When Judge Joel Pearce's heart whispers, it tells him he should just relax and watch more DVDs.
"Not everyone has to be the same…Shizuku, do what you believe in. But it's never easy when you walk your own road. You've only got yourself to blame."—Shizuku's Father
A beautiful mixture of the mundane and the magical, Whisper of the Heart accomplishes something that few films even try: tells a story that is relevant and meaningful for the preteen market. It's a modern fairy tale, drawing on a kind of movie magic that is simpler and more powerful than what we're used to seeing. Studio Ghibli has created many delightful films, and this one belongs high up on the list.
Facts of the Case
Shizuku is nearing the end of junior high, and everything in her life is changing. She needs to start making decisions about her future, and her list of responsibilities is growing fast. She has no idea where she wants to go, though, and for the time being feels safest in distant lands, reading stories and hiding from her encroaching future.
Shizuku won't be able to hide from the real world forever, though. Her best friend has started to get interested in boys. Her sister is moving out, leaving her with more responsibilities around the house. The high school entrance exams are coming up. At the same time as all of this, a series of strange events keep pulling her in the other direction, making her wonder if she isn't on the edge of her very own fairy tale. She meets a cat that leads her to a mysterious antique store. Plus, she has noticed that a boy has signed out all of the same books as her at the library. When these two sides of her life come crashing together, she discovers that life is even more complicated—and wonderful—than she had realized.
Preteens are a forgotten age in the film industry. There are dozens of films every year targeted at children, and even more aimed at the teen market. But there is an age in between, a group of children who consider themselves too old for Pixar, but aren't yet ready to be thrust into the world of John Hughes and Wes Craven. The few films that do fall in between are usually vapid nonsense like Ice Princess. Hollywood doesn't believe that 12 year olds are ready for complicated messages, and so they continue to harp on the value of friendship and honesty to this age group, ignoring the fact that it's a difficult and confusing time.
Not so with Whisper of the Heart. The lesson here, among other things, is how important it is to persevere through difficult times. Artists of any kind must work hard to hone their talents, with no guarantee that they will ever achieve greatness. In a world where young people expect instant gratification in everything they do, this is an important and timely message. It's an especially important message for those of us like Shizuku, with perhaps more imagination than a willingness to follow through and accomplish something great. I don't want to know how many people have a half-painted canvas or a discarded novel kicking around, but it is probably more than any of us would imagine.
The thing that struck me most about Whisper of the Heart is how rich and complex it is. There are a number of other issues raised here as well, including questions of destiny, responsibility, and family. All of these are juggled with an uncommon sophistication for a family film, while still somehow remaining accessible to younger children. If we could see more family entertainment of this caliber, maybe film wouldn't be considered such a passive form of entertainment. Whisper of the Heart has the feel of a novel. It has a sweeping level of imagination to capture the hearts of younger viewers, but also captures what it feels like to be a 13 year old so well that it would also appeal to older teens. Anyone who grew up as a reader or a dreamer will be stunned by how much of themselves they see in Shizuku and the other characters.
As dreamers, some of us refuse to completely give up our belief in fairy tales. I don't necessarily mean the stories we are told as children, but dreamers are people who need to believe there is some magic in the world. We want the world to have some kind of proper order, and watch for our lives to play themselves out in a particular way. When events do line up with our expectations, we smile and acknowledge that fate has somehow intervened. When things don't fit the mold, we get indignant, threatened by the possibility that the only magic in the world may be in the human imagination.
Unlike most fairy tales, Whisper of the Heart doesn't try to sweep us away to a world with real magic, nor does it try to convince us that our own world is still the host of some secret magic. Instead, it sings the praises of the more mundane magic. Perhaps it's enough to have the magic that we feel as we read a great piece of literature, see in a cinematic masterpiece, or that goes into the creation of a fine violin. Perhaps that, as a kind of magic that we can touch and experience, is better than dreaming of a greater magic that we know we will never experience. Either way, this is a film that has a sly magic of its own, and does speak directly to the heart.
Disney has once again delivered with the disc as well. Despite my initial fears surrounding the House of Mouse's involvement with Studio Ghibli, they really have done an impressive job. This installment features a beautiful transfer of the simple but delightful animation, anamorphically enhanced at the original ratio of 1.85:1. A fine original language track in 5.1 Surround as well as a competent dub offer two valid choices for watching the film. Although the English track isn't always precise, it really captures the tone and meaning of the literal translation. I normally spot-check dubs, but I found myself sticking with the English on this one.
There are some special features as well. The first disc contains a dubbing documentary, which hints at the amount of work required to record a first-rate dub. The second disc has the entire storyboards for the film, with the option of both language tracks. It's a great addition for serious fans of animation.
Even though Whisper of the Heart doesn't have the bold adventure of Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, it is one of Studio Ghibli's finest accomplishments. It is heartfelt and beautiful, weaving a unique magic as we follow Shizuku's first foray into the adult world. Though young children may find it too slow, it comes very highly recommended for everyone else.
Shizuku must continue to follow her heart. Hopefully some of the Ghibli magic will rub off on the Disney people as they continue to work hard on these releases.
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