also has a very serious dedicated side to him, and ultimately goes to great lengths to help the person dearest to him. The rest of the cast don't stand out as much, but with the possible exception of one fairly negligible potential baddie (who lives in a rat-infested sewer), nobody comes across as truly unsympathetic. Only issue is that there are a plethora of minor characters who only have about five minutes of screentime, to the point where we don't get to know them as well, but that's my only issue.

The dub by Studiopolis is well done for the most part, with no noticeably bad performances, although I DID detect some mistimed lines at least in the first half hour -- I do find it jarring to see a character's mouth start flapping only for no sound to come out until the second one, and this unfortunately sometimes happens in the beginning. Thankfully, this problem disappears in the second half, and other than that, as mentioned, everyone plays their roles well. Stephanie Sheh and Johnny Yong Bosch, in particular, do great turns as the lead characters, Chun and Qiu, respectively.

Perhaps the best way to describe this film is that it is more visual poetry rather than a cohesive plot, but it also offers a sincere heart that somehow manages to win the viewer over. The ending is also bittersweet and will surely wrench tears. (I know I was crying toward the end!) Directors Lian Xuan and Zhang Chun spent more than 12 years(!) working on this film, most of it being a series of starts and stops. According to the making-of-featurette, this film started off as a wildly successful 7 minute short made in Flash, but acquiring funds for expanding it into a feature proved problematic, and nearly disbanded the animation studio B & J. So what saved the day? Crowdfunding, that's what. The amount of interest from said crowdfunds prompted a Chinese distributor to take a chance and fund the film. Xuan and Chun's lengthy labor of love was greatly rewarded: the film was a smash hit in China, the second most successful animated film over there, in fact.

I wouldn't say Big Fish and Begonia reaches the echelons of say, Studio Ghibil, but it doesn't have to. If you're an animation fan and want to see something this breathtaking and emotional, you can't go wrong with this one. Every second of it will have you nailed to your seat.


At the surface, The Brave Frog may seem like an innocuous animated time-waster for kids. It aspires to be a coming-of-age story of two tadpoles who struggle to maintain a friendship against the wishes of their stubborn parents. The cuddly appearance of the lead characters and the watercolor-style animation also provides promise. Unfortunately all of my hopes were completely dashed by the time I finished sitting through it. This is one of the most mean-spirited, badly written, poorly dubbed, and depressing films I have ever seen.

The leads spend most of the 91 minutes crying and crying and crying, which gets old really fast. It does not help that both are trapped in a story that wavers between frightening and weepy. The only joyful moment in the movie is a dance scene between the leads, but even then this scene is too short and does nothing to offset the confused nature of the plot. It bounces around from one scene to the next, with no coherent thread to accommodate it.

The film is basically an edited compilation of a 39-episode series, which probably explains the constantly "hopping" (no pun intended) plot and the even worse ending, which is both disappointingly abrupt and out-of-left field (an evil character suddenly decides to reform with absolutely NO reason to do so?). The voice acting is both grating and painfully shrill--the only time I ever laughed at all was a scene where a bully sings a mocking song to the tune of "Countdown Races" in a deadpan, unenthusiastic tone... but that was only funny for the wrong reasons.

A better title for this movie should have been The Stupid Frog, because that is exactly what it comes across as. There are far better choices for family viewing than this obnoxious, dreary, unengaging fiasco. It probably plays better in its uncut form, but as it is, The Brave Frog is absolutely ghastly in every way imaginable.


Modest Heroes, a 53-minute (yes, that's how long it is) animated feature which is actually three fifteen-minute featurettes in one program, is the second animated release from Studio Ponoc. Founded in 2015, the fledging studio found success nationwide with their first feature, the charming if derivative Mary and the Witch's Flower. That film, handled by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and many other former animators at Studio Ghibli (who temporarily closed in 2014 but thankfully reopened recently), was more of a crowd-pleaser and technically more of a "Best of Ghibli" kind of showcase. Modest Heroes, on the other hand, is something quite different, and may actually be all the better because of it. This "package film" (a term borrowed from the 1940's Disney releases Make Mine Music, Fun & Fancy Free, etc.) provides the animators the opportunity to experiment with various animation techniques and aesthetic styles. Each featurette, handled by different directors, is loosely tied together with various shots of the quirkiest film projector I've ever seen in any movie.

The first featurette which opens this anthology, "Kanini and Kanino", handled by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is an absolutely breathtaking and imaginative underwater fantasy about a pint-sized family who wield staffs with crab claws (shades of The Secret World of Arrietty) who dwell at the bottom of the sea of all places. The titular characters are two siblings who are separated from their parents and set off on a journey to find them. This featurette is the only one of the three not to receive a dub, and interestingly, is rather limited with dialogue, giving the picture a bit of a semi-silent film treatment. (There are occasions where the characters call out each other's names.) This short mixes traditional animation with computer generated imagery to realize both its underwater environment and the monstrous fishes who cast ominous shadows above our tiny heroes.

After this stunner, we shift gears to a more down-to-earth, slice-of-life kind of tale, aptly named, "Life Ain't Gonna Lose." Directed by Yoshiyuki Momose, this short is based on an actual true story about a little boy who is lethally allergic to eggs. His mother strives to support him while managing her career as a dancer, and the boy must eat special foods and avoid getting contact with egg yolk. It's a very relatable and nearly heart wrenching tale. The animation here is a bit more like a watercolor-painting style, but the short is no less impactful for it. This dubbed version features the voice of Maggie Q as the boy's mother.

The final tale, and arguably the gloomiest, is Akihito Yamashi-ta's "Invisible", in which we follow a man who is literally invisible to everyone around him. All we see is his coat, hat, glasses, shoes, and gloves. He needs to carry a weight in order to stay on the ground, because otherwise he will float away. He does good deeds, but is unnoticed by others... until he sees a runaway baby's carriage. This short is animated in the classic hand drawn style, and with more shadowy colors. Again, dialogue is sparse in this short, but not to the same degree as in the first.

All three featurettes showcase the visual range of Studio Ponoc in ways that will leave you eager to come back for more and more. Interestingly, after the showing I went to, an interview with Ponoc producer Yoshiaki Nishimura aired, who expressed the need to try to stand out from other studios in Japan. His solution--to try to push the limits of animation and make their movies the kind that kids would enjoy and would also inspire adults. It's very rare to see animation studios today with this kind of thinking. Bravo to Studio Ponoc for making the approach. It will be very interesting to see what they do next. If you ever get a chance to see Modest Heroes, I strongly suggest you do so, and without hesitation.

Mamoru Hosoda's fifth animated feature, Mirai, may seem a bit more small scale compared to his earlier movies such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children, but it's no less mesmerizing. To anyone unfamiliar with these aforementioned films, I do recommend them highly -- they're all magnificent movies, almost the equivalent of Hayao Miyazaki's work. Mirai isn't quite that, but it's the next best thing.

The film tells the story of a pampered little boy named Kun, used to his parents catering to him all the time. So much so that when he gets a new sister, Mirai (which means "future"), his parents start neglecting him, and of course, he gets jealous. He behaves like any kid in his situation would. He throws tantrums, he bawls, he says nasty things, and at one point, even throws one of his toy trains at his sister. "Your attitude stinks," says another character in the film, quite accurately.

At the peak of every outburst he flees into the garden where a tree is growing, at which point the scene changes to a different location where he meets members of his family when they were younger -- including the pet dog(!), as well as, most mysterious of all, his new sister as a teenager. These close encounters send Kun on flashback journeys where he must learn to be more appreciative and caring and stop acting like a spoiled brat. (In a way, this is sort of like A Christmas Carol for 4 year olds, but not feeling "dumbed down" in the least.)

Hosoda handles this story with just the right touch of tangibleness as well as his occasional trademark moments of surrealism. However badly Kun behaves, he remains a very relatable character throughout -- in fact this might be the most realistic portrayal of any such boy I've ever seen in any animated feature. And of course, the animation, as mentioned, is nothing short of gorgeous, complete with a mix of CGI and hand-painted backgrounds -- a rarity in animated films these days... even in Japan. (Hosoda laments how rare this style of background art is becoming and is quite vocal for its support, and rightly so.)

Mirai is also a surprisingly funny film -- one scene in which Kun and two new friends of his have to put away some dolls without Dad in the room suspecting in particular is hilarious. There's even a brief episode in which Kun tries to ride a bike for the first time -- without training wheels! The results go as well as you'd expect (read: *disastrously), leading to yet another outburst as well as a visitation, after which he gets a second chance. There's even a frightening climax at a train station, although I dare not reveal more about it at the risk of spoiling the story.

If you're a fan of Japanese animated features and Hosoda's work in general, Mirai should be a great one to check out. It's accessible to children and adults, and easily superior to many other Western animated features released this year, notably the overbloated Ralph Breaks The Internet. It deserved its Oscar nomination.

Adding to an already great movie is an even better dub provided by the folks at NYAV Post, with top notch directing by the always reliable Mike Sinterniklaas and script adaptation by the similarly talented Stephanie Sheh. This dub, like the similarly grand Disney-Gkids-Ghibli dubs, features a cast of noteworthy names such as John Cho, Rebecca Davis, and Daniel Day Kim. Surprisingly, too, Crispin Freeman -- yes, that Crispin Freeman(!) -- has a brief cameo, and it's always a pleasure to hear him. The real triumph of the dub is, as per usual in a NYAV Post, the casting of the kids. Young Jaden Waldman does an absolutely excellent job at rendering Kun, effectively conveying his mood swings and giving him a lot of appeal in spite of this character's sometimes unlikable personality. (Only issue is that he screams a bit too much, but on the other hand, it makes sense considering the circumstances.) I've always appreciated hearing children voice children -- as evidenced in my praise of the dub for "Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water", and it's a pleasure to see that there are dubs doing this practice today, Mirai being one of them. The lipsync is also spot on with well timed and written dialogue -- a difficult task for any scriptwriter, but it's done well here.

In Japanese, Kun is portrayed by Moka Kamishiraishi, about 18 years old(!) at the time, and sorry to say, she's miscast. Not only does she sound nothing at all like the character's age, her acting is surprisingly restrained. In bits where Kun is demanding his parent's attention and screaming, it doesn't feel right to have Moka's more deadpan turn coming out of what is obviously an angry little boy's mouth. On this account I have to say that Jaden Waldman does a far better job conveying the petulant, demanding nature of Kun, giving the dub an edge over its native language track.

Mirai marks yet another glorious achievement for Hosoda, all the more so because he bases it on a personal story. It's often been said that some of the more inspiring features sing best when the writers write from their own experiences. This is no exception. I look forward to seeing what this director does next.


Vampire Hunter D has always been a cult favorite of many Anime fans dating all the way back to what historians would call the "dark days of Anime". Back then, Anime had limited exposure to American audiences, aside from the occasional showing of children's cartoons often mangled and edited. But with the release of Katsuhiro Otomo's controversially violent but nonetheless brilliant Akira, an interest in edgy, darkly animated, gritty features from the Land of the Rising Sun was ignited, and so it followed with several titles imported. This low-budget animated direct-to-video feature from 1985 was one of them. Based on a book by renowned Japanese Horror author Hideyuki Kikuchi sporting smoky-hazed illustrations by Yoshi-taka Amano (who would later gain cult status for his work on the classic Final Fantasy series and later, Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman"), Vampire Hunter D aimed to be an edgy thriller, a horror movie, and even a love story all rolled in one. That said, critics were not unanimously ecstatic. Reviews were mixed, with most criticisms centered on the somewhat stilted animation or sometimes inconsistent characters. To this day, Vampire Hunter D has its share of detractors. But it also has its share of devoted fans, many of who had grown up in the West with a dubbed version produced by the late Carl Macek and his company, Streamline Pictures.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future where vampires and mutants have overrun a human world, Vampire Hunter D begins on a dark night with a deftly choreographed action scene. Here we see Doris Lang, a courageous werewolf hunter's daughter stalking her gardens in pursuit of a T-Rex like monster with sharp teeth and scarlet eyes. Chasing it into the forest on horseback, Doris finds herself face to face with an even more imposing threat -- a hulking, shadowy vampire known as Count Magnus Lee. Naturally, the bloodthirsty aristocrat takes a drink from our heroine's jugular vein. The following day, Doris encounters a lone figure on a cyborg horse -- a mysterious cloaked stranger called "D." Desperately, she hires him. The rest of the movie involves D doing everything in his power to slay the evil count to save Doris from an eternal life as a walking undead. Meanwhile, Doris must protect her impulsive little brother, Dan, and fend off the advances of an unwelcome suitor, the arrogant mayor's son Greco. Matters are further complicated when D also has to deal with L'armica, Count Lee's jealous daughter, and the ambitious Rei Ginsei, a deadly noble wanna-be who will do anything to earn his master's favor. During all this, Doris falls madly in love with D -- but it turns out that her rescuer (surprise) is half-vampire himself. (This explains why his left hand has a creepy-looking face that can talk to its master or even suck up nasty creatures.)

Despite its promise of multi-threads, Vampire Hunter D turns out to be a much more simplistic story in execution, even bordering on predictable. Somehow the viewer knows that the lead character is going to triumph in the end in spite of the obstacles he faces in his quest. More problematic to viewers expecting flashy visuals might be the animation. As mentioned, this is a low-budget animated feature, resulting with a cel count that borders on choppiness in places. As such, the dramatic style of Amano's character illustrations loses a lot in the transition to screen. Furthermore, the backgrounds, although dark and appropriately imaginative, lack detail at times. As such, the film can seem visually dated to many viewers. Likewise, the soundtrack shares similar qualities. Although the sound effects are appropriately haunting and scary, at times they do sound cheesy, particularly the synthesizer sound effects when Count Lee sends rays from his eyes. The musical score from TM Network's Tetsuya Komuro is fittingly epic and sometimes spooky, although it is obviously driven by synth instruments from the '80s.

Faults aside, Vampire Hunter D still delivers some entertainment value for viewers willing to overlook such technical shortcomings. In spite of its aforementioned predictability (some might argue this movie was tailor-made for Western audiences), Vampire Hunter D delves into some complex issues: D's inner struggle to resist his own instincts when Doris makes sexual advances on him and his inability to express his true compassion to others results from some very understandable emotions. It is also intriguing to discover that the villainous Count Lee's actions are motivated mostly by the desire for sport rather than malice, although he still does exude evil in every scene. The action and fight sequences are also skillfully choreographed in the style of a samurai-slasher.

It's also important to note that this movie has its share of graphic violence--there are quite a bit of gory swordfights, resulting with stabbing, amputating, or slicing in half. There is also one particularly disgusting moment toward the end where a character's head explodes, exposing his insides. (A character's face is also briefly stabbed in the eye in the subsequent scene.) While all this may sound pretty extreme for squeamish viewers, the cheap production values actually make the violence less gruesome and more campy, making it easier to sit through than most bloodfests. (Even so, both Sentai's release and Streamline's version are guilty of censor in one instance; a climactic character's graphic death at the end is interspersed by a flashing red cut which feels out of place and jarring.) There are also a few very inoffensive nude scenes. This is a movie best appreciated by an adult audience; parents should think twice before considering showing this to children.

Perhaps it's partially because of this graphic nature that Vampire Hunter D succeeded in crossover success from its native country of Japan to the West. Dubbed in 1992, Streamline Pictures' release has been a nostalgic favorite for old school Anime fans to this day. Having said that, critics and many fans of the time still staked it with scathing reviews. I at one time appreciated this older dub, but over the years I have grown less and less fond of it. I'm not sure what it was that turned me off from it over the years, but then I figured it out: it sounds dreadfully stiff and stilted. In all fairness, Michael McConnohie, Barbara Goodson, Jeff Winkless, Lara Cody, and Kirk Thornton are all fine voice actors. The problem is that they were saddled into a production that veered on pure cheese and a lot of choppy-sounding dialogue ranging from mundane to laughable. There were also instances when Macek did a bit of tampering with the music, extending Komuro's score longer than usual sometimes sounding out of place with the visuals. Most infamously, the opening scene in which Doris is confronted by the Count has a rather corny "permit me to introduce" myself monologue which not only diluted the mood, it gave a very laughable quality that sadly would be exacerbated by phony Transylvanian accents and even a groan worthy love confession ripped off from The Empire Strikes Back. (Doris: I love you. D: I know.) The sound quality was quite bad, too, although that may be on the fault of the equipment used at the time, so I wouldn't dock the dub against it. This same dub was retained on Urban Vision's DVD release, which likewise used Streamline's cut of the film (which aside from the aforementioned censor, was otherwise uncut), resulting in a lot of heavy over saturation and muddy images.

Now, thirty years after its debut in 1985, Sentai Filmworks has brought this title back from the dead and given it a fresh new coat of paint… er, fresh blood. (Get it?) Remastered from the original film elements, this movie has never looked better. The colors literally spring to life off the screen and sequences compromised by an overuse of darkness are brighter. It really does feel like a totally new movie in and of itself. The only drawback of the transfer is the occasional sight of speckles on the print (mostly dust particles accumulated on the cel before the camera photographed it), but otherwise, the video quality is amazing with a capital "A."

In what may be a controversial move to fans of the Streamline dub, Sentai Filmworks has opted not to include that version on its BD release, but instead provide a brand new version. This will likely be a point of contention, as a lot of Streamline-distributed titles which received new dubs (Akira, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, "Nadia--The Secret of Blue Water", The Castle of Cagliostro, "Getter Robo", "3x3 Eyes") have often been harshly maligned by old school fans, even though some might argue in the cases of some of those films, these newer versions were sorely needed, as a lot of these older dubs hadn't aged well at all.

I do have a couple of minor issues regarding Sentai's newer dub, but unlike the Streamline version, this revamp, headed by Matt Greenfield of ADV fame, does a very commendable job of bringing the movie closer to its more serious intent, stripping it of much of the unintentional humor. The script is a fresh new translation of the original Japanese and sounds much better written and more natural, giving a more "adult" vibe. As far as the voices are concerned, the weakest voice of the dub is the same character that I had similar issues with in the Streamline version: that of Dan, Doris' little brother. In all fairness, Shannon Emerick does bring a bit more spunk to the role, but her voice, like her older dub counterpart, still strikes me as unconvincing for a little boy (at least she's not as distractingly feminine, though, thank goodness!). Otherwise, the rest of the cast is appropriate and well-fitting for the most part. I will always prefer Andrew Philpot and Mike McShane as D and his chatty left hand from Yoshiaki Kawajiri's later semi-sequel Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust; however, John Gremillion's performance as the title character is still a big improvement over that of McConnohie from the original, sounding far less cheesy and more natural throughout. As D's left hand, Andy McAvin, who also plays Rei Ginsei, is also thankfully less nasally than his Streamline counterpart, and even gets the best line: "I swear, this guy is such a handful." Luci Christian also sounds much more convincing and puts a lot more emotion into her role as Doris, making her a sympathetic character and her dialogue is thankfully free of any Kate Capshaw-isms. However, it's David Wald who really steals the show; as Count Magnus Lee, Wald has a smooth, regal-sounding baritone who sounds somewhat similar to Keith David. He's also very charismatic and dripping with pure evil; a huge improvement over Jeff Winkless' laughably stilted turn in the Streamline dub (the fake sound vocal effects not even helping). Surprisingly, both he and his daughter, L'armica (Brittany Karbowski) are both given upper-class accents as opposed to the Transylvanian ones in the older one; frankly, though, I think it's all the better for it. It's a bit of a surprise that the people of Doris' village, including Greco, are given Southern accents until one remembers that this is supposed to be a "Western" vampire. It takes some getting used to, particularly in the case of Jay Hickman's drawling Greco, but having said that the actor does provide a bit of a slightly humorous touch to the role, giving him more character than Steve Bulen's too wispy-sounding and not forceful enough turn. The sound mix also sounds really good; not only are the voices better recorded, the music and sound effects also much more crisper than the Streamline version -- even mixed to 5.1, on the DVD it still sounded very muddy. As mentioned, Streamline's dub was not well received by the Anime community; time will tell if Sentai's newer dub gets better recognition (although Streamline loyalists will find it jarring either way), but as far as I'm concerned, this is a huge improvement over the original. (And yes, purists, the Japanese version is still on the Blu Ray, complete with subtitles -- and for the first time, the ending song "Your Song" is translated!)

The only slight negative about Sentai's otherwise stunning BluRay is that there aren't enough extras. Urban Vision's DVD has the upper hand when it comes to that; aside from the Japanese trailer (the only thing from that release which is still retained here), there was also a "making of" featurette featuring director Toyoo Ashida and members of the original Japanese cast recording their roles. That is sorely missed, as is a video game preview and a gallery from Amano. If you still have your Urban Vision DVDs, you might wanna hold onto them just for that.

On the whole, though, Sentai deserves a shootout for their reworking of this fan favorite. Not only does it look amazing, it sounds better than ever. More importantly, it gives what some might consider a lesser animated feature new life. I still maintain that Kawajiri's Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust is the superior version of this tale -- much more complex and ambiguous -- but having said that I recommend this newer edition of the original. It truly prowls the night.


Based on a horror book by Japanese author Hideyuki Kikuchi and with character designs by Final Fantasy's Yoshi-taka Amano, 1985's Vampire Hunter D was a low-budget, B-grade direct-to-video release was criticized by many for its cheap production values and simplistic story. Even so, it still managed to find an audience that was gradually garnering interest in Anime thanks to being exposed to edgier, more violent works than one would expect from the West, such as Akira, Wicked City, etc. Sixteen years later, a second film was made, helmed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, the man behind the aforementioned Wicked City as well as the similarly popular Ninja Scroll. It's also very loosely based on the third book Kikuchi has written, called "Demon DeathChase." Not having read that book in question, my review will not be comparing this movie to its source material, but in terms of how it stands as a film.

If you were among those who found the original Vampire Hunter D underwhelming, then this semi-sequel should serve as a better alternative. It's arguably superior to its predecessor in many respects. For instance, the animation is stunningly rendered and rich with gothic colors, shadows, and lights. The cheaper, cruder animation style of the 1985 OVA could never even hope to compare. Its storyline, too, is a step above the more simplistic, forgettable plot of the original. This time around, D is on the trail of Meier Link, a charismatic vampire who has apparently captured a lonely woman. But has she really been taken against her will? Further complicating matters are competition from the rough and ready Markus brothers, a suspicious, troubled bounty hunter named Leila, monsters, and ultimately, the ghost of the bloody countess Carmilla.

The characters' motives in this tale are much more complex, and not the simplistic archetypes the first tale depicted as. D, in particular, gets a bit more depth; while his primary motive is to protect the innocent, it is implied that he harbors other emotions. Being a "half-breed" vampire/human offspring (awkwardly transliterated as "dunpeal" as opposed to "dhampir"), he is against the existence of his own kind, to the point that he does not wish to see another such offspring occur. It's also implied that greed is a bit of a motivation; he gouges the bounty price in order to accept the job, for instance. More intriguing is the dynamic between Meier and his "captive", Charlotte, which can be best alluded to as a "Romeo and Juliet" style romance. Meier, incidentally, despite his seemingly cold demeanor and feral nature, is not the major villain; he is simply a tragic figure who simply wants to live a peaceful life with his new love without being surrounded by hatred or bigotry. Which also brings the question over whether all vampires are evil incarnate or not. This brings an edge of ambiguity to what could have otherwise been just another chase/slasher movie. Charlotte is probably the least interesting character in the movie, but that's mainly because she is given very little to do. The Markus brothers get to have more screen time, and they are clearly portrayed as in it mostly for greed. Even so, one of them, the frail Grove, seems to possess a somewhat softer side. Leila is arguably the most interesting character in the movie; she starts off as antagonistic and aggressive, but as the movie progresses, we're given traces of her backstory and are permitted to see a softer side emerge. The change of heart she undergoes is intriguing to watch.

Kawajiri's past films such as Ninja Scroll and Wicked City sometimes had a rather nasty, misogynistic vibe, particularly in their handling of otherwise competent female characters and were rather heavy on gore. Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, thankfully, is free of any such offensive bits, making this arguably the director's most accessible work. Which isn't to say that this is a movie that children can sit through, on the contrary. This is still very much a violent movie, with plenty of battles involving stabbing, brief decapitations of zombies (bloodlessly), arrow showers, and of course the occasional blood spurts. Luckily, it's not overdone, although some of the monstrous creatures in the movie can come across as intimidating. Particularly intriguing are a trio of hybrid demons called "Barbarois." These include the jester-like Benge with a voice like Mark Hamill's Joker who can attack by sliding through the shadows of unsuspecting prey, Caroline, a witch whose threats include merging herself into spikes or camouflages with trees, and a werewolf named Mashira. Although brief, these three prove to be quite a formidable trio. There's also a brief scene involving an ancient crone riding a unicycle who is implied to be leery toward our hero, as well as a briefly tense confrontation in a stable. Although the primary antagonist, Carmilla, doesn't show up until the last reel and as such, comes across as a rather minor character, she is nonetheless a sneaky, manipulative villain.

The overall tone of the movie is one of genuine darkness and melancholy, but there are brief moments of humor which, depending on the viewer, could either break the mood or at least lighten the tension. Much of it comes from D's left hand, which occasionally shifts into a spooky looking face and proves to be a capable force to be reckoned with. Mostly, however, he's there to mostly badger his "master" for fighting against his instincts and provide laughs. These are supplied by Mike McShane, who brings a lot of personality and life to this bizarre character with pure smugness to boot. His last line in the movie is also the best: "You're not so bad after all. You just DRESS bad." While some folks may find the hand to be a jarring character, he does provide an amusing contrast to his often stoic counterpart.

It should also be mentioned that Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, despite being animated by Japan's Madhouse Studios, is also something of a Western co-production. The thunderously powerful music is provided by Marco d'Ambrosio, whose score is rendered by both a full orchestra and chorus and in the manner of a dramatic action-thriller. Nonetheless, it's a great accompaniment to the picture, especially the organ-powered, vocal-chanting cues during the climactic scenes. In another unusual move, the movie's primary language is English. That's right, a Japanese animated movie whose English language voice track might not be considered a dub at all. It was even released in Japan with Japanese subtitles! While opinions on the matter of voice acting may be subjective, I found this particular movie to have solidly good performances, easily superior to the laughable corny dreck of Streamline's 1992 dub of the original VHD. This English language cast is helmed by Jack Fletcher, who has provided great dubs for titles such as Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, and "Tenchi Muyo", as well as Final Fantasy X. Andrew Philpot brings a quiet, understated tone to the title character which is eerily fitting, while not holding back on some of the more action-packed scenes. McShane, as mentioned, is hilarious as his left hand. But the best performance by far is John Rafter Lee as Meier Link; with a rich voice that oozes with charm and charisma, he is simultaneously chilling and sympathetic as this character. Pamela Seagall has a few stiff moments as Leila, but otherwise is solid, and Julia Fletcher is a suitably sultry, villainous Carmilla. All in all, I have nothing bad to say about this cast, although it should be noted that their performances are still very much "post-synching" as opposed to pre-lay, so there are some occasional stilted lines. For the most part, though, the script flows fairly well. (For purists who would rather hear this movie in Japanese, there is a Japanese language track in existence; disappointingly, though, it's only available on import DVDs from Japan.)

If there is any complaint to be made against Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, it might be that the sound mix is unbalanced. The voices are mixed a bit too low in the center channel, while the music and sound effects come across as blastingly loud, to the point where the viewer is required to turn up the volume on and off at the more quieter moments. Perhaps a bit more consistency in the sound levels would have been welcomed, but it is a bit of a problem regardless.

All in all, however, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust has aged gracefully well and works as a much more complicated and interesting vampire story than the original did. Even if you're not a fan of the original, chances are you won't be disappointed with this.

Sesame Street this ain't. Neither, unfortunately, is it Avenue Q. The Happytime Murders, a pet project of Brian Henson, the son of the famous Jim Henson, is an ambitious and technically amazing but uneven and at times, too distractingly vulgar, production which aims to be primarily for adults. Although capably directed and packed with a likable cast of stars and an interesting if familiar mystery plot, the end result is a mixed bag more than anything else. Critics were especially harsh on this film, declaring it to be an unfunny mess and one of the worst films of 2018. My opinion: it's nowhere near that. But it's not exactly a great movie either. It's somewhere inbetween.

The best part of the film is the puppetry. Although the characters in question are a far cry from the likes of Big Bird or Kermit the Frog -- they swear constantly, snort drugs (read: rock candy with a Twizzler!), have sex, and in one disgustingly overlong scene ejaculate silly string over the room(!). But the puppeteers and the technical wizardry behind making these puppet characters as convincing and believable as they do cannot be faulted. This is top notch work. Particularly impressive are some wide shots where we see the puppets in full size walking across the street without having to look at them from the waist up. (As a bonus, there's an end credit sequence in which we see outtakes -- or rather, footage of how this stuff works.) The lead character, a disgraced police officer named Phil Phillips, puppeteered by Bill Barretta, goes through a relatable character arc to keep one invested in his plight.

The other assets are live actresses Melissa McCarty and Maya Rudolph. McCarty shares the top-billing as Phillips' ex-partner, Connie Edwards, and while your opinions about the actress may vary, she actually gives a great performance in this film. She treats the puppets as equals and is a lot of fun to watch. Ruldoph gives a more tender turn as Phillips' secretary, oddly named Bubbles. Although she doesn't have many scenes, she brings a lot of much needed heart to the picture.

The idea behind the picture is sound: a world where puppets are treated as second-class citizens (think Who Framed Roger Rabbit but with puppets instead of cartoons and you get the idea), and a murder mystery which involves puppets getting bumped off by a mysterious assassin. These murders, oddly enough, are actually among the most visually humorous moments in the film! Rather than spraying blood, we see stuffing pop out of these puppets as they are gunned down, decapitated, or mutilated -- you name it! It's oddly funny in a twisted way. And the plotline, although not especially original or groundbreaking, at least builds well to its climax, even if the final showoff is disappointingly short.

The primary problem with The Happytime Murders is that it spends much of its 90 minute running time indulging in a lot of tastelessly vulgar stuff. Although meant to provide humor, sights of seeing these characters doing the things mentioned earlier actually proves to be more off-putting than funny. An overlong sex scene involving Philips and another puppet, femme fatale Sandra, which culminates with a gross, extensive silly string gag, in particular, left me sick to my stomach and did take me out of the picture. The wonderful Broadway musical Avenue Q had a similar scene that was nowhere near this disgusting and arguably funnier.

Worse still, there's no major purpose to a lot of this shock value stuff. It feels as though Henson was trying to push as much comfort zone as possible, but I feel that bad taste for bad taste's sake does not a great movie make. I can't help but wonder if maybe the film would be better off toning down a lot of this over-the-top raunchiness, as it would at least make its storyline more tighter plotted. There are also some implied ideas that puppets are treated as second class citizens, but the script doesn't delve into them as deeply as it could have.

There are flashes of brilliance in The Happytime Murders, and it isn't an altogether failure, but the inconsistent shift in tone and overemphasis on the shock value cause the picture to be a mixed bag. It is worth watching for the amazing puppetry and McCarthy and Ruldolph's performances, but as the show is quite profane and extreme, it's definitely not for kids.

In 1999, George Lucas' Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace was arguably the most widely anticipated movie of its year. Hot on the heels of the massively successful Star Wars trilogy which began back in 1977 and wrapped up in 1983, the public was hungry for more adventures in that "galaxy far, far away" audiences fell in love with. So much so, that expectations were high — perhaps too high with some people. To the point that when the film finally debuted on May 19, audiences and critics were sharply divided with the results. Although there were audiences who were thrilled to have another Star Wars adventure, many, many others were crushed with disappointment, to the point that The Phantom Menace, despite being a massive box office success, became not only one of the most widely maligned movies in the franchise, but one of the most hated films ever. Indeed, it was hard to encounter a genuine fan of the first entry in Lucas' prequel trilogy, if at all. Stripped of all the brouhaha that surrounded the movie and its reputation in a revered legacy, is The Phantom Menace really as wretched as made out to be? No. But neither does it live up to the famous trilogy that so many people gravitated towards. The faults many have found with it are a lot more glaringly obvious, especially in the light of the newer, arguably better produced Star Wars movies in recent years.

Rather than serving as a proper introduction to the saga, The Phantom Menace plunges us into a conflict with characters rapidly introduced that we barely have time to connect with them. That they don't evolve into characters as compelling as the likes of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, or Leia is also problematic. Of them, only Obi-Wan Kenobi (played here by Ewan McGregor), Yoda (Frank Oz), and the man who will eventually become the Emperor, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) are the ones who resonate the most with the viewers, but that is primarily because we know how they are going to tie into the original trilogy. More controversially, the prequels aims to tell the tale of the origins of Darth Vader, when he was first known as Anakin Skywalker. Conceptually, the idea is interesting and Lucas, to his credit, does make some effort in world-building in his prequels, but The Phantom Menace unfortunately falters in some of the more important areas.

For one thing, we are never really clear on who we are supposed to identify with as the main protagonist. Ideally, it should be Anakin, but he doesn't appear until a good 30 minutes into the picture. And when we meet him, he isn't at all who we would expect. Anakin, here, is portrayed as a surprisingly cherubic, baby-faced, high-pitched little boy, enslaved by a greedy alien. It's difficult to imagine seeing this boy growing up to become one of cinema's most iconic villains, least of all one who ends up saving the day by accident. In-between, we zigzag back and forth between the likes of Obi-Wan's counterpoint (master) Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), the regal and rather deadpan-sounding Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) as well as her servant Padme (Portman again). Neither come across as compelling or interesting.

Which brings us to Jar Jar Binks, an amphibian-like alien who has gone on to be one of the biggest turn-offs of the picture. Lucas conceived this character as the first to be created entirely by CG, and as a major role. In some ways Jar Jar is more interesting than his human counterparts; at the very least he has a personality and Ahmed Best does what he can to make inject life into this role. Unfortunately the character's primary function is comic relief more than anything else, and he's greatly overused, to the point where a lot of his clumsiness gets old fast.

In fact, this character's presence also contributes to one of the major drawbacks of The Phantom Menace. As opposed to the more gritty, all-ages appeal of the original trilogy, this episode suffers from an overdose of cartoonish goofiness which even the original trilogy's last entry Return of the Jedi just managed to avoid, even with its similarly controversial Ewoks. That there are two moments of scatological humor for no specific purpose is also a problem. Even the original Star Wars trilogy's humorous bits weren't this childish.

The real issue with The Phantom Menace is the abundance of overlong, dull scenes and not enough momentum to the story. Most of these consist of characters delivering exposition and no major action. The most sluggish scenes involve the ones at the Supreme Council, which are mostly just political debates: nothing at all what viewers would come to expect from Star Wars. The bits involving humor attempt to liven up the picture, but ultimately causes Episode I to be a rather schizophrenic and inconsistent entry to the franchise. Fans have also taken issue with the introduction of "midi-chlorians" which are supposedly intended to be the cause for the Force. This is also at odds with what the first Star Wars movie lays out that concept as. Then there's the issue of the villainous Trade Federation aliens speaking with obvious Asian accents. It would have been preferable for Lucas to give these characters their own language, ala Jabba the Hutt (who incidentally makes a brief but very welcome cameo appearance during one scene).

Lucas has never considered himself a particularly great director, and some taken issue with his lack of communication to actors. He lucked out in the first Star Wars movie because the ensemble had genuine enthusiasm with their roles, and made their characters into the iconic household names still remembered after all these years. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the prequels, least of all The Phantom Menace (or successor Attack of the Clones). Neeson does what he can, but his role as Qui-Gon is underwritten and as such his performance is only adequate at best. McGregor, looking, at least at this point, nothing at all like what his character will eventually become in A New Hope, at least deserves points for emulating the late Alec Guinness. Like Neeson, he only comes across as only decent, with the occasional genuinely believable moment.

Pernilla August, as Anakin's foster mother, provides a warm, vulnerable quality appropriate to her character, and Anthony Daniels continues to do a decent job as the bronze droid C-3PO (who bizarrely is revealed to be made by Anakin, and has only a cameo where he appears "skinless"). In addition to Daniels, everybody else in the cast is upstaged by both Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine and Oz's Yoda. Both are very charismatic characters, and it is gratifying to see these two continue to command the screen during each moment they're on.

As for the rest of the cast, young Lloyd is a rather odd choice for the role of young Skywalker, yet whatever shortcomings of his turn are not his fault at all, but with iffy direction and dialogue, (both of which Lucas takes a lot of flak for). The same is true with Portman, who comes across as negligible in both of her roles (particularly the deadpan-sounding Amidala), and Samuel Jackson doesn't get a whole lot to do as Jedi Master Mace Windu, who, like everyone else, is underdeveloped. Unfortunately, the rest of the performances are non-existent at best.

Lucas' major strengths have never been in dialogue or directing actors, but rather in fashioning worlds and bizarre creatures, and here The Phantom Menace at least delivers on several of these premises. The different planets in the galaxy exude with imagination and detail, and much of the credit goes to Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic. Even 20 years later, the sets still look quite impressive, even if some of them were obviously down through green-screen and computer technology. The visual effects, while in some ways the major attraction to The Phantom Menace, are also a bit of a double-edged sword. Stunning though they are at many places, there are moments where it seems as though Lucas was getting a bit carried away with pushing CG visuals, to the point where some of them look too obvious. It's particularly noticeable on some exaggerated looking characters. On the flipside, there are other characters, mostly the ones wearing masks, who do display the kind of quirky out-of-this-world quality that can be expected.

That said, The Phantom Menace still offers two major highlights that prevent it from being an altogether waste: an extensive Pod Race sequence straight out of Ben-Hur, and the climactic deal between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and the film's other solely compelling character, the evil Darth Maul. Maul, although underused, is a scary-looking character and while he doesn't say much, he's no less menacing for it. True, he does get bumped off rather fast (spoiler alert), but there is a reason why he has remained a fan favorite over the years. At any rate, that showdown, underscored to yet another powerful score from maestro John Williams, is the film's real tour de force.

If all the other elements in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace matched those moments, it could have at the very least been a decent enough new adventure. Unfortunately, its weaknesses do drag it down. In all fairness, though, this is by no means the worst Star Wars movie (successor Attack of the Clones qualifies), but nonetheless is toward the short end of the stick. Once the novelty and premise wears off, it's only mediocre.

George Lucas' long-awaited Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace divided critics and disappointed many fans, but the film still earned enough money to justify continuing the new trilogy. Still, it was clear that fans were shocked by Episode I's uneven mix of childish goofiness and stoic sluggishness, and many hoped Lucas would make amends with the subsequent entries. Unfortunately, the second prequel, Attack of the Clones, is no improvement; in fact it comes across as the nadir of both the prequel trilogy and the whole Star Wars franchise. While some might argue that The Phantom Menace is more deserving of that title, in reality, it was this movie that truly brought a once respected series to a new low. Carrying over many of the same faults as its predecessor (stale acting and dialogue, overuse of CGI), and introducing two major new ones, it was almost enough to make many wonder what had become of Lucas' talents in the years since the original trilogy. Even with the argument that its primary purpose is to function as a transition between Episodes I and the far superior III, it still comes up short, the occasional decent moment notwithstanding.

Lucas chose to shoot the film digitally, which unfortunately results with a cold, artificial look. It's especially noticable with the visual effects; although some pieces are stunning, such as a car chase above the streets of Coruscant, too many others come across as too distractingly obvious. The scenes involving the plastic glass spaceships especially look distractingly fake.

The real problem with Attack of the Clones is that it is much too slow going, with an abundance of weak, unsatisfying scenes which last too long. A good majority of this comes from a love subplot between Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). Christensen and Portman never really come to life in their roles. Neither is there any genuine chemistry and the scenes where they're together suffer tremendously because of that. The less said about the laughably inept dialogue they are slapped with, the better.

On the flipside, Ewan MacGregor does a fine job as Obi-Wan and Christopher Lee adds some gravitas in an otherwise negligible villainous role, but Yoda walks away with the show in this episode. In the past episodes, this memorable Jedi master was seen as a rubber puppet as operated by Frank Oz. Oz still speaks for the character, but here he becomes more fully animated and expressive, thanks to computer technology. His lightsaber duel with Lee at the end of the film, in particular, is a knock-out (if sometimes too goofy).

As mentioned, however, there are too many long, dull scenes with the protagonists, not enough action, an overabundance of unconvincing visual effects, and a love story that falls flat on its face.

Finally, after a pair of underwhelming entries, George Lucas manages to recapture some of the magic from the Star Wars trilogy with the third - and best - prequel of the lot. Which is not to say that Revenge of the Sith is a perfect film. It still suffers from a lot of the problems that plagued its predecessors, although luckily it isn't as much of an offense this time around.

It also helps that unlike The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, this new trilogy gets off to an energetic start. The opening act is very fast-paced and tightly edited, and even features some nice banter between Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) as they fight their way through a big ship of robots to rescue Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Speaking of which, McGregor really shines in his role; this movie features some of his best work to date. As for Christensen, he unfortunately still has a lot of stiff delivery and iffy dialogue, but luckily his overall turn this time around is a significant improvement over Attack of the Clones, overall. And to be fair, he does get to have some good bits: the chemistry between him and McGregor being among them, which is good considering that the film culminates with their friendship going south.

That said, there are quibbles to be had in this chapter. The new villain, General Grievous, is at best, superfluous, coming across as overly cartoonish. There are also some cases of dialogue that really could have been cut (and/or rewritten) as well as scenes that could stand be be omitted and/or trimmed. The love scenes between Anakin and Padme (Natalie Portman), again, are the weakest in the film. Although there are three such sequences that come across as decent, there still are bits of laughable dialogue. Portman, incidentally, doesn't get a whole lot to do in this movie, which is disappointing because her character was at least established in the earlier entries as a stronger character. She also has some of the more iffier lines of dialogue. Christopher Lee's Count Dooku only gets a brief cameo in the beginning, and even then, despite the gravitas he brings, his role is negligible at best.

The visual effects, as usual, continue to be outstanding, but there are places where it's obvious Lucas can't resist overusing CG to the point of distraction. There are also some otherwise fine sequences marred by some less than ideal choices. (One bit of Darth Vader bellowing "NOOO!" being especially questionable.) The middle act is also considerably draggy (although not to the sluggish extent of Attack of the Clones).

The positive aspects thankfully they outweigh any such faults, however. Aside from MacGregor, the real stars of the movie are Yoda (who never ceases to charm), and of course, Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine. Every scene the latter is in is an unbridled delight. His monologue about Darth Plagueis, in particular, is not only one of the highlights of the film, it's also one of the best bits of his performance as well. Samuel Jackson is still a bit too stoic, but a confrontation scene between him and McDiarmid, while bordering on goofiness at times, at least gives him a bit more to do.

Furthermore, the final act, the film's reason for existence, where Anakin becomes Darth Vader, is appropriately dark, depressing, and morbid. It's easily the strongest in the movie. It also does an admirable job of connecting the dots to the original trilogy, despite a few jarring moments here and there. John Williams' music also continues to excel, as do the overall visual effects and production design (despite the aforementioned CG problems).

Is Revenge of the Sith on par with the classic trilogy? No. But it still is far superior to Episodes I & II. In short, it's good but not great; a considerable improvement slightly held back by some glaring faults. Nonetheless, it's a relief that Lucas managed to conclude this problematic prequel trilogy on a considerably high note.

Disney's purchase of the Star Wars brand was something I never dreamed I would live to see. Considering the uneven and lackluster nature of the prequels (particularly Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Menace -- Revenge of the Sith being the only saving grace, albeit flawed, too), I wasn't sure if their inevitable sequel trilogy would be any better. Happily, for the most part, it was. The Force Awakens may have been a callback to A New Hope, and The Last Jedi, for better or worse, was a daring, controversial turning point, but I found both films to be far more compelling than Episodes I & II of the franchise. In between, Disney has also provided us with an "anthology film", Rogue One, which was quite good all around. Now along comes yet another "anthology film" for "Star Wars", this time focusing on the series' most famous scoundrel, Han Solo. This one had a much more rocky road to completion -- apparently the original directors assigned to the project were fired, and a new one, none other than Ron Howard (director of the much underrated fantasy Willow -- still one of my favorite movies), was brought in to reshoot scenes. Based on this production nightmare, one would assume that Solo: A Star Wars Story could very well be a disaster. Thankfully, it isn't. Simultaneously, though, of the new "Star Wars" movies, Solo is probably my least favorite of the four so far.

Don't get me wrong, Solo is not a bad movie at all. It is competently made, well cast, and moves along well for the most part. But compared to what I may argue would be its more ambitious and even daring predecessors, Solo seems a little too "safe". The stakes in this tale aren't as high -- it's basically about a younger Solo, and so there aren't going to be any major casualties like there were in the previous entries. Consequently, it also lacks the "must-see" factor that was there even for the prequels. Perhaps the worst I can say about it is that it's a bit more forgettable. Other than a few standout action sequences and great performances, I'm hard pressed to remember a lot about Solo.

That said, does Solo: A Star Wars Story still have its points of interest? Absolutely. Alden Ehrenreich had a very daunting task stepping into the shoes of an iconic character made famous by Harrison Ford. He was never going to be able to top the actor no matter what. But having said that, he still does a very respectable job at making Solo a charismatic, swaggering badass. Part of it might be because he is in the hands of a director who understands the importance of gaining cast chemistry. Either way, his turn as Solo is far more engaging than Hayden Christensen's Anakin in the prequels any day. That said, the real star of the show is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian. Arguably an even better match for what Billy Dee Williams created in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi than Alden would have been for Han, Glover fits seamlessly into the role like a glove, and is charming from the start. Every second of his performance is a delight. Oddly, my favorite performance in the film might be that of Chewbacca. Don't get me wrong, the performances are well done in general, but there was something about Chewie in this movie that I found really appealing, and for some reason he stands out here.

The two sequences that also stand out in the film include a thrilling train chase which must have been inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky. Well staged and timed, this ranks among the most exciting in any Star Wars action sequence. Just as good is later on in the film when Han steers the Falcon into a nebulous space cloud, dodging TIE fighters at breakneck speed, and outrunning a massive space octopus-sort of creature that threatens to consume the ship. Both of these are worth the price of admission.

So why my modest rating? The main reason is because I didn't really find a lot of the new characters all that remarkable or interesting. It's not the fault of Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, or Paul Bettany -- they all breathe life to their roles, but none of them really stand out in any way. Perhaps a second viewing will change my thoughts, but I honestly didn't remember much about these new guys worth talking about. That and the storyline, although interesting, does drag at times, particularly the last act. Still, the script by Lawrence Kasdan does contain enough barb and wit from the characters to provide a humorous tone for what are mostly one-note roles. Musically, too, the score is lacking compared to what we've heard from John Williams -- it's not John Powell's fault, he does the best he can, but I'm hard-pressed to remember a cue.

Don't take any of these complaints to suggest that I dislike Solo: A Star Wars Story. Despite its faults, it's still a competently executed entry and is worth viewing at least once. Simultaneously, though, it's not one that I'm so eager to see again on the big screen, partially because it doesn't really do anything that we didn't already see. All in all, Solo is good, but not great -- all things considered, it's better than it has any right to be, but it's not really a "must-see". At least it beats Episodes I & II.