So, if you’re coming by expecting to see what famous filmmakers I’d be exploring today, you’re probably thinking “Hey, Miyazaki! I love that guy”. You’re also probably thinking: “Mazin? Who?”
So today, I selected a well-known movie, and a pretty obscure indie comedy.
For today, the films are:
Princess Mononoke (1997) – Hayao Miyazaki
The Specials (2000) – Craig Mazin
Princess Mononoke is a classic animated film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The Specials is an indie comedy directed by Craig Mazin, and written by James Gunn, long before his success with films like Super, and more recently (and more famously) the Guardians of the Galaxy series. Gunn also stars in the film. I know this film pretty well, but I wanted to revisit it because Gunn has really come into his own as a filmmaker since this film was made. And who doesn’t love Miyazaki?
So let’s start by talking about Princess Mononoke.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Animation is really important to me. I find the process of bringing a series of still drawings to life fascinating. For the first (but certainly not the last) animated film, I wanted to pick one of the all-time great filmmakers. So of course, Miyazaki was the perfect choice. I’ve been in awe of his work since I saw Spirited Away at the turn of the century. Trying to stick with the original idea that I should go with films that I wasn’t that familiar with, I chose Princess Mononoke. I had seen this before, but it’s been more than a decade, so I was coming at it pretty fresh.
The film focuses on a young prince, Akitasha, who saves his village from a corrupted forest spirit in the form of a boar. In the rescue, he is touched by the demon, which transfers the curse to him. He is told the only possible cure might be found in the west. He leaves his village on his red elk Yakul, and seeks out the cure, and the source of this corruption.
The film is clearly based on Japanese myth and stories, which I’m not terribly familiar with, but it doesn’t matter. Miyazaki does a great job of building a world that is logically consistent, even if it reads as fantasy to the audience. Miyazaki explains what he has to explain, and leaves the rest to the audience to interpret. But he uses really simple ideas, like don’t let the curse touch you. We can all understand that.
Even though the film uses simple ideas, it’s not necessarily a kids movie. This film is pretty brutal. In his first confrontation, Ashitaka runs across a samurai raiding party. He manages to fire an arrow which cuts off the hands of one enemy, then another arrow that decapitates a second. This isn’t hinted at, or suggested, it’s fully on display. But it does suggest that Ashitaka is superhuman.
I’m used to seeing Miyazaki films like Kiki’s Delivery Service or Spirited Away, that deal with serious, complex emotions, but keep the violence fairly low. But in Princess Mononoke, the confrontations are front and center, and the film isn’t afraid of blood and gore. It’s an interesting contrast to what I’m used to seeing from Miyazaki.
Also of interest, the film is a period piece, but it has a very different setting from most Japanese period pieces I’m used to seeing. Ashitaka passes by some of the familiar areas, like farming villages, and the aforementioned samurai raiding party, but he moves through barely stopping. In the text commentary that came with the Blu-ray set, Miyazaki claims he did this on purpose as a way play against the standard period piece and show a land that was less populated with humans, and more wild. It really works.
As Ashitaka travels, we are introduced to a traveling party who fight off several white wolves with early gunpowder weapons. The contrast here is clear and immediate. Up to this point in the film, we’ve only seen edged weapons like swords, and bows and arrows. Now, we see the industry starting to creep in.
This isn’t a fluke, as soon after Ashitaka rescues some survivors from the attack and brings them to their home, a large ironworks that has encroached on the forest. Earlier in the film Ashitaka has learned that this is the sacred forest of the Deer God, and finding the Deer God is likely his only chance to cure the curse.
At the ironworks, Ashitaka meets Lady Eboshi, and learns that she is responsible both for clearing the forest, and wounding the boar that became a demon and attacked his village, putting him in his current predicament.
The easy story beat would be to set up Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi as rivals. In fact, when Ashitaka learns all of this, the curse takes his arm over briefly and attempts to draw his sword, but he fights it off. And Lady Eboshi’s characterization makes it hard to see her as a straight villain. While she is very open about trying to destroy the forest, she is doing so to improve the lives of the people under her care. Furthermore, the people who work for her love her. The ironworks feels more like a big family than a workplace. In addition, Lady Eboshi takes in the sick and cares for them, giving them a purpose designing weapons. Miyazaki does a good job here of giving Lady Eboshi the right motivation to avoid a cackling villain.
Instead of attacking Lady Eboshi, Ashitaka urges her to stop taking down the forest, and allowing it to regrow. This is a consistent trait of Ashitaka, violence is a last resort for him. When meeting the corrupted spirit, he pleads with it to stop, only attacking when it gets close to the village and threatens his people. Similarly, when the raiding samurai attack him, he tries to run and pleads with them to let him go. When he has no choice, he kills them easily.
We then learn about the real rivalry of the film, between Lady Eboshi and Princess Mononoke. While Lady Eboshi is working to clear the forest and mine iron, Princess Mononoke and her tribe of Moro are working to drive the humans out. They raid the ironworks regularly, trying to make it untenable to stay. On one side, the natural forest, on the other side, the man made world.
The tension between the natural and the manufactured is not a subplot, it’s the main thrust of the film. We learn later that the Emperor of Japan has sent a team to find and kill the Deer God, clearing the way for humans to take over the forest without interference. In addition, the local warlord is attempting to drive out Lady Eboshi to take the land for themselves, and a herd of boar led by a giant white boar Okkoto arrive for one final stand against the humans.
All of these forces combine for one massive confrontation. Rather than choosing sides, Ashitaka attempts to bring peace by visiting the ironworks which he finds sieged by the samurai warlord. He races to find Lady Eboshi for help only to find her on a hunt for the Deer God. He looks for Mononoke, only to learn she has been helping the boars in their doomed battle against the superior weapons of the humans.
As he races to find Mononoke with the help of one of the white wolves, he realizes that the humans are tracking Mononoke to lead them to the Deer God. The tension of the chase, and the climax are all impeccable, and I won’t spoil it, other than to say it’s incredibly satisfying.
Miyazaki is a master of storytelling and animation, and this film doesn’t disappoint. When I look at an animated film, I like to look for the subtle characterizations. It’s easy to draw a face and animate a mouth opening and closing, and some eyes looking around. But what about the little facial tics, or gestures that we go through in daily life. Does the character adjust their hair out of their eyes? Do they scratch their nose self-consciously? What about the environment? Is it just a flat background, or does it react to the actions of the characters?
All of these things seem small, but they build the reality of the world, and bring life to the characters. As expected this film is full of little moments like this.
For example, as Ashitaka explores the ironworks, he visits the bellows where the women work. As they work, the women all wear loose fitting robes and clearly aren’t used to having men around while they work. As Ashitaka takes his turn at the bellows, the woman next to him is embarrassed, and is completely preoccupied with keeping her robe from revealing too much while working the bellows. It’s a great little character moment.
In addition, the environment feels alive and active. When chasing Mononoke around the ironworks, Ashitaka clambers onto a roof, but shingles break under his feet. In another scene, Monoke steps on a bone underwater which moves, kicking up dust.
This is the essence of great animation, and one of the things that makes Miyazaki such an incredible filmmaker. When the world is alive, it adds another layer to the characterization. Especially in this film, where the main tension is around how nature is reacting to the encroaching industry, the environment becomes it’s own character.
The story itself is fine, but familiar. The tension between nature and industry is a familiar theme in all kinds of art. We’ve seen it in the Lord of The Rings series, Avatar, etc. But you don’t have to invent a genre to create a compelling story, and Miyazaki does so here. The animation and interesting characters and designs really bring the film up to classic status.
The Specials (2000)
The Specials is the story of the 6th or 7th greatest super hero team in the world on the day when they finally get their own toy line. In this world, super heroes are real, they form teams and fight crime and disasters, and the greatest honor a team can receive is to get their own toy line. The Specials have hit the big time.
This is an independent film from 2000, written by James Gunn and directed by Craig Mazin. A lot of recognizable faces are in the cast, including Paget Brewster, Jamie Kennedy, Jordan Ladd, Thomas Haden Church, Judy Greer, and even Rob Lowe.
What’s interesting to me about this film is it’s a superhero team film before those were popular, and it almost completely ignores their super powers. We’re watching a day in the life of the superheroes when they don’t have anyone to save. On top of that, this is a team that would be far down the list of teams to call.
It’s also written by James Gunn, who would find a lot of success with another dysfunctional superhero team film with his Guardians of the Galaxy series. I’d been thinking about this film lately since I saw the second film in that series, and wanted to revisit it.
The film mixes scenes of daily life with cutaways to interviews where we get a bit deeper into the thoughts of the characters. The story takes place on the day the newest team member, Nightbird arrives, who is particularly coy about her super power. She is introduced to Miss Indestructible, who has indestructible skin, and Strobe, her husband, who fires laser from his arms, and is also the leader of the group.
The film is essentially a workplace comedy, letting us see them fighting in meetings, meeting the new girl, killing time during the day, and getting ready for the big party to introduce their toy line. As these scenes play out, we get a good sense of the various personalities. The Weevil, played by Rob Lowe is the most popular and famous member, and feels above the others. Amok, played by Jamie Kennedy is angry. Power Chick is relentlessly positive. Deadly Girl doesn’t like people. Miss Indestructible is unhappy in her life(and having an affair with Weevil), the Strobe is unbearably full of himself.
These kinds of personality conflicts ended up being the key to later superhero movies like X-men, Avengers, and even Guardians of the Galaxy. So it’s interesting to see Gunn figure this out around the same time the original X-men film was released. This film also has a lot in common with Mystery Men, which was released about the same time. A group of not-so-great superheroes struggle to balance being the big fish of the human world, but the small fish of the superhero world.
The film lays in a few scenes showing the fraying edges of the superhero team. Weevil gets an offer to join the Crusaders, the biggest and best superhero team, while Strobe is approached to use his powers in a welding factory.
So it’s no surprise that the toy reveal goes terribly wrong. The Strobe catches his wife with Weevil, and the toy company has ignored most of the Specials actual powers, and filled in with whatever seemed interesting as toys. Humiliated, the Strobe announces the end of the Specials, and the team scatters for the evening, trying to figure out what to do.
We get a lot of funny scenes of the team in various smaller groups meeting up to talk, going to a club, or just having quiet evenings at home, including one really effective scene with Miss Indestructible watching her wedding video.
In the end, Weevil does move on to the Crusaders, but the other members simply can’t quit the group. While Strobe is adamant that the group is done, everyone shows up for work the next day and wills it to continue.
This is a really fun film, with a lot of great one-liners and jokes. For example, James Gunn’s character is named Minute Man. In your head, you like pronounced that like the unit of time, but it’s pronounced like the size (my-noot), because his power is becoming small. This is a running joke throughout the film, and seeing Gunn transition from “Aw shucks, it happens” to “God damn it!” throughout the film is really fun.
The plot is straightforward and competent, as is the cinematography. There’s nothing really special here though. The real gem is the script. Gunn has to thread a really particular needle here, where we’re told all these characters have super powers, and they tell us all about their great adventures, but we never see them, except for a brief sequence at the end. Without playing that right, the audience might get resentful that we’re just hearing about this instead of seeing it. But it works, I think largely because the characters are so fun and unique.
The cutaways also work really well. The best cutaway comes from Gunn himself immediately following a scene where he struck out with Nightbird the new member:
“The great thing about not getting to be with the person you love is that you can still think about that person and masturbate. Which is basically the same thing.”
There are definitely shades of the modern superhero team film that Gunn would later explore in Guardians here. The team feels more like a family than co-workers, and the story is really built around that concept, with the team coming together around each other. We don’t get much of an origin story of the team, which is essentially a requirement for modern superhero films, but we do get a brief documentary sequence that gives the history of the group, which is more than sufficient.
This one is definitely a personal favorite, rather than an all-time classic, but it will always have a special place for me.
The Double Feature
So how did they work together? This was definitely an eclectic pairing. One is animated, one is live action. One is a workplace comedy about superheroes, one is an action film with an environmental message.
For me, it feels a lot like the last one, where one film is deeply emotional, and the other is mainly about entertainment. The contrast here works pretty well. The Specials isn’t a film that will go down as one of the greats in cinema history, but it’s enjoyable, with a lot of great moments and funny jokes. Princess Mononoke is one of a long line of Miyazaki masterpieces. It wasn’t his first, and it wasn’t be his last.
I’d say these two are a bit too far apart though. While the first combination weren’t quite on the same level, they were both master filmmakers early in their careers. This combination was a master filmmaker in his prime, and an independent production doing their best to put an entertaining film on screen. They’re just not in the same ballpark. So while there’s a lot to be said for a palate cleanser after a movie like Princess Mononoke, I think The Specials might be better off being compared to another independent film, or some kind of cult classic.
I was planning on watching these films during the day on Friday, and write the post on Saturday but I suddenly realized that I couldn’t string together enough hours to actually watch both movies back to back. I considered watching them separately, but I think that’s a road I won’t cross. If I’m not watching the movies back to back, then there’s really no point to doing this.
So I started at 9:30 on Thursday night, staying up until 1am to actually finish both films. So I ended sleepy, but having seen The Specials a couple of times before, I was able to keep up with it.
I’ve been thinking about the next set of films, and here’s what I decided:
Ernst Lubitsch – Design for Living (1933)
Peter Bogdonavich – At Long Last Love (1975)
I have a very specific, personal reason for pairing these two filmmakers, but I’ll talk about that in the next post.