Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Pick
Howl’s Moving Castle: Pass
My Neighbor Totoro: Pick
Harry Potter: Much fantasy action and violence; strong menace and frightening images; fantasy presentation of magic; some sexually related references. Howl’s Moving Castle: Some menacing and frightening fantasy imagery including battle sequences; much fantasy magic. My Neighbor Totoro: Mildly intimidating imagery; brief positive depiction of animist sensibilities.
The fourth of seven projected films based on J.K. Rowling’s ongoing adventures of the boy wizard, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (new this week on DVD) represents the series midpoint. At 14, Harry and his buddies are wearing their hair shaggier, while Hermione and the other girls are on the verge of becoming lovely young women. The magic of childhood is over, and Harry and his friends must master a new, infinitely more daunting kind of magic. Halfway through the story, Harry has faced down a dragon, but hasn’t worked up the nerve to face up to a girl and ask her to the Yule Ball.
As Harry grows up, the series continues to grow darker. Yet concerns relating to Harry’s study of magic and the lure of the occult are, arguably, increasingly remote (see www.decentfilms.com/commentary/magic for more). There’s plenty of fantasy or fairy-tale magic — dragons, mermaids, flying broomsticks, wands. Yet the only elements that resemble real-world occult practices are unambiguously evil: the Unforgivable Curses, a quasi-sacrificial ritual, the secret Death-Eater cult.
Other DVD releases include two films from celebrated Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (creator of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke), one a recent theatrical release the other a nearly 20-year-old classic. Both new releases have their roots in Western children’s fantasy, though with Miyazaki’s distinctive creative stamp. Last year’s Howl’s Moving Castle is a loose adaptation of a children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones, while the 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro is full of images and themes inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Miyazaki has an extraordinary talent for creating lush visual worlds, replete with authentic detail and persuasive in character: landscapes, trees, architecture, light and shadow. His work is infused with deep humanism; respect, hard work and courtesy go a long way, and there is a little good in nearly everyone in his stories. His great drawback is an animist sensibility, especially in films like Spirited Away, reflecting his Shinto-inflected Japanese heritage. Tree-spirits, river gods and the like run through his films.
Of course, one also encounters tree-spirits and river gods in Christian Narnia, and generations of Christians have grown up reading classical mythology. There’s nothing inherently wrong with mythology as such, where it poses no true rival to Christian faith. In Miyazaki’s films, though, it can be more complicated than that.
Howl’s Moving Castle, though relatively free of objectionable content, isn’t one of Miyazaki’s better efforts. After a sparkling beginning with a dashing wizard whisking a young girl away from terrifying, shape-shifting assailants and ushering her through the air high over the city streets, the film loses its way after the girl is magically transformed into an old woman.
My Neighbor Totoro, hailed by Roger Ebert in his “Great Films” series, is a totally different story. In fact, it has practically no story, but the soothing rhythms of rural life and dreamlike fantasy sequences make enchanting viewing for even the youngest child.
Totoro’s one drawback is a few brief sequences depicting sub-Christian spiritual sensibilities in a positive light, which could be confusing for young children and may require parental clarification. However, unlike the chilly spirit world of Spirited Away, Totoro presents a world that is ultimately benign and reassuring without being Pollyanna.