Studio Ghibli’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is an old fashioned Japanese folk tale beautifully rendered in old-fashioned hand-drawn animation.
As anime projects go, Isao Takahata’s film is rougher-hewn, more hand-crafted looking than the Oscar winning work of Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki. The water-color palette is splashed around characters that are sometimes polished, at other times a sketchy blur.
It’s based on the story of “The Bamboo Cutter,” about an old man (voiced by James Caan) who harvests bamboo for assorted handicrafts that he sells, and bamboo shoots to supplement his diet. One day he spies a shoot lit by an otherworldly light, and on approaching it, it pops open and a tiny, sleeping girl appears in the bloom.
He hurries home to his wife (Mary Steenburgen), and the moment the old woman cradles the “doll” in her arms, it transforms into a giggling, screeching baby. Surely “that was heaven telling us what she will grow into.”
Princess, they call her, making nothing of her rapid transition from infant to toddler to kid who can romp with the other village children. The moment she’s saved from a charging boar by the handsome teen Sutemaru (Darren Criss), she blossoms into an adolescent voiced by Chloe Grace Moretz.
Young love — a princess and a poacher — what could be more romantic, right?
But the magical stand of bamboo has other things in store for this princess. Her father finds gold and fine clothes in other shoots of bamboo. Her parents resolve to take her to the capital, set her up in a mansion, dress her in finery, have her trained as a lady and present her at court. A princess she shall be.
Father, in particular, is dead set on not returning to the “hillbillies” back home. Lady Sagami (Lucy Liu) is summoned from court to train this princess to carry herself like a demure little lady, to play the koto (a dulcimer), to pluck her eyebrows out.
“I’ll get SWEAT in my eyes!”
“A noble princess does not sweat.”
Her teeth must be painted black, like every Japanese noblewoman’s.
“How can I smile?”
“A noble princess does not smile!”
A Name Father comes by to look her over and names her “Kaguya, as slender as bamboo…with a light shining from within.”
And that’s when, in the film’s most breathtaking sequence, the princess bolts for home, her escape a mad, sketched blur of colors, trees and layers of clothes flying off.
“Kaguya” is a serene, stately film of ginger flowers and plums, cherry blossoms and roiling seas. A patience-testing two hours and 17 minutes, it follows the quests the princess assigns assorted suitors who propose to her, sight unseen.
It is entirely too long and perhaps too exotically Japanese for children, and lacks the twinkle of Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki’s best work. But “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” reminds us how great animation used to be made, and is rich and rewarding enough to suggest that this art form and the studio that carry on, even though its most famous artist has retired.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, some violent action and partial nudity
Cast: The voices of Chloe Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Lucy Liu, Darren Criss
Credits: Directed by Isao Takahata, written by Riko Sakaguchi and Isao Takahata. A Studio Ghibli/GKids release.
Running time: 2:17