It’s no secret that I go nuts over animated films by Japan’s Studio Ghibli. Walt Disney has released two more on Blu-ray, Spirited Away, which won the Academy Award for animated feature in 2002, and the lesser, but still entertaining The Cat Returns.
Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who becomes separated from her parents while moving and falls into a spirit world where the center of attention is a bath house for spirits. Chihiro experiences many adventures while trying to find a way back to her world, adventures that challenge her courage. Directed by master animator Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is visually lavish and detailed. There’s a surprise around every corner, for very time you think things are one way, they change. I’ve seen this movie 5 or 6 times and still find new visual delights when I view it. Spirited Away surely deserves Blu-ray, which brings out all of its detail and color. It’s rated PG for some scary moments, but most of those are more liable to delight children rather than frighten them.
The Cat Returns is more simply drawn and executed but also has its moments of delight. The theme is similar – a young girl is empowered by her experiences in a different world. This time the girl is Haru. After saving a cat from being hit by a speeding vehicle, she becomes a hero to all cats and is transported to their secret world where she finds that an act of kindness from her youth has made current events turn out very well. Both of the films can be watched in either English (with a dubbed soundtrack) or Japanese with English subtitles. I find the latter works far better. By taking away the famous actors providing the English dubbing, you can concentrate more on the original characterizations. Whichever you choose, it is surely a fine idea that Disney included both so you could have a choice.
The Cat Returns also looks fabulous given the Blu-ray treatment. Both movies have interesting sound designs and very fine sounding music scores that sound thoroughly western in concept.
Androids. One of the most popular, recurring themes in science fiction. A theme very popular today as several movies and television shows have focused on topic and made it very, well, human.
First up there’s the feature film, Ex Machina in which nerdy genius Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest which allows him to spend a week with Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac), the mysterious, reclusive CEO of the company where Caleb works. Nathan lives in a house in the middle of primeval forests, accessible only by pontoon aircraft. He has created Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android he wishes to pair in conversation with Caleb to see if artificial intelligence really works. No spoilers here just a note that this suspenseful film delivers a memorable climax and conclusion. It’s on DVD and Blu-ray, the latter boasts a superb picture but the sound is tricky. The dialogue is on the soft side but if you boost it, the music score and sound effects might blow you out of your home. The exaggerated dynamic range eases up after the first third of the movie.
Humans is an 8-part first season of a show filmed in Great Britain and shown in the U. S. on AMC. The show is set in the near future where people can buy “synths,” as the androids are called, to do domestic duties and the like. But the creator of the androids that look exactly like humans gave a small group of them extra, human emotions and reasoning powers. Humans follows the interactions of this artificial family with a real human family. They win over most of the real humans, but not all. At the end of the season, the line between human and android begins to blur. Low key yet totally absorbing thanks to fine casting and an intelligent script.
Extant was created as a starring show for Halle Berry. She stars as an astronaut scientist who orbits in space for a year, then returns to earth mysteriously pregnant. That’s the main theme, but a parallel one examines her relationship with her android son, Ethan. One of the most interesting questions asked is whether Ethan is “property” or not. The show turned into a bit of a snooze in its first season, so no blame if you stopped watching it. But season two is revved up with new acting blood, tighter scripts and more answers. Give it a second chance and I think you’ll agree that it’s appealing science fiction. And after watching all three of these productions, you’ll probably start looking at the stranger next to you at the bus stop and asking yourself “I wonder if he/she is one of them?” You’ll never know.