Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Yoshifumi Kondô, 1986)

Ahh, this is more like it. After my last Ghibli film, I was rather deflated so I was very glad to come back to this, a much better offering. It still has that environmental message but this time more expertly incorporated into the story, with the sense of wonder that Only Yesterday aimed for and missed.

We open with a raid on an airship by strange bee-like aircraft as pirates try to take a necklace belonging to a little girl. This girl, Sheeta, is being ‘protected’ from the pirates by a handsome secret agent but, at the first opportunity, she knocks him unconscious and tries to escape from both the pirates and her protectors/captors and falls from the skyship in the process.

Down on the ground Pazu, a young engineer’s apprentice, sees a light descending slowly from the sky and runs to investigate, finding the unconscious body of Sheeta slowly descending. Rescuing her, he takes her back to his accommodation. When she wakes, she tells him the necklace she wears is made of a levitating crystal which is linked to the mythical floating city of Laputa, and that her family name includes reference to that city. The pirates want the crystal to find the city and loot its treasures; the government want to find it to eliminate a possible source of threat and, maybe, to take any weaponry they find. Sheeta and Pazu try to elude the pirates and the government and find Laputa before any harm can be done to it.

Shot through with strong anti-war and respect-the-environment messages, this has a strong narrative, exciting set-piece scenes, a lot of humour and a sense of wonder. There is an ‘alternative Victorian’ aesthetic to the airships and flyers that reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy novels, while Laputa itself has echoes of the Atlantis myth and there is an air of Silent Running about it, when it is finally discovered.

This restored my faith in the Ghibli studios.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2014)

A terrible mess of a movie. Confused, frenetic, but most of all, dull. How Jackson managed to make a film this bad from the source material he had, and allegedly loves, bewilders me.

I know some of my friends think I can be over-harsh when disappointed, and I’m also open to charges of being a purist, but I really don’t think this is the case here. After the first part of this trilogy, I really wasn’t sure I’d watch any more at all, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay good money to see it, but we have the streaming service and there it sat, waiting…

The first part of Lord of the Rings was a delight, setting up the world of middle-earth with a care that astonished and made me see it through new eyes. From there on, Jackson started changing things, messing the plot around, understandable and absolutely crucial in theory but, in practice, totally (in my opinion) misjudged as the effect was to remove any character from the films, and all subtlety (and, god knows, Tolkein didn’t have that much!) from characters. This was especially difficult in The Two Towers but this movie is much, much worse than that one.

If ever there’s an episode in the book where we might like to linger and look around, Jackson inserts some bogus reason to get the characters running around or fighting in the manner of a really bad video game. If there’s a character’s motive that is at all unclear, Jackson will insert a stilted speech or conversation which gives an unconvincing ‘explanation’ for it. And he deviates far from the book in order to make this drivel ‘work’. It’s as if he is terrified that if the screen stops spinning round for more then ten seconds, or if anything at all is unexplained, the audience will wander off. The perverse result of this hyperactive stupidity was to make the moments when the film did catch my attention rare, my mind wandering to more interesting places, like whether I’d received any emails, for most of the ridiculously long run-time.

I’ve not given the plot; what’s the point? Read the book (it’ll take an hour) and overdose on energy drinks. You’ll get the idea.

Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)

Life of Pi

I try not to put spoilers in these posts but I will, despite avoiding direct description, inevitably give away key ‘surprises’ here; it is essential in describing why I detest this film so much, regardless that so many tip it for Oscar success (though Titanic won a shedload of Oscars, and that’s a truly terrible movie). So look away now if you intend watching it…

This was adapted from a very successful and ‘much loved’ book. Having not read that book means I don’t know if my problem is with the adaptation or the original but I suspect it is the material that I find offensive – the film is well acted and beautifully made.

It starts off with a Caucasian Canadian visiting Pi, an Indian immigrant, having been told in India that Pi’s story is a ‘proof of god’. This immediately rubbed me up the wrong way. I’m an atheist and, while I’m happy to live and let live, claims of ‘proofs’ of god are absurd. Religious faith is necessarily absent of proof. Otherwise there wouldn’t be multiplicities of faiths, or agnosticism and atheism.

Despite this, I sat back and attempted to go with the film. For one thing, this might only be the opinion of the character, and not the message of the film. And, for another, if the film is not preaching at me, I can exercise the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ and just enjoy the fantasy. After all, Lord of the Rings is a Christian allegory, and that never bothered me. And so Pi began to tell his story, how he grew up in his father’s zoo, how he threw himself into each and every religious faith he encountered and how the zoo acquired a Bengal tiger named, by an administrative blunder, Richard Parker.

When Pi was a teenager, his father announced that the family were emigrating to Canada, taking the animals to sell as they began their new life. En route, the ship is wrecked in a storm, killing his family, the crew and almost all the animals and leaving Pi alone, almost, on a lifeboat – alone except for a few animals, including Richard Parker. Pi takes his ‘miraculous’ survival as a sign from God, never mind that the storm killed everyone else and prays for rescue. This kind of selfish view of God’s interest in your own personal salvation regardless of others always annoys me but, again, it is Pi’s story and he continues to tell it.

The scenes of how Pi and the tiger manage to co-exist on lifeboat and improvised raft are excellently constructed and, very nearly, convincing for large periods. It does take a turn into the fantastical a few times but, ok, I get that this is Pi’s story and am willing to roll with it.

It is when the ‘reveal’ comes (and this is the spoilery bit) that I really hated this film. It turns out that Pi’s fantasy was constructed to avoid thinking about a terrible reality. If that were as far as it went, I’d be perfectly happy as anyone can surely agree that people sometimes find terrible truths impossible to face; but the film seems to go much, much further. This is Pi’s ‘proof of god’. It seems (and the film seems to approve of Pi’s claim) that whatever you want to believe has an equal claim to factual accuracy. For anyone who cares about honesty, this is surely ethical anathema. There are consequences to false beliefs, sometimes very serious ones, and it is simply not ok to approach important questions with an approach from the outset that dismisses the claims of reality.

So, wonderfully acted and shot but ethically repellent to me. A beautifully made bag of shite.