Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Peter Sobczynski makes the case for the best animated film of 2014: "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya". Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Picture and Best Director on Friday.
When the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced, many observers were shocked and surprised to discover that what had been largely considered to be the odds-on favorite to win the award for Best Animated Feature, "The LEGO Movie," did not even make the cut for the final five. This was an inexplicable result, all the more so since even the most ardent animation buff would have to admit that the past year did not exactly yield a bumper crop of worthy animated films, but the controversy surrounding this decision wound up overshadowing something even more significant—the happy fact that the animated film that actually was the best of the year managed to get a nomination despite the relative lack of hype, product tie-ins or singing snowmen to lure viewers in. No, it is clear that "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" made it in solely on the basis of its own artistic merits and if that is the central concern of Academy voters, as it should be in a perfect world, then they will hopefully come to the same conclusion as those of us at the site here and give it the prize that it so richly deserves.
The film is based on "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," a Japanese folk tale dating back to the 10th century that is said to be the oldest existing story in that country's history. It tells the story of an aging bamboo cutter who discovers a tiny girl living inside of a bamboo shoot and decides, along with his wife, to raise her as his own. She soon begins to grow quite rapidly until she is of normal size and quite beautiful to boot. After making another surprising discovery among the bamboo shoots, the cutter decides that the best thing for his adoptive daughter would be to have her raised among the nobles of the land and even has her dubbed Princess Kaguya to boot. Very quickly, she has no less than five suitors vying for her hand and there is even interest from no less a figure than the Emperor of Japan himself but eventually she has to come to terms with who she really is, what she has done and what it means for her future.
The film is the latest creation from Japan's venerated Studio Ghibli and was directed by Isao Takahata, who co-founded the studio with the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, and whose work here is as strong and sure as anything he has done in a career stretching over more than a half-century, including such beloved works as "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988) and "Pom Poko" (1994). Although the film does involve elements of fantasy, this is not the usual kiddie-oriented romp—this is a more serious-minded work aimed at older audiences (though more thoughtful children should have no trouble grasping it) and dealing with such thought-provoking themes as nature versus nurture and the importance of the gifts provided by the environment over the baubles and trinkets that are normally given precedence in society. One aspect that viewers of all ages can appreciate is the gorgeous visual style Takahata has employed—instead of the usual anime flashiness, he has instead utilized a defiantly old-fashioned 2-D approach that looks watercolor paintings brought beautifully to life. While its deliberate pacing may put off some people used to the more frenetic pace of contemporary animation, viewers able to get in on its leisurely wavelength will be amply rewarded with the cinematic treasures it has to offer. It is said that Takahata had attempted to bring "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya" to the screen for the first time over 55 years ago—happily, the final result was well worth the wait.