The Star: the Christmas Story through the Eyes of Talking Animals

The Star, which opened wide in theaters on November 17th, is a playful yet respectful approach to the story of Jesus’ birth for little ones. In trying to do a bit too much, the story wanders off-course midway, but overall The Star is a competent animated version of the story of the birth of Jesus, both entertaining and accessible to children.

The Story

The Star is mostly told from the viewpoint of a young donkey, who longs for adventure and to do something “big” in his life. The donkey, who comes to be called Bo (a nickname for Boaz), escapes from his owner and hides in the yard of the newly-married Mary and Joseph. Bo meets Mary and is delighted by her gentle understanding and care. Mary seems to have a special affinity for all of God’s creation, and she adopts Bo despite Joseph’s protests.

Bo goes back and forth between trying to follow his own long-cherished dream of adventure (to work in the royal caravan) and his loyalty to Mary and Joseph. The entire second act of the film follows Bo’s desperate attempts to rescue Mary from the assassin whom Herod sends after the three Wise Men. This middle part of the story feels quite convoluted by Bo’s changing his mind several times about what he will do, and the various complications that ensue. The plot further falters because of the heavy-handed use of several Christmas carols, when the action simply stops. But the wandering plot has a purpose, as Bo learns from every mistake he makes and recommits to helping the Holy Family, whether his service is appreciated or not. 

The filmmakers rose to the challenge of remaining true to the essence of the story of Jesus’ birth, all the while interweaving the fictional adventures of talking animals. From a Christian perspective, it is disappointing and somewhat contradictory that, in a children’s story about the birth of the King of Peace, both high points of the protagonist’s story are fights.

The visual design and animation of The Star is delightful and serve the story well to help connect the children with the characters.

The Characters

The tension between Bo’s longing for adventure and his growing attachment to Mary form the core of Bo’s character development. The outstanding character in the story is Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus. She is lovably human and warm, but also clearly possesses—and exercises—great faith and love. Joseph, too, is appealing and manly. He really struggles with the idea of being chosen to be the foster father of the Son of God. Instead of showing Mary and Joseph as always calm and serene, the film shares several moments where Mary and Joseph react in a vulnerable and understandable way to the difficult circumstances they face. Their relationship and their encouragement to each other to have faith through difficulty is a joy to watch.

Bo is a hardheaded big-hearted donkey with a loyal friend in the not-so-practical dancing dove, Dave. Bo and Dave provide much of the enjoyable humor in the story. Bo’s growth in faithfulness, love, and discovering what is truly important in life might be a bit too complete by the end, but his growth and his adventures go hand-in-hand.

Several of the supporting characters are poorly drawn caricatures that fail to serve the drama or the humor, with particularly limited, overly-simple dialogue. The three camels who carry the wise men are often not funny, but irritating and even problematic: their attempts at humor included calling others by derogatory names. Name-calling is not a matter for humor in a children’s film. In one instance (which was unfortunately repeated), the name-calling might be construed as disrespectful to Christ and the Jewish people.

Windows to the Soul

In many ways, The Star is a wonderfully imaginative tale for children, set in the context of Jesus’ birth. The talking animals give kids an easy way to identify with the characters in the story, especially Mary, whose affinity with all creation—including the animals, no matter how humble—is a beautiful thread running through the film.

It’s hard to know at what age a child would most appreciate The Star. (This is true of many films, and why it can be so important for parents to watch movies with their children, and make sure to discuss it afterward.) Many moments in the film (especially the humor) seem to indicate that the film is for young children—toddlers up to 5 or 6 years old. But the super-scary assassin (perhaps a less-violent stand-in for the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?) could be problematic, especially as the tension of his threat grows throughout the film. And older children will enjoy the antics of Bo and Dave, as well as receive insights into the journey of faith taken by Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem.

However, in a couple of ways, the script needed stronger writing. Name-calling portrayed as humor, fighting used for the “big scene” at the end of a film about the birth of Jesus, and some overly simplistic dialogue about “being good” and “being bad,” plus the fact that Bo’s adventures and growth sometimes overshadow the story of the Holy Family, means that the film could have been much stronger in telling the story of the birth of Jesus. But when we remember that the viewpoint of the film consistently stays with the animals—primarily with Boaz, the donkey—The Star becomes quite a remarkable and delightful retelling of the Christmas story.

Note for Parents and Teachers: Affirm Films has made some wonderful resources available to use before and after watching the film. Go to the movie’s site: http://www.thestarmovie.com/ click on Menu and then click on the Resources tab. From brochures, coloring and activity pages, to a family discussion guide (downloadable for free), this is a great opportunity to spend time with your children on the true meaning of Christmas.

You can listen to my review online on Salt + Light Radio here. 

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My Favorite New Movie Review Site…and a Few Films with Deeper Themes

In my Salt + Light segment this week, in addition to comparing two of the latest summer blockbuster comic book movies, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, I briefly described a few other films I watched (and two I hope to see). I am planning to post about each, but as I have fallen way behind in my film commentaries, I wanted to introduce you to a couple of the films and my new favorite review column, written by a team of Daughters of Saint Paul at the Pauline Center for Media Studies’ site.

For independent film lovers:

The Florida Project (2017) — a “slice of life” film from a child’s perspective that explores the poverty and brokenness of families on the periphery: this mother and daughter live within the shadows of Disneyworld. (Sr. Nancy Usselmann’s review is here;  Sr. Hosea and I will both comment on the film from various perspectives in an upcoming post.

 

 

A Quiet Passion (2016)—biopic of poet Emily Dickinson. The form and themes of this arthouse film suit the themes of Emily’s poetry (and her life!) See Sister Nancy Usselmann’s review, subtitled: The Aesthetics of a Poetic Soul.

 

Lion (2016)— the amazing journey of Saroo, a five year old child who is accidentally separated from his family by train and is lost, and his attempt to go back and find his brother and mother who loved him so much. (Based on nonfiction book, A Long Way Home.) Once again, Sister Nancy offers an insightful review.

 

And a couple of religious films:

All Saints (2017) The true story of Pastor Michael Spurlock and his All Saints Episcopal Church community. All Saints (reviewed here by Sr. Hosea Rupprecht, FSP) is releasing digitally November 28, and on DVD on December 12.

 

The Shack (2017) A great film for reflection and discussion.

 

I haven’t seen this one, but I’ve heard good things about:

 

And finally, I have to confess I am looking forward to seeing The Star with a niece or nephew, come November 17th.

 

 

Superheroes: Models of Christian Virtue?

This weekend, on Salt + Light Radio Hour, I talk about two of the latest theatrical superhero film releases: Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both are a return to the lighter superhero film and more in tune with what I had come to think of as a “comic book” movie. Perhaps this is a reaction to so many recent superhero films Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, Netflix’s The Defenders, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil, that are so dark and grim. Both Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming are true superheroes, not anti-heroes, following a classic hero’s journey arc. It was also refreshing to see that both films seemed to be less violent overall, and more focused on special effects.

A Closer Look ~ Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is a comic book movie with a strong fantasy bent—more of a fairy tale than most comic book films. A mythical past (rather than a scientific “accident”), magical powers associated with magical objects, and a “love at first sight” kind of romance. My childhood partiality for fairy tales has carried into adulthood with a strong partiality for fantasy. (If a story has a dragon, wizards, magic, and a hero(ine) with a huge handicap, I’m in!) But that is not all I found appealing about Wonder Woman: the acting is superb, the romance is an important and integrated part of the story rather than just an obligatory minor plot line thrown in for convention’s sake, the characters are interesting and appealing, and the entire story—while there are probably some loopholes—is solid, if not-too-surprising. I really enjoyed the special effects because not only was I blown away, I could follow all the action.

Wonder Woman’s warrior costume alone probably deserves a whole blogpost. Her costume is one of the reasons my mother wouldn’t let us watch the TV show when I was growing up, and I have always disliked the Wonder Woman character because of it. Unfortunately, the costume is kept in the film, but it is more tasteful than I expected. (Some day, I hope we as a culture can get beyond this kind of superhero costume that oversexualizes heroic characters.) Some references to Diana’s physical attractiveness are made; most are clearly meant to be distasteful. (A couple comments meant to be humorous I found offensive.) These comments, in addition to some splendidly awkward dialogue between character Steve Trevor and Diana, plus an implied night spent together, make the film suitable for a slightly older teen (and could also open the door for dialogue about why certain comments are disrespectful). The comic book violence focuses more on the special effects, but there is still plenty of violence.

Windows to the Soul

Two points about the film I especially appreciated. Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) is an amazing warrior, but she is also a woman who embraces her femininity. Wonderfully self-confident, she accepts and uses her powers, but is still very womanly. Her compassion, her passion to to “save humanity” from the violence of war—seeing war (or the god of war) as the enemy are all gifts that women can bring to the world. Diana Prince is, in many ways, a wonderful role model for girls today. (I think it is very, very cool that the first film about a superhero directed by a woman is about a female superhero, and I think Patty Jenkins’ directorial influence shows here.)

The film addresses the problem of evil head-on, not in a theological sense, but in addressing the question: “With all of the evil that human beings do, is humanity really worth being saved?” And in this sense, it is her experience of being loved, not her super-powers, that enable her to make the right choice and be true to her mission.

In her choice to see humanity in the midst of war’s depravity through the lens of love, I find that Wonder Woman is a Christ-figure. And it is this lens of love that gives a lightness to the film, even amidst the tragic circumstances. This sense of hope—that love makes everything worthwhile—is also present in the other superhero summer release, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

A Closer Look: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Like Wonder Woman, Spider-Man was a character I heard about from others, but didn’t grow up with. I became a fan with the Tobey Maguire films. (Spider-Man 2 is still, I believe, one of the best superhero movies ever made.) Like many others, I also wondered, do we really need another Spider-Man movie?

I don’t know if we needed one. But Homecoming is a light, entertaining, and worthy addition to the growing comic book movie collection, and it is better directed to its primary audience of pre-teens and teens.

With excellent acting, Homecoming is a superhero film that looks at how a superhero develops—and not just his superpowers, but how he matures as an individual to responsibly use those powers. In this film, romance is not much of a storyline, which is appropriate to a story about a teenager who has plenty of other things he needs to focus on.

Peter Parker is a super-believable and accessible character. His personal growth/hero’s journey through the film is, I think, immediately identifiable to pre-teens and teens. He is going through typical teen struggles, whose consequences are magnified by his superpowers. The plot is quite predictable (and also a bit messy in wrapping up, with three endings), but as a whole, the film is still enjoyable–especially with Tony Stark mentoring (!) the young Peter Parker.

Windows to the Soul?

In Peter’s search for his true identity and how to live it, he must “harmonize” these two very different aspects of his life: the “ordinary teenager” and the “extraordinary superhero.” The title of the film really is the theme: Peter needs to be at home with himself, and all the different aspects of himself.

In our own lives, we are called to bring together the different aspects of ourselves, especially our ordinary life with the gift of grace, or the life of God. In a time when we can feel so fragmented by a demanding world that vies for our attention and participation in a variety of roles, Peter Parker’s journey of unifying his various identities or roles into one life in which he can be most truly himself, is a journey to integrity all of us can learn from. It is not a decision or journey made in a vacuum, either: Peter’s commitment to the people of New York is his guide in his final decision. In this, Peter can also be seen as a Christ-figure—of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Note: The PG-13 rating seemed appropriate; comic book violence and spoken sexual innuendo. There are also plenty of “in-Marvel’s-universe” jokes, from earlier Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Avengers movies.

A Question for Today’s Superheroes

In many ways, watching these two films reminds me of the times in which these superheroes were created, when Judaeo-Christian values were still mainstream and woven into many stories of the culture. As desirable as it is to have these values in both films, a “story hole” arises. Where did Peter Parker learn humility and justice tempered with compassion? Where did Diana’s conviction to guard and protect humanity come from? And where did each of them find the strength to live these virtues? If, as seems to be implied, our two superheroes lack the religious faith that creates such values as self-sacrificing love, humility, integrity, generosity, and kindness (to name a few), where do our superheroes get their values from?

While there are certainly many good people who do not have faith yet live good lives, it is also true that faith in God and God’s grace—whether known or unknown—is what gives us the strength and ability to love in a way that transcends ordinary human love. To love the betrayer, the enemy, the unworthy, the nemesis, is not always seen as an ideal any more. In today’s entertainment culture, revenge is seen as a matter of justice, and forgiveness as weakness. In watching several recent teen movies, I have been shocked by the blatant narcissism and utilitarianism of the protagonists: the happy ending is when the protagonist gets what she or he wants, no matter how they got it or who is hurt along the way. There is no recognition of moral values at all—it is what you succeed at, what you get away with, that counts. And everyone is okay with the blatant selfishness.

Yet, Peter Parker’s idea of justice is deeply Christian, as is Diana Prince’s.

It seems to me that superhero movies are successful right now in great part because they give us heroes with these kinds of virtues. On the one hand, these virtues are admirably presented as an ideal: as good, desirable, heroic. But I would also love to see more films in which these kinds of virtues are upheld, as well as positive reference to God and to the practice of faith as the source or strength of these kinds of virtues. (This is one reason I enjoy aspects of the Netflix series Daredevil—his conscience-driven behavior, qualms, and guilt, as well as his confessions and ongoing dialogue with his pastor clearly reveal his faith and his values deriving from his faith.)

The superhero is not a perfectly Christian model, yet superhero portrayals that are faithful to the spirit of the originals are deeply based in Christian virtue. I am not sure that any other culture but the 20th century Western, Christian-based culture could have created Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, or Superman as entertainment.

Is it possible to have Christian virtue without Christianity? These movies seem to say, “yes.” But as we have watched our society becoming post-Christian, we also have witnessed a troubling uprise in a blatant disregard for the importance of each human life. Christian virtue becomes much rarer when society is not built on Christianity, where Christian values and even the golden rule are no longer commonly held. Perhaps it is enough that superhero movies remind us of the ideals and virtues, attract us to them, and show us how how being Christlike—even in the face of great suffering and self-sacrifice— can transform us and the lives of others.

Watch the Best Fatima Film Before May 13!

My mother introduced me to the apparitions of Our Lady at Fátima from the time I was a child. I was so fascinated by the story of Jacinta, Francisco, and Lucia (ages 7, 9 & 10 at the time of the apparitions), that I actually prayed in the backyard several times, hoping the Blessed Mother would appear.

May 13, 2017, is the 100th anniversary of the first apparition of Mary to these three young shepherd children at Fátima. On that day, Pope Francis will be in Fátima, and will canonize Jacinta and Francisco, the two youngest ever non-martyred saints. This entire year, but especially the months of May and October are very special occasions to honor our Blessed Mother, renew our devotion to her, listen to and live more fully the message she brought at Fátima.

In my community, we are bringing our statue of  Our Lady of Fátima around to various “stations” or places in our convent and in our publishing house each day of May. It’s a lovely way of emphasizing how important Mary is in our lives, and of thanking her for her tender care for us.

Starting last fall, we have seen more and more material on Fátima in Catholic media. Father Roger Landry has beautifully expressed the importance of Fátima through the five historical Papal visits, preparing for the visit by Pope Francis on May 13, 2017:  http://www.thebostonpilot.com/opinion/article.asp?id=179209

The heart of the message of Fátima, as I have remembered and prayed with through the years, can be summed up briefly as:

* Pray—especially the Rosary

* Repent of our sins and do penance for them

* Offer sacrifices for the conversion of others and offer reparation for the sins of humanity

* Trust in Mary’s Immaculate Heart

There are a number of good movies out there on Fátima, each with different strengths. I talk about my favorite three on this week’s Windows to the Soul segment on the Salt + Light Radio Show. Below, I take a more detailed look at each film, and how each is not just faithful to the message of Fátima, but if and how it communicates the message of our Blessed Mother in a way that is deeply moving, accessible, and relatable.

 The Best of Them All: The Miracle of Our Lady of Fátima (1952)

The beloved classic from 1952, Miracle of Our Lady of Fátima. Dated in its presentation, and without the advantage of the latest information that is now public about Sr. Lucia and the apparitions (for example, Sr. Lucia’s later life, the secrets that Our Lady entrusted to the children). But for the most part, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fátima is quite accurate, with the exception of the dramatizing of some events (especially of some of the early attempts of the government to derail the apparitions), and a few details. The writers weave together true details about the apparitions, skillfully moving the story forward and revealing the character of the children and the life-changing impact that Mary’s appearance had on them. For example, the fact that the second apparition occurs on the feast day of St. Anthony (a much-anticipated celebration of the town, especially for the children), this fact becomes both a plot point and character development for the children’s desires to go “see the Lady” rather than celebrate.

What I love about this film is its overall focus on the children—their humanness and their holiness—in ways that are appealing and realistic. However, the film shows Lucia crying a bit too much. Yet it’s a good reminder of how young the children really were: at the time, Lucia, who took the brunt of the plentiful criticism (of family, the townspeople, the pastor, the government officials), was only ten years old.

Some might quibble with a fictional character—Hugo—being inserted into the film. But I like to think that Hugo represents us, the viewers, in the story, in whatever way we are doubters, skeptics, or hold ourselves back from giving ourselves fully to God. Hugo is changed by his encounter with the children, and so the message of Fátima should change us, too.

The Miracle of Our Lady of Fátima makes the story and message of Fátima accessible to everyone, showing Our Lady to be a most tender and loving mother. It is appropriate and appealing to people of all ages.

Historically Accurate: Apparitions at Fátima (Aparição)

Noted by Stephen Greydanus (Decent Films) as more historically accurate of the feature films on Our Lady of Fátima, Apparitions at Fátima (1991) is the only full-length feature about Fátima I know of that I haven’t seen. This 1991 film was made in Portugal, directed by Daniel Costelle, and is available in six languages, including English.  I look forward to seeing it soon and updating this post with my review.

Reverent, Contemporary Portrayal: The 13th Day

The 13th Day (2010) is another feature film about the events that took place at Fátima. With modern techniques and pacing, noticeable special effects, and  dramatic music, this film is both appealing to a general audience and historically accurate. In some ways, it seems imitative of The Miracle of Our Lady of Fátima, but the film also has many original moments. The dramatic black and white lighting used for the cinematography, the use of color only when the children are conversing with the Blessed Mother, and other special effects were a bit distracting for me, but they reverently and artistically portray Our Lady’s message and the character of the visionaries. The scary vision of hell, and the depiction of the miracle of the sun could be too much for young children.

Delightful Depiction for Children: The Day the Sun Danced 

The Day the Sun Danced (1997) is a beautifully animated short film (30 minutes) for children. The pacing is slower, so children may need to be prepared that the film is not so much entertainment as the fascinating story of the Blessed Mother bringing a very special message for the world to three children at Fátima.

 

Most Complete Documentary: Finding Fátima

 

Finding Fátima (2010)—made by the same filmmakers of The 13th Day— includes interviews with Fátima experts and reenactments excerpted from the film The 13th Day. I suspect this is the most complete documentary on Fátima in English available at this time, and especially beautiful for those who do not know the story. If you have heard rumors about the secrets of Fátima, this film gives a clear and beautiful explanation of the “Secret” of Fátima, which was told to the children by way of visions. 90 minutes.

Most Up-to-Date: Trilogy of Documentaries from the Basilica of Our Lady of Fátima, Portugal

Finally, I want to mention the newest programs I have found available: a trilogy that come from the Shrine at Fátima itself, and are officially approved by the Shrine. Each program is independent of the others.

My favorite documentary of the three is The Three Shepherds of Fátimawhich focuses on the lives of the three children. Just under an hour, this delightful program is wonderful for those who want insights into the lives of the “youngest saints ever to be canonized who aren’t martyrs.” After years of reading and praying about Fátima, I learned new fascinating details about the spiritual lives and personalities of the children, thanks to all the experts, but especially the postulator for the cause of the children’s cause for canonization, Sr. Angela de Fátima (a sister of the Alliance of Holy Mary), who points out the significance of the words, actions, characteristics of the children.

One of my favorite examples is from Francisco. When the children were imprisoned and they couldn’t make their “appointment” with Our Lady at the Cova, they believed their interrogator who said they were going to be put to death. Facing the threat of death, Francisco said, ““If we don’t get back to see our mother, patience. The problem is that Our Lady may never return. This is what costs me the most!” Such a deeply touching declaration for a 9 year old boy.

Jacinta’s tender heart was so moved by the vision of the Pope suffering that she prayed often for the Pope, not even knowing which Pope would suffer so much. At her beatification, St. John Paul thanked her for praying for him!  

These precious insights into the children of Fátima reveal a profound witnesses of their faith: how the Fátima apparitions changed their lives, and how living the Fátima message can change ours.

All of these DVDs are available from the Pauline Books and Media Center nearest you in the USA and Toronto; many are available at the Pauline online store. 

      

             

Anime Films for the Family: Studio Ghibli

Some years ago, a friend introduced me to the works of Studio Ghibli, an anime studio started by two filmmakers that I wish I had known about years ago.  I don’t really consider myself an anime fan—but I have found most of their films delightfully entertaining. Although the future of the studio is not clear (Hiyao Miyazaki, probably the more famous of the partners, retired), they have released co-productions.

Studio Ghibli’s films are, for the most part, anime for both children and adults that reflect Japanese culture and worldview, but are also about universal themes.  Although the films are not Christian (Shintoism and Buddhism are practiced by the great majority, with Christians about 1.5% of the population, and other religions only 7.1%), there are strong human values in every film. In our world today, it is important to introduce children to the worldview of other cultures, and watching Studio Ghibli films is a beautiful and powerful way to catch a glimpse of Japanese culture.

Of the 10 Studio Ghibli films that I have seen, I have found all of them beautifully drawn, compelling characters, and more realistic about life than the typical animated or anime film. The magic of childhood is very much present in the films, presenting the world in a way that is respectful and gentle, but that doesn’t deny the reality of evil and suffering. Studio Ghibli films do not always have a happy, Disney ending. The stories vary in quality, but many are of high quality, with often unexpected plot twists.

Check out the Windows to the Soul segment on Studio Ghibli on this week’s Salt+Light Radio Hour!

Each film is unique, but here are some common characteristics of many of the films that I have watched:

  • Imaginative, whimsical, beautiful
  • The reality of the spiritual realm is taken for granted, although from a Shinto perspective, not a Christian one. Whether spirits or magic, the worldview in the Studio Ghibli films is the opposite of materialistic, and at least one film clearly shows the poverty of a materialistic worldview. I find it refreshing to watch films that are open to the mystical and spiritual realm. The differing perspective can also provide families and classes the opportunity to discuss our faith in the afterlife as Catholics.
  • Strong human values/themes:
    • respect for elders
    • valuing the family
    • nature
    • silence
    • friendship and loyalty
    • respect for tradition
    • anti-war or pacifist, showing the horrors of war
  • Many of the films have a strong female protagonist
  • Rather than a “happily ever after,” often the films have a bittersweet ending with a sense of acceptance of reality
  • Appropriate for children—although of varying ages ranging from 5+ to more appropriate to preteens or teenagers—but also really enjoyable for adults. Not in a Pixar, comic way, but in the way that it deals with serious themes and the struggles of life, and the sheer beauty of the world and the animation. Some of the films are a bit slower and so would be harder for younger children to watch, but even in the slower films, there is a lot to take in.

In general, I find it helpful to watch the English dubbed versions, rather than the subtitled.

Below, you’ll find a list of some of the more accessible of Studio Ghibli’s films. I’ll share my thoughts on each film as I see it. In the meantime, for finding the appropriate age level for various films, I’d recommend visiting CommonSenseMedia.org on their Studio Ghibli List.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature, adapted from his own manga, about a brave princess trying to bring peace to her world. (Technically, not a Studio Ghibli film; its success prompted the creation of Studio Ghibli.)

Castle in the Sky (1986; also known as Laputa) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki with similar themes to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind: children vs. technology’s evils.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) Directed by the other founding partner of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful film about the consequences of war on the innocent. The story of two children, brother Seita and his little sister Setsuko, struggle to survive the devastating effects of the fire-bombings of the Allied Forces in Tokyo during World War II. It has been called one of the most powerful anti-war films ever.

I saw Grave of the Fireflies too long ago to write a detailed commentary, but I can attest to the power and tragedy of this film. It is not an easy film to watch–and I do not recommend it for children, but for teens who are old enough to be able to handle the intense tragedy and emotion. Although this trailer is subtitled, I watched the dubbed version, which is available on DVD.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, this is an extremely gentle film about two little girls who befriend supernatural spirits at their new home. (“Spirits” understood in a fantastical sense from a Shinto perspective.)

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) — Directed by Miyazaki, this delightful film for younger children is the coming-of-age story of Kiki, a young witch who leaves home for the traditional year of starting life on her own. Although Kiki is a witch, there is no sense of evil or seeking power; her only power is flying, which she hasn’t quite mastered at the beginning of the film. This gentle film about a young girl leaving home and gradually building a new life for one’s self amid difficulties doesn’t have many deeper themes, but it is worthwhile entertainment with human values.

Porco Rosso (1992)  — Set in Italy in the 1930s, this is the story of a veteran World War I pilot who is cursed to look like a pig. I am curious to see this film, because it’s received so many positive reviews.

Princess Mononoke (1997) — Directed by Miyao Hiyazaki, this film is recommended for older children ages 12+ by Common Sense Media because of its violence. Princess Mononoke is the story of the conflict between nature and civilization and is darker and more intense than many Studio Ghibli films. I really enjoyed this film when I saw it years ago, and I plan to see it again soon. 

Spirited Away (2001) — Written and directed by Miyao Hiyazaki, Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003. It is the story of Chihiro, a young girl who is upset with her parents for moving. As they travel to their new home, they visit a village that is occupied by a sorcerer and spirits, where Chihiro’s parents are transformed into animals and taken hostage. Chihiro escapes being changed but loses her name, and must find a way to redeem herself and her parents. An amazing film, Spirited Away has some scary scenes but a courageous, kind-hearted, and loyal protagonist.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2005) – Directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, this is my favorite Studio Ghibli film for sheer entertainment. It’s a delightful, whimsical fantasy loosely based on Diana Wynn Jones’ book of the same name. There are many elements of a fairy tale: enchantments that disguise, a wizard and a witch, a war, king, a castle that lumbers along, a love story, and the protagonist, young Sophie Hatter, whose strength, kindness and love change the lives of those around her, despite her troublesome enchantment and initial lack of self-confidence.

Secret World of Arrietty (2011) — Directed by a new director at Studio Ghibli, Hiromasa Yonebayashi and based on the classic children’s fantasy, The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, adapted for the screen by Hiyao Miyazaki. 

The Borrowers was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. “Borrowers” are little people—about five inches tall—and unseen people who share your house with you, living under the floor and in the walls. They survive by “borrowing” things that you never miss, or that you know you put somewhere but can never find. Curious Arrietty is the only child of the Clock family and is curious about the world beyond her family’s hidden spaces. One day she is seen by the Boy who is visiting the house. Discovered, she is delighted to make a new friend and to see the world of the “human beans.” But the lives of the Clock family are put at risk when the owner of the house spies on the Boy and discovers them.

I was delighted that Studio Ghibli decided to take on The Borrowers, and the film is beautifully animated. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in how this less complex story moved a bit too slowly for my taste. A less-compelling tale, The Secret World of Arrietty is still a delightful film for children.

The Wind Rises (2013) — The last film written and directed by Hiyao Miyazaki before he retired, is a more complex story of a young man whose dream is to design planes. Inspired by the life of famous warplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, the film is only partly factual. But it feels like an animated bio-pic, taking us through decades of Japanese history—including the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, the Great Depression, and the ambivalent sentiment of Japanese citizens during World War II. There is much to admire in Jiro’s character, and the story focuses quite a bit on his love for Nahoko, a young woman that he rescues as a very young man.

What is difficult about the film is that Jiro actually designed war planes for the Japanese during World War II, including the infamous Zero, which could out-maneuver every other airplane when it first flew in 1940. Over 10,000 of these planes were built and flown, and the Zero caused great destruction during World War II. Jiro designed the planes knowing they would be used for war, and he talks about not wanting the war to design war planes, but he goes ahead and does it anyway, with the  motivation that he just wants to design planes, even though he knows his planes would deal out so much death. This is not fully explored, but left as a contradiction and glaring moral question for Jiro’s character, which is heroic and likable in so many ways.

The film is well-done, beautifully animated as always, with interesting characters. Overall, I found the film a bit slow for my taste, especially when I discovered that some important elements of the story were not factual. However, The Wind Rises is a masterpiece well-worth viewing, as well as a fascinating example of an animated bio-pic that skillfully brings us through decades of Japanese history. I would recommend it for older children simply because it’s complexity and depth.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) — Directed by Isao Takahata. A Japanese folktale about a tiny princess whom an elderly bamboo discovers magically growing in a bamboo plant. He takes her and raises her with his wife in the idyllic country side, where Lil Bamboo grows too rapidly for an ordinary girl.

Despite their happy time in the country, her father buys a rich home in the city for his daughter, and has her trained in the ways of wealthy society. The princess unwillingly obeys her father, torn by her love for her previous life in the forest with her friends, and her desire to obey and make her father happy. But the inhuman process of choosing a husband merely for appearance and status is greatly distressing to the princess and also somewhat to us as viewers.

This is an amazing and visually exquisite  film. In terms of the animation alone, this is my favorite Studio Ghibli film. This film has all the hallmarks of a great Studio Ghibli film: a beautifully told story, complex characters, incredibly symbolism in the visuals, and deep themes, including:

  • the consequences of our choices
  • the nurturing and love important for a child in the family
  • a critique of living by appearances and seeking social status
  • the value of a simple life of harmony and love
  • the incredible beauty and gift of nature

Despite the serious themes, the story can be followed by children in middle grades. A delightful film for the whole family.

When Marnie Was There  (2014)— Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s second Studio Ghibli film, When Marnie Was There is the story of Anna, a foster child who is sent for her health to the seaside to stay with her foster mother’s sister and husband. Struggling with feeling like an unwanted outsider, both lonely and sad, Anna explores the neighborhood and is fascinated by a dilapidated mansion that is accessible by land only in low tide. Anna eventually meets Marnie, a blonde-haired girl from the mansion, and they become friends. 

But the nature of their friendship is elusive, as Marnie sometimes disappears and Anna will  find herself suddenly alone. What (and who) is real becomes a growing tension in the film, but the gift of their friendship and the surprises it contains, nurtures and heals both girls. The ending is deeply moving, linking the present with the past.

Some reviewers found this film slow-moving, but for me and any other adult or older child (ages 10+) who has questioned his or her identity, this film is profoundly engrossing, poignant, and rewarding.

Catch “Liberating a Continent” on PBS

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I was privileged to be able to see this wonderful documentary last month, and I hadn’t had a chance to write a full review–which I still hope to do at some point! However, I wanted to let you know that Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism is broadcasting on PBS throughout the month of August. You can find a complete and updated list of broadcasts on PBS here, but this is what I know so far. (Note that all the times are local.)

·         WTVS (Detroit #13) is airing Tuesday August 16 at 11 pm.

·         WPBT (Miami/Ft. Lauderdale #16) is airing Tuesday August 16 at 11 pm.

·         KUHT (Houston #10) is airing Wednesday August 17 at 10 pm.

·         WTVI (Charlotte #22) is airing Wednesday August 17 at 11:30 pm.

·         PBS SoCal (Los Angeles #2) is airing on their Plus channel Monday August 22 at 2:30 pm.

Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism is an especially powerful and timely documentary to watch in our day because our world is so convinced that violence is the only response to oppression…but Pope Saint John Paul II was able to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and bring about change, liberation, and transformation through entirely peaceful means. If only we too could learn this lesson during the Year of Mercy!

 

Guest Post: Stories that invite us to be cultural mystics

Sister Rose Pacatte, FSP, is a Daughter of Saint Paul whose primary work is media literacy education for parents and teachers within the context of culture, education and faith formation. She love movies and reviews them at St. Anthony Messenger Magazine, the National Catholic Reporter,  Reel Spirituality and at her blog, Sr. Rose Goes to the Movies. When I read this article on her blog, I asked her if I could re-post it here, because it’s a wonderful example of how we can allow the stories in today’s entertainment culture draw us into contemplation.

Stories that invite us to be cultural mystics

by Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP

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After more than six decades of life, I am still startled by the profound empathy for humanity often revealed in stories told through sight and sound. Cinema, and increasingly episodic stories on television and the Internet, bring the human face of my brother or sister up close and personal so that I experience the joy and pain of all human living and make a difference in the world.

The fact is cinema has a sacramental quality, outward signs of inner realities, that Sr. Nancy Usselmann,* a colleague of mine, says invites us to be cultural mystics. We find transcendence and grace through the encounter with these stories when they are authentic; our senses are engaged through the gift and work of the artist, our imagination set afire when we are transported to another time and place to walk in the footprints of others, and finally, our spirits enriched especially when the resolution, if there is one, is true.

Because I am interested in reform of the criminal justice system in the United States, I started watching a fictional television series on the Sundance network, entitled Rectify. It is the story of a man, Daniel, who was wrongly convicted of killing his girlfriend when he was only 17 years old. He is released after almost twenty years on death row when DNA testing exonerates him. During the second season, while I was doing something as the television played in the background, I heard, in a flashback scene of a conversation between Daniel and the prison chaplain, “Beauty will change the world.”

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The quote from Dostoyevsky startled me and I spun around to watch, saying to myself, “Who says that on television?” When I watched the series again from the very beginning, this time with attention, I noticed how much I had missed because I had watched it through one lens only. Rectify is so much more than the tale of a man wrongly convicted by an over-zealous prosecutor and criminal justice system. The series is permeated with uninformed Old Testament justice meted out by the powerful over the powerless; it is a family drama of love, sin, and human suffering; it is a spiritual journey of hope and redemption as Daniel makes his way back into society that has left him behind. It is an intensely human story that seems to play out under the gaze of God who waits to see if His creatures will do the right thing and bestows grace to nudge them along in unsuspecting yet ordinary ways. The divine-human dynamic in Rectify is television at its courageous, creative best.

It is the epileptic and naïve Prince Myskin in Dostoyevsky’s 1869 novel The Idiot who utters the phrase “Beauty will change the world.” The prince is a Christ-figure who sees beauty where others do not, and whose words illumine the reality around him. As Pope John Paul II said in his 1999 Letter to Artists, people need to wonder at beauty if they are to solve the problems of today.

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Disney’s 2015 film Tomorrowland seems to bear this out. The premise of the film, directed by Brad Bird who co-wrote it with Damon Lindelof, is that we watch apocalyptic films year after year that are filled with disaster for the Earth and humanity, and nothing happens. We leave the cinema and go about our lives without connecting the story with reality. What if, instead of ignoring the prophetic nature of these films, and instead of entrusting the future of the Earth to politicians and corporations, artists, scientists, and dreamers could work together to make changes and prevent human destruction of the Earth? Critics did not appreciate Tomorrowland, seeing it as a commercial for Disneyland. Yet, if a viewer can step back and appreciate the possibilities for artists to change the world for the better, the film becomes cultural prophecy revealing values that transcend the very consumerism of the system that produced it.

“To see God in all things” is the heart of Ignatian spirituality. To have eyes to see with and ears to hear with is the sacramental action the artist carries who can reveal inner, profound, eternal realities through stories molded in sight and sound, even without trying. A story that is truly human is truly of the Gospel. Sister Nancy Usselmann writes, “To truly see this reality, the infinite beauty of the Creator in creaturely beauty, one must make that journey inward, perceived, as Augustine says, through our spiritual senses.” The artist who paints stories in light, through sight and sound, who reveals God in the human face, who leaves us free to contemplate his or her vision through our imagination searching and hungry for truth, beauty and goodness — mediates the Divine for us. And it is good.

by Sr. Rose Pacatte

* A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics a Theology of Popular Culture, by Sister Nancy Usselmann, 2015, thesis for Master of Arts in Theology degree.

This article was published originally in English, Spanish and French in SIGNIS Media, No. 1/2016, Brussels: “The Art of Storytelling.” Click here to download the entire issue on the topic.