Fantastic Beasts – Teaser Trailer Released!

As our faculty busily complete their grading here at Hogwarts Prep, we wished to alert everyone as they pack their trunks and make their way back home for the holidays that the corporate studio owning the rights to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Amazon; Pottermore has the ebook) has released the first teaser trailer for their motion picture adaptation. Not much of a tease, really–“Just a smidge”–but visually rich. The cinematography in FBWFT’s New York City of 1920 reminds us a bit of (ca) 1905 Paris in Hugo. Enjoy!

Ainulindalë: New Film Short

Prepare to be amazed at the artistry and creativity of the Tolkien community (again). Willow Productions has released a beautiful short film of Tolkien’s creation narrative, the Ainulindalë, which means “The Music of the Ainur.” Saith Ilúvatar, “Behold! Your music!”

Some observations:

  • The score by Far West Method Music is fitting and evocative, which is important since it is music that is the creative force of the universe.
  • Ilúvatar’s theme is not itself imagined as a melody or theme; instead, it is announced with a chime, or what sounds to me like a glass armonica.
  • The entirety of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë is not narrated; the spoken voiceover (which is well done) is a very abbreviated script of the original.
  • Back to the music: I liked the brief, but clever quote of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini as a musical association with Melkor.
  • Thus, from Ainur to Valar. Tolkien’s framework of doom as established by the choice of free beings is brought out very effectively.

Verdict: a delightful rendering of this important narrative in the legendarium. h/t The Silmarillion / Children of Hurin / The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings group.

Sins of Adaptation: Deathly Hallows 2

FilchWhen I first heard these lines uttered in the movie, I knew all was lost, that the vital spirit of J. K. Rowling’s climactic chapter, “King’s Cross,” was Avada Kedavra’d in a green haze of moralism. The subsequent portrayal of the battle of Hogwarts was so distant from the written showdown between Harry and Voldemort, it only confirmed the murder of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and by extension, the entire Hogwarts saga. Kloves, the writer for DH2, while JKR must have been on break having a scotch, has Dumbledore say the following to Harry in the ethereal King’s Cross station:

Help will always be given at Hogwarts, Harry, to those who ask for it. (…) But I would, in this case, amend my original statement to this: “Help would always be given at Hogwarts, to those who deserve it.”

No, nein, nyet. Twelve inches of parchment should be plenty for you to complete a satisfactory comparative analysis between book and film on this matter.

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

Howls-CastleReleased: 2004

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki

Version reviewed: 2005 Blu-ray (Disney)

Our next gem from Studio Ghibli is an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones‘ book of the same title. You may want to sit down for what I’m about to tell you: I’m breaking my own rule about the order in which to discuss a story that’s been told in both print and film. We haven’t read Jones’ 1986 book yet (but we will!), so my review will not consist of any comparison between the two. But here’s what I’ll do: since we liked the movie I’ll read the book, and in the book review, I’ll work in some comparative analysis with the movie. Deal?

HMC is the story of Sophie Hatter, a responsible, 18-year-old…well, hatter. Early in the story, she meets the wizard Howl, who rescues her from an uncomfortable encounter she has with two soldiers in a quiet alley. The Witch of the Waste, voiced by Lauren Bacall (!!), visits Sophie’s hat shop and places a curse of old age on Sophie, apparently out of jealousy at Howl’s interest in Sophie. She awakes the next morning with a deeply wrinkled face and a full head of gray hair. She sets out toward the wasteland to find someone who can reverse the curse.

On this journey from the city to the wilds, she experiences some of the limits and difficulties of her aged body and quicklHowls-TurnipHeady tires. Fortunately, she meets “Turnip-head,” a scarecrow that hops about like a pogo stick, who leads her to Howl’s home, the titular Moving Castle, which is powered by the “fire demon” Calcipher. Once aboard, Sophie meets Calcipher and young apprentice Markl as she assumes the role of maid. The castle exterior is fancifully impractical, which to my eye looked like what my youngest son would design for the Jawas to replace their sandcrawlers, and we enjoyed seeing it every time it was on screen. The state of the “castle” interior reflects the disordered, immature psyche of its owner. Sophie has her hands full to whip the place into shape. The castle roams the landscape, but can appear in multiple places at once. Its portal gives the travelers easy access to both the city and the countryside.

The backdrop for Sophie’s quest and Howl’s restlessness is a war between Sophie’s country and its neighbor. The world in which this martial activity unfolds is an eclectic collage of coal-fired and steam-powered machinery, 1890s fashion, customs and atmosphere, cobblestone streets, flying battleships, a monarchy, and wizards who transform into attacking bird creatures, all played out in a scenic Alpine countryside. Howl is summoned by the King to be deployed in the war. Howl is already busy, however, with midnight guerilla raids on the engines of war.

Sophie agrees to Howl’s request to impersonate his mother and answer the King’s summons on his behalf to make his excuses. In the palace, together with the Witch of the Waste, she meets Madame Suliman, a powerful witch and advisor to the King. Suliman’s protective spells sap the WW’s power, who transforms into a gelatinous, harmless old woman. Suliman soon detects Sophie’s true intention, but Howl intercedes and whisks them all away from Suliman’s clutches.

Somewhere at this point in the plot things unravel and the final half hour or so is a frenetic attempt to tie it all back together. Short version: Calcipher gets sick; the castle falls apart in various stages; the WW seizes Calcipher because he has Howl’s heart which is what she’s been wanting all along; Sophie has to douse Calcipher so that the WW isn’t burned alive; through the fallen castle door, like a Pensieve, Sophie enters Howl’s memory of meeting Calcipher, who is a fallen star; Howl returns from one of his bird missions, now spent of his human self; Sophie persuades the WW to give her Howl’s heart so that she can return it to him; this frees Calcipher, so the remaining platform of the castle collapses; Turnip-head prevents everyone from falling into a chasm by bracing the platform; Sophie kisses Turnip-head in thanks, breaking his spell and revealing him to be the missing prince of the neighboring country; Suliman sees what has transpired on HMC and calls a halt to the war; the crew of HMC return to their wandering life together, now aboard a new, flying HMC.

Despite the shortcomings of the last half hour of the movie, HMC handles some big social and metaphysical themes with subtlety and allusiveness. The two major social issues are war and the environment. HMC depicts the tanks and bombers with whimsy and the martial setting of the society with festive, bright colors and cheerfully noisy streets. It isn’t until you see all of the smoke and vapor of the engines that any harm or oppressiveness is suggested. Though the actual destruction unleashed by the war machinery is shown later, Miyazaki effectively shows how the pageantry and celebration of military splendor can be attractive. It is most welcome to have a graceful, gentle anti-war message rather than a preachy, strident one, but no less powerful for that (indeed, we think it more effective for this reason).

The visuals are at times so stunning that it is easy to lose sight of the very quality that we found to be prominent in HMC: beauty. When Sophie awakes to find herself looking and feeling like an old woman, we are afforded a glimpse of the equanimity that makes her such a compelling character. She is shocked at first, of course, but quickly regains her pragmatic composure and sets out to see what can be done about it. While her home country blares “War is upon us!” she gazes from the porch of the castle as it bobs along the meadows, and sighs self-reflectively, “When you’re old, all you want to do is stare at the scenery. I’ve never felt so peaceful before.” Sophie has lost her physical youth but her beautiful soul only grows more resplendent. The filmmakers show Sophie in younger incarnations, which seem to correspond to the degree of passion she feels as her love for Howl grows. We found this to be a brilliant use of the medium of animation.

Sophie makes the perfect foil, then, for the vain Howl. Tall, thin, handsome, and when he’s trying, as elegant as David Niven, Howl’s virtue and will to do good is in a losing war with his petulant, pampered, extended adolescence. After an exhausting excursion in bird form, he slouches before the fireplace (just cleaned by Sophie) and laments, “If I can’t be beautiful, I don’t want to live anymore!” By any superficial measure–appearance, ability, power, charisma– he is Sophie’s better. But in character, he’s as big a mess as the dark, oozy tunnel behind the castle door, strewn with broken toys and flotsam. It is Sophie who can pass through this projection of Howl’s subconscious to reach the young, wounded boy behind it.


We also appreciate the imagery of fire and the heart, particularly in their conjunction, as the energy behind what moves us onward and together. Calcipher, the fallen star, kindles a living spirit in whatever home he’s given. He can be quenched, however, and this brings disintegration and death. Fire must be free to blow where it will; to trap it is bad magic, against nature, and prevents the heart from growing.

Final Observations

The musical score by Momoru Fujisawa (Joe Hisaishi), who also composed the scores for Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, is spot on accompaniment to the film. I’m going to have to track down the HMC Symphonic Suite he arranged. The Disney dub casting is an unfortunate mess. On the plus side, the casting of Lauren Bacall as the WW and the late (and great) Jean Simmons as the older Sophie is a very special treat. Sadly, the brilliance of their performances is marred (irreparably, in my opinion) by the bizarre choice of Christian Bale as Howl and the entirely miscast Billy Crystal as Calcipher. Given the significance of Calciper’s role in the plot, it is entirely incongruous to have Miracle Max and the voice of Mike Wazowski playing this role. Here my ignorance of the book handicaps me, but we have a difficult time believing that Calcipher is mainly comic relief in Jones’ story. Bale, as fans of the Bat know, does the broody hero shtick very well, but there’s too much gravel, too many rough edges in his delivery to fit Howl. Blythe Danner as Suliman is a good fit and she plays the role with cool impassivity and threatening disdain. Her character, we are promised, brings an end to the war, but we couldn’t help imagining that she was instrumental in prolonging it in the first place.

Once again we have a compelling, complex, and sympathetic female protagonist brought to life by Ghibli, this time one who is both young and old! Sophie’s true beauty outshines the wretched urgency of the powerful–whether ordinary human or magical–who move society to their whims and for the basest of aims. It is a beautiful world that Howl shows Sophie and that he protects for himself, but it is Sophie who teaches Howl how to become beautiful himself so that he can be at home in that world, a world that could be for us all.

We honestly waver between 2 and 3 Phi’s. We are inclined to the lower number because of the uneven casting but especially the narrative confusion of the final 30 minutes. But the film’s merits are too strong to overlook, so…

Φ Φ Φ Φ Φ   Recommended 

Have you seen Howl’s Moving Castle? What did you think? We look forward to your comments and questions!

Review: Whisper of the Heart


Released: 1995

Director: Yoshifumi Kondō

Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki

Version reviewed: 2012 Blu-ray (Disney)

Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart is, on its surface, a straight-forward conventional romance, with a dash of the fantastical (see the image above!)–Ghibli’s compelling spice mixture–that engages the imagination.

Whisper is the story of 14-year-old Shizuku, a student in an ordinary junior high school who has an insatiable appetite for reading books. We like her already. The early narrative plot line is a mystery: who is “Amasawa,” the name of the person who has previously checked out every book that Shizuku borrows. Allow me to indulge in a slight digression here.

Since the whole fam was watching Whisper together, we had an opportunity to explain to the younger ones what the card catalog system is, why the quaint card was tucked into the quaint pocket in the back of the quaint book, and how it enabled Shizuku to even experience this mystery at all. Our digitized libraries and catalogs have removed this material connection between borrowers–yes, real individuals sought out and read the very same book that you want to read, and that is more than enough to bring two people together, as we see in this story. In the drive to obtain what we want more rapidly and efficiently, I enjoyed pausing to lament this loss of human contact, shared interest, and even empathy. In most libraries today, your identity is isolated from other readers, and the people who borrowed that book before you will always remain anonymous and unknown to you. The romance of the library. Alas and le sigh. End of digression.

Through the guidance of Moku, aka Moon, the well-fed neighborhood cat, Shizuku is led on a journey that begins on the Tokyo subway, through a commercial district, and finally to a wealthy neighborhood and an antique shop. There she meets the proprietor, Shiro Nishi, and is enchanted by two objects: a golden statue of a cat, whom Nishi calls “The Baron,” and a grandfather clock housing a charming glockenspiel. Shizuku returns to the antique shop on two other occasions, and it is on the last visit that she meets Seiji, whom she soon learns is the mysterious book borrower, and their friendship is established. By movie’s end, this teen romance grows into a profession of love and promise of marriage. All very conventional. Some viewers will be turned off by this surface narrative, and I am largely sympathetic with them. Others will appreciate the traditional romantic storyline and the innocence it conveys.

But there are other narrative lines woven into this simple tale of young love, and with the remainder of this review, I want to explore these with you.

(1) Whisper is also a Bildungsroman, which, through some unlikely characterizations (especially of Seiji), intertwines with the romantic plot.

(2) Whisper is a fascinating glimpse into a system of social values and mores that probably challenge the typical Western viewer.

(3) Whisper is a critique of those values insofar as they lead to careerism-at-all-costs and the social system that perpetuates it. Each of these topics could be an essay unto itself; I will contain myself to the briefest sketch that I can, which hopefully will whet your appetite to explore these issues further.  Continue reading