Pretty Pretty Princess

Towards the end of the year, I have a very patchwork system for watching movies. Movies are not only starting to gather awards and awards buzz, but December is when all the "Best of..." lists start appearing. That means it's time to play catch-up with all the noteworthy films that have come out over the past year. Some, I can grab on Netflix. Some, I decide I can safely skip. And some demand that I rush right out to the theater. So when I saw one trusted critic's Top 25 of 2014, I went ahead and added everything that looked interesting to my queue. Except one. One was not only unavailable to add, but looked so pretty that I immediately began casting around for local theater screenings. Naturally, the good ol' Tivoli came through, and before I knew it, I was eyeballs-deep in The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

This is a Studio Ghibli production; it comes from the same people that made The Secret World of Arietty and Princess Mononoke. Unlike those two movies, though, I not only saw The Tale of Princess Kaguya on the big screen, but I saw it in the original Japanese, with English subtitles.

The story follows a fairly standard fairy tale structure. A poor farmer stumbles across a magical baby, born of a bamboo stalk in the forest. He and his wife are overjoyed to adopt her, even as she grows to young womanhood at an extremely rapid pace. The farmer interprets other signs to mean that his mission in life is to get his daughter into the highest echelons of society, and begins to work towards that goal. He succeeds in moving his family from poverty to wealth, but the rules and regulations that restrict noble young ladies cause Princess Kaguya to bristle. She has no interest in being silent and still and marrying a boring nobleman. She misses the days of her freedom, and calls out to the heavens to help her. As in most fairy tales, it's a rash wish, and one that she'll come to regret.

Story-wise, this movie is very languid. It's very slow and thoughtful, and you can feel every one of its 137 minutes. That's neither a compliment nor a criticism. At times, I felt like it should be moving along at a brisker pace, the way Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle did. But at other times, I was really enchanted by the lyrical stillness of the scene. And if there's one aspect of the movie that is just about flawless, it would be the visuals. Studio Ghibli has reliably terrific animation, but in this film, the animation is not only beautiful, but inventive. There are scenes wherein the emotion of the characters actually changes how they are drawn. Raw hysteria and panic are rendered in rough, almost abstract outlines of people and surroundings, while calmer introspection allows for scenes drawn in vibrant color and minute detail.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is already racking up acclaim, beating out all other animated movies for critics groups in Los Angeles and Boston. If I were rating movies on visuals alone, I would enthusiastically throw my support behind it as well. Ultimately, the story was just a little too meandering for me to be that effusive, but if you're looking to feast your eyes on a work of incomparable beauty, this should definitely be on your list.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya: B


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