Machines in the Garden

Reviews of the latest films.
Oct. 29 1999 9:30 PM

Machines in the Garden

The sublimely animated Princess Mononoke culminates in a powerful vision of ecological apocalypse.

Princess Mononoke

Directed by

Hayao Miyazaki

Miramax Films

Music of the Heart

Directed by

Wes Craven

Miramax Films

The Limey

Directed by

Steven Soderbergh

Artisan Entertainment

43000_43905_princess_mononoke

In the animated ecological epic Princess Mononoke, the camera travels over landscapes with a clear, steady gaze, like a Zen hang glider. The images have none of the comin'-at-ya pop-surrealism of American cartoons, many of which have characters that spring out of the frame like jack-in-the-boxes. The Japanese director, Hayao Miyazaki, who spent three years on Princess Mononoke and is reported to have done 70 percent of its paintings himself, seems to work from the outside in: to begin with the curve of the earth, then the mossy hills, the watercolor foliage, the nubby stones, the whorls on the wood, the meticulous carvings on a teacup. He captures the texture of light and the currents of air. You could almost settle down in this landscape. A view of nature that some would call "tree-hugging" doesn't feel softheaded when the trees are rendered in such brilliant and robust detail.

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But then, "soft" is not a word you can apply to Princess Mononoke, however pantheistic its worldview. The film, which is rated PG-13, is full of splattery carnage. If Miyazaki in long shot is contemplative, in close-up he's ferocious. He's both inside and outside the action: He knows when to rock your world and when to induce a state of sorrowful detachment. According to the NewYork Times, Toy Story animators screened reels of his work when their imaginations flagged, and writers for Star Trek named an alien species after one of his features. Watching PrincessMononoke--which has been dubbed to Disney/Miramax specifications by American and English stars but retains its two-hour-plus length, its gory beheadings, and its grim, near-apocalyptic finale--you can understand their worship. It isn't that Miyazaki's work is technically so dazzling in this age of digitized miracles; it's that everything is sublimely in proportion.

The movie has a scope that makes Hollywood's homiletic, follow-your-dream fables look even more solipsistic. Miyazaki is after nothing less than the moment in our history (the film is set in the 14th and 15th centuries) when the power shifted from a "natural" world to one shaped by human technology. It's the beginning of what Bill McKibben called "the end of nature"--that is, when nature became no longer an autonomous, self-regulating force but one touched (and, in Miyazaki's view, poisoned) by human industry.

The hero, Ashitaka, a warrior from the isolationist Emishi clan, is forced in the first scene to kill a marauding boar--a god turned into a demon (covered in roiling, corrosive worms) by an iron ball lodged in its body. Infected, destined to be consumed by--and to die of--rage, Ashitaka leaves his village in search of the iron ball's source. He discovers a fortress-cum-arms-manufacturing plant called Irontown, presided over by one of the most complex villains in modern film: the regal Lady Eboshi. On one hand, she's a benevolent industrialist who presides over a warmly matriarchal society; on the other, she wants to destroy the forest, harness its resources, and exterminate its animal deities--chiefly the Spirit of the Forest, a magnificent deer god whose touch brings instant life or death, and who transforms at dusk into the towering Night Walker.

Princess Mononoke builds to a full-scale war between humans and the animal kingdom--which does not, by the way, consist of your father's cartoon critters. In fact, the boars and apes have little patience with Ashitaka's call for nature and mankind to live together in harmony; they'd like to eat him. The wolf god, Moro, is slightly more sympathetic, but that's because her adopted "daughter," San (a k a Princess Mononoke), is human. San is first seen sucking a wound of her huge wolf mother, then, as the gore drips from her mouth, training her dark eyes on Ashitaka with feral hatred. Her second appearance--a lone attack on Irontown to assassinate Lady Eboshi--is one of the movie's high points. It's Miyazaki's use of sound--and silence--that takes your breath away: the determined tap of the wolf princess's shoes as she scuttles over the fortress's rooftops; the silence of Eboshi and her army as they stare at this tiny yet formidable tomboy against the black sky. Their battle is so furious that the blades streak and lose definition--it's almost subliminal.

It's a shame that the wolf princess warms up to Ashitaka and spends the rest of the film either saving him or being saved by him. She loses that punk-bitch allure. The voice of Claire Danes doesn't help. When Danes says, "I'd do anything to get you humans out of my forest," she sounds like a Valley Girl peeved over lack of parking spaces at the mall. (San needs a more ragged voice--I'd be interested to hear the original Japanese actress.) Billy Crudup is just as Disneyfied (Miramaxed?), but that doesn't hurt as much because Ashitaka is conceived from the start as a rather bland ingénu. Gillian Anderson's growling Moro sounds silly (she doesn't have the breath control), and the fey-hick tones of Billy Bob Thornton are too recognizable as the Akim Tamiroff-like mercenary, Jigo. But Minnie Driver--coming off a triumphantly dizzy Jane in Tarzan--once again provides a voice that the animators deserve. "Bring the strange-ah to me late-ah," she commands in sexy Martian Queen cadences that will stir the loins of Flash Gordon fans everywhere. "I would like to thank him puh-sonally."

The overfamiliar voices nudge Princess Mononoke closer to its American counterparts--but not by a lot. There's always something wondrously strange. The "kodamas" are little tree spirits on doughboy bodies. They cock their trapezoidal dice heads and emit a series of clicks; then their heads pop back with a conclusive rattle. Something about them seems just right; I could watch them for hours. (Miyazaki limits their appearances to seconds--he doesn't wear out their mystery the way that, say, George Lucas would.) And no Hollywood animated feature would end with such a powerful vision of apocalypse, as the land is bestridden by a colossus dropping a thick, caustic, tarlike gel that recalls the post-Hiroshima "black rain." Can you take the kids? I think so. As Miyazaki said at a New York Film Festival press conference, "Children understand intuitively that the world they have been born into is not a blessed world." Princess Mononoke, at least, can tell them why.

"A special smile ... a certain touch ..." So begins the elevator-music theme song of Music of the Heart ... "I never had a lot that I loved so much." The credits had just started and I was already looking for a barf bag. Did Miramax and director Wes Craven have to work so hard to schlockify the story of Roberta Guaspari (played here by Meryl Streep), whose violin courses in East Harlem elementary schools have become a beacon for such programs nationwide? A fabled taskmaster (her story was told in the 1996 documentary Small Wonders), Guaspari used music as a way to teach self-discipline--along with the healthy self-respect that follows in its wake. When the New York school board cut the funding for her program, she proved a marvel of self-promotion, attracting features in all the major dailies and ending up along with her best students at Carnegie Hall for a benefit "Fiddlefest"--along with Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, and other legendary "fiddlers."

Streep has said that she spent so much of the time on the set learning the violin (she doesn't play any instruments) that she didn't bring the full force of her acting technique to bear on Roberta. Maybe that's why the performance seems so natural. Let her always learn an instrument on the set! Still, she doesn't make much sense of Guaspari. The script, by Pamela Gray (A Walk on the Moon), has her students complain of her nastiness and perfectionism, but Streep--who has made herself look dumpy, thick-waisted, and bedraggled--is so busy telegraphing her vulnerability that all we get is dippy niceness. Instead of a monument to an individual's iron will, Music of the Heart becomes the story of a woman so helpless that she arouses the kindness of strangers.

Directors of violent genre pieces like Craven (who got this mainstream gig in return for doing the Scream sequels) or Carl Franklin or Sam Raimi sometimes want so badly to belong to Establishment Hollywood--to go to the Academy Awards--that they neuter themselves. Bending over backward to show how sensitive they can be, they forget that violence--even if it's just emotional violence--belongs in "ordinary" dramas, too. Craven does good work with the young actors in the classroom scenes, but the film has a reticence common to most biopics and a mushy, TV-movie humanism that blands out its texture. OK, I was a puddle after some scenes, like the one where Guaspari pushes a student to get her to improve her posture and discovers that the girl is wearing a leg brace. But how much more emotional the Carnegie Hall climax would have been if instead of suddenly seeing these East Harlem kids on stage with Perlman, Stern, Joshua Bell, etc., we'd seen them rehearsing first and struggling to keep up. There's too much music of the heart and not enough music of the callused fingers.

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