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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (3/4/14) 12:56am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:   Spirited Away, The Lego Movie
TV:   <none>
Books:  <none>

Spirited Away
This is the Hayao Miyazaki animated feature about a young girl who has to find her way back to our world from a bathhouse in the spirit realm.

I'd only seen this once or twice before.  When I was most into Miyazaki, I was obsessed with the earlier movies -- things like Nausicäa, Porco Rosso, and Kiki's Delivery Service -- and I paid less attention to the ones that broke big in the United States (Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away).  It might have been hipster-ish snobbery, or it might have been an adverse reaction to Neil Gaiman's translation on Mononoke.  Whatever the reason, I tried hard to like those later films, but in both cases I just shrugged, thought, "Well, *that* was weird," and carried on with my day.  The DVD gathered dust on my shelf.

So I came into the theater this time expecting to see the bizarre, surreal world of Japanese mythology, and to appreciate it only in some distant, detached fashion.  To my happy surprise, though, I found the film profoundly affecting.  Honestly, this might be because I'm *less* steeped in Miyazaki's other work this time around.  Lindsey has pointed out that, while Spirited Away is perhaps the most Japanese of Miyazaki's films in terms of content, it is perhaps the most Western in terms of structure.  Unlike the peacefully episodic vignettes of Kiki's Delivery Service, this film is much more hero's-journey -- Chihiro has one clear goal, a very clear adversary, and she grows as a person as she achieves her objective.  Maybe early-2000s!me couldn't shift gears to appreciate that, whereas this time around I settled right into the story of Chihiro and her quest.

The film even includes that out-and-out villain, which is a rare thing for Miyazaki, who usually constructs stories that don't need bad guys.  Kiki, for instance, is a 13-year-old girl trying to start a successful business in a new town -- that's plenty difficult without some Snidely Whiplash causing trouble for her.  Once you get past Yababa, though, this is another world where troubles are largely caused by carelessness and confusion.  No-Face isn't an evil creature; he just doesn't belong in the bathhouse, where he takes on and amplifies its greed.  Boh (the giant baby) starts out acting horribly, but fares better as a mouse left to its own devices than a pampered creature in a pile of pillows.

I guess this time around the movie pulled me very strongly in two directions.  You can't help but feel a sense of wonder at Miyazaki's world-building.  He *starts* with the spirits that overtake the abandoned row of restaurants, and then just goes on from there.  The bathhouse has been there for centuries, with its own division of labor, its own customs, its own corruption, and its deep bench of characters.  And then beyond the bathhouse, there's the rail system, taking people to still more fanciful locations.  He keeps expanding the scope, and that gives you the sense that this strange parallel world goes on forever.

At the same time, you can't help but empathize with Chihiro's gut reaction, which is "This is weird and I'm tired and I just want to go home."  There's this weary undertow to the whole storyline.  A new, fanciful creature shows up, and you must figure that, on some level, Chihiro must be thinking, "Great.  Just great.  A *new* weird-ass dream-beast I've got to figure out.  It probably has its own set of social conventions that will get me in desperate trouble.  Again."

So I was happy.  It's rare that a movie opens up for me like that on a repeated viewing, and invites me to come along.

The Lego Movie
This is the current adventure comedy set in the world of Lego toys.

Like most of the audience, I feel a sense of baffled appreciation towards this movie.  It's about as blatant a toy-advertisement cash-grab as a movie can be, so just the fact that it doesn't fall flat on its face (like, say, Battleship or Dungeons and Dragons) feels like an accomplishment.  That it's actually better than 'competent' is even more confusing, like you half-expect to wake up and tell people about this crazy dream you had where there was a Lego movie and it was actually kind of good.  It joins the ranks of "good movies based on children's toys," a category that includes Clue and... um... yeah, up to now, it was pretty much just Clue.  (Wait, can we count Toy Story?)

It's helpful to think of this not as "a movie based on Legos" -- interlocking plastic bricks are only inherently dramatic if you step on one while barefoot -- but as "a movie based on the Lego video games."  Over nearly twenty years, Lego's video-game properties have been building this breezily-comic voice, somehow taking every property they gamify and molding it to that witty, knowing, cheery adventure genre of their own invention.  I don't know if the movie drew deliberately from the games, but it feels like it does.  Hell, it feels like where their line of games has been leading to all along.

So it's got a strong comic tone, and that holds the movie together while it makes up its studio-noted mind whether it wants to be a romantic comedy or an adventure or a creepy conspiracy thriller or a sort of mid-20s coming-of-age drama.  It's pretty scatterbrained, and its reactive hero has no clear objective and, as written, precious little personality (words cannot express how much Chris Pratt brings to Emmett as a voice actor).  But all that said, if we're watching Will Arnett voicing Batman in a song that he wrote, does it even matter if the movie works structurally?  It's so funny moment-to-moment that we let it take its time to find itself.

Once it finally settles into a groove, it's a really solid movie.  They do a hell of a job with the assault on Lord Business's tower, and when it transitions into a story about a father not letting a son near his precious Lego collection, it's even kind of beautiful.  And mind you, Will Ferrell is not the best dramatic actor -- this is just really solid writing holding that part up.  It makes the scatterbrained randomness of the story to that point make sense -- oh, it felt like the random stream-of-consciousness of an eight-year-old boy because it actually was -- and it makes the light-as-air storyline suddenly feel like it's about something.[1]  I didn't think I would get teary over the confrontation between Emmett Brickoski and Lord Business, but there I was, watching the quiet conversation with mysterious dust in both my eyes.

Is there really much else to say about this?  I suppose not.  If a film is funny, and it's about something real, that's pretty much all you need.  I just watch it, and appreciate it, and wonder how the hell they pulled it off.

For next time, I've started watching American Hustle.  I'm still catching up on podcasts, but eventually I'll start on The Better Angels of Our Nature.

[1] And as Kevin Miller has pointed out, it's a surprisingly anti-corporate sentiment -- Lego makes good money from selling all those separate playsets that you use to build predefined creations.

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Date:Tuesday (3/4/14) 9:43am
I like a lot of Miyazaki's films but Spirited Away is my favorite. I admire that he can get by just fine without an explicit villain, but maybe that is why I like Spirited Away the best, what with my Western sensitivies and all.

Also, Will Arnett as Lego Batman is the best. Just the best!
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