Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Hayao Miyazaki

Having apparently shut-down their own 2-D animation division in favour of CGI, prompting some grave-rolling by their long-dead founder, Disney has been making amends by licensing Hayao Miyazaki's 20-year-old back catalogue. Well they couldn't have found a better animator to hitch their wagon to and this second wave of Miyazaki masterpieces (following Castles in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service and his Oscar-winning Spirited Away, Japan's highest-grossing film and one of the best feature-length animations ever drawn) is most welcome. But don't believe their hype; Miyazaki is more than just a Japanese Walt — he's better. The rise and rise of Miyazaki can be found on the interesting half-hour documentary "The Birth Story of Studio Ghibli" accompanying the long-awaited release of his debut film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was first shown on Japanese TV and traces Miyazaki's career up to the release of his Western world breakthrough, Princess Mononoke. Otherwise, the special features on all three "new" releases offer only scant treats: "behind the microphone" interviews with the English-language voice casts (including Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman, Michael Keaton and Cary Elwes), a "making of" The Cat Returns, Japanese trailers and a second disc of the entire movie in storyboard form for the truly obsessive or terribly bored. But the main features are what matter, beginning with 1984's classic Nausicaä, an environmentally-conscious post-apocalyptic epic that trades animé's usual techno-dystopia for a poisonous jungle world where the remaining human inhabitants battle giant insects while fighting amongst themselves for what little liveable land remains. Based on his beloved manga series (which was launched as a means of getting the film version financed but ran for 13 years), Nausicaä was his only pre-Ghibli production. Nonetheless, it set the stage for his subsequent work with a precocious young heroine and a storyline using wide-eyed imagination to appeal to children and emotional depth to reach adults, though to be fair, the level of violence skews more towards the latter. As does 1992's Porco Rosso, which the original trailer sells as "an adult story with all the pathos and disappointments of life." It's a noir-ish tale of an Italian war-hero fighter pilot turned existential bounty hunter after being cursed with a pig's head, set amidst the backdrop of fascism's rise. Keaton's world-weary line readings perfectly match the Bogart-inspired character and the movie's sophisticated feel, which focuses more on relationships, including a possibly-requited romance with a beautiful French-singing bar-owner, than on action-adventure, despite its aerial dogfights and comedy relief pirates. Miyazaki's signature work, My Neighbor Totoro, was meant to be the third of this series, but technical difficulties held up the DVD transfer, so the Mouse House opted to include The Cat Returns. It's easily the weakest of the lot — not surprising since Miyazaki came up with the story but begged off directing the 2002 feature to give one of his studio's younger animators a shot. It's the story of a Japanese schoolgirl (voiced by The Princess Diaries' Anne Hathaway) who becomes embroiled in the machinations of the Kingdom of Cats, after saving the feline prince from being smushed under a car. Cat is plenty cute and children will adore it, but despite the imagination on display and great voice performances from Tim Curry, Peter Boyle and Andy Richter, this simple story never quite takes flight like Miyazaki's own pet projects. No matter, we only have to wait a few more months for Miyazaki's latest full-length feature, Howl's Moving Castle, to hit North American cinemas and further bolster the animaster's world-class canon. (Disney/Buena Vista)