Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki lays out a rudimentary quest myth and deliverance myth, on an appropriately epic scale, in a fairy-tale realm of ungodly beasts and beastly gods, of swords and sorcery, of warriors and weasels. (More specifically, a monstrous mad boar with a coat of live nightcrawlers is slain at the very outset by a young prince in feudal Japan, the last of his line, who himself receives a fatal, flesh-rotting wound in the combat. What made the boar-god go bad? What is the meaning of his dying curse? — "Soon all of you will feel my hate, suffer as I have suffered." What can be done to undo it?) And the central conflict between civilization and nature — an iron-mining, weapons-manufacturing frontier outpost, to be exact, and the adjacent Forest Primeval — is as contemporary and timeless as you could want. Some of the elements of New Age kitsch, mush-brained mysticism, and make-it-up-as-you-go fantasy do not go down so easily. And the pixie-ish pertness of the principal characters — too much like the efficient housewife in a 1950s floor-wax ad — seems a little unimaginative, a little cookie-cutter, amidst a supporting cast as human and motley as any in a Kurosawa film. Then, too, the animation per se, quite separate from such static ingredients as the painstaking detail of the drawing or the pastel subtlety of the color, lacks something in smoothness. But then again, it is never so slick and slippery, in the latter-day Disney manner, as to blur and obscure the faster action. Very much to the contrary, the best thing about the movie is its simulation of Golden Age Hollywood technique: its classical, economical construction of a scene and its orderly sequencing of shots, its solid compositional sense, its firm-handed control of pace. (Two and a quarter hours sound like a lot for a cartoon, but they feel like less than the Disney standard of one full hour shorter.) The shifts in locale are particularly artful. A scene will build and build in intensity, then drop off to a fresh start somewhere else, so that the dramatic flow develops a kind of wavelike rhythm, rising in the closing moments to the grandeur of a tsunami. And the resolution attains a rare maturity (rare in live action as well as in animation), with all the components of conflict still in place, no easy elimination of troublemakers, no Happily Ever After, only Happily For Now. (1997) — Duncan Shepherd
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