OF ALL THE SINS Walt Disney has to answer for, perhaps none is so venal as his insistent dumbing-down of the sources for his animated movies. By omission, simplification, and gratuitous comic relief, he built an empire out of pabulum versions of meatier fare. As David Thomson has written, Disney didn't just provide children's entertainment, he "sold the notion that there should be special films for children" (emphasis mine), and elevated condescension to an art.

The best thing the studio has done to rectify this wrong has been to pilfer from another country; namely, Japan, home to the great animator Hayao Miyazaki. Japan has never seen cartoons as a pleasure you eventually outgrow. As a result, all of their animated films feel more adult than anything made in the U.S. The previous Miyazaki imports, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, were for kids, but their emotional honesty and patient beauty put most R-rated Hollywood films to shame. Now Disney is releasing Princess Mononoke, an often stunning fable. Due to some bloody battles, scary monsters, and fully rounded characters, it's being marketed as strictly for grownups, but don't you believe it. Anything this magical should be seen by as many people -- young and old -- as possible.

The story takes place several hundred years ago, when much of Japan is still uncleared forest. Prince Ashitaka (voice of Billy Crudup) is standing guard over his village when a quivering mass of excremental worms -- eventually revealed as a boar god driven mad by pain and turned into a demon -- slithers out of the forest. Ashitaka kills it and saves his people, but is wounded in the process; the wound is infected, and unless he wishes to share the unfortunate fate of the god, he must journey to find out the source of its misery and overcome it.

His trek across Japan eventually takes him to Iron Town and its leader, Lady Eboshi (voice of Minnie Driver), now engaged in battle with the many forest gods who surround her growing industry/village and who are trying to fight back against the encroaching humans. It was a bullet from Eboshi's rifle that crazed the boar god, and now her sights are set primarily upon destroying Princess Mononoke (voice of Claire Danes), a human raised by the wolf god and the Forest Spirit, protector of the forests whose severed head will grant its possessor immortality.

Miyazaki's characterizations aren't so much complex as complicated. The characters are as single-minded and unapologetic in their goals as any mythical hero, but the writer/director refuses to label them simply good or evil. Lady Eboshi's rapacity is monomaniacal, yet she also has made Iron Town into a refuge for society's outcasts -- lepers, prostitutes, the unwanted of every stripe -- and has earned a corresponding devotion, even love, from her subjects. Meanwhile the majestic, oversized forest gods, who inherently have the audience's sympathy as the assaulted party, are honestly treated as bestial, merciless warriors who think nothing of killing and devouring their enemy.

This is all reason enough to recommend Princess Mononoke, but as anyone who's seen a Miyazaki film will attest, the story you follow is secondary to the sights you behold. The craggy reality of his twisting tree trunks capped with windblown tufts of leaves; the weighty presence of the rocks, whether rough or slicked smooth by water; the breathtaking vividness of light when the clouds part; the crouched expectancy of animals at rest -- all of these are rendered as gorgeously as any animation I've ever seen, and in fact make a better plea for ecological sanity than the sometimes heavy-handed script. The only downside to how glorious Miyazaki's images are is that he knows it, and occasionally lingers too long. This slower, quieter pace can be riveting -- as when Ashitaka spots the Forest Spirit in the distance, or the gods hold their tense debates. But the last 20 minutes, which boils down to several characters running around trying to talk other characters out of conclusions we already know are foregone are in need of trimming. A minor complaint compared to the film's many successes.

As the Pacific Place and Varsity show Princess Mononoke, the Egyptian is dedicating a week to the output of Miyazaki's own studio, Ghibli. All of his work will be shown, of course, including the legendary Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Plus:Yoshifumi Kondo's Whisper of the Heart, and several films by the shockingly talented Isao Takahata, including the terrifying children's view of war in Grave of the Fireflies and Pompoko, wherein raccoons fight off developers by changing shape, performing magic, and swelling their testicles until they're large enough to crush their opponents. Nope, not kidding.

Support The Stranger

Sponsored
Washington Ensemble Theatre presents amber, a sensory installation set in the disco era
In this 30-minute multimedia experience, lights & sounds guide groups as they explore a series of immersive spaces.