Sunday, August 11, 2013
It was only two years ago that critics were fawning with praise over Terrence Mallick's "The Tree of Life", claiming it to be this unparalleled cycle of pure artistry. I've heard some of the most glowing reviews possible for that film - never before has the word "art" been more poorly applied than to "Tree of Life". If you're wondering of course, if I must play the Scrooge to everybody's festivities over morbidly obese American arthouse, what would I actually call great cinematic art? What is the movie that really connects to all people in a universal representation of the human family, while being so fantastically well-shot that you well up in emotion over the power of it all? Could we have a movie such as that and actually give a plot? And characters? Could some Japanese anime director who made his bones with mercenary grunt work with "Digimon: the Movie" really outdo Terrence Mallick, the darling of the arthouse crowd? Absolutely.
Despite its fairy tale premise of being a single mother raising two werewolf children, "Wolf Children" is not a light children's tale. It takes its concept very seriously, forcing its protagonist into a very difficult situation of raising children whom she may not be able to completely control, who she has to hide from the rest of the world, and on some level, whose biology is a mystery even to her. But really, the fantastical elements are simply there to add whimsical energy to a story that is really about a mother watching her children grow up and letting them take their alternate paths in life. For a cartoon movie, there is nothing cartoony about "Wolf Children". This is Homoda back in his more serious examination of human relationships, not the comic excess of "Summer Wars". The result is a movie which may be the prettiest damn film ever made. This isn't a movie I'm recommending simply because "its fun" or "you'll laugh" or "the Minions are cute". This is a movie I'm recommending because its important. This is something that everybody should see, and maybe, everybody needs to see.
I really hate to ever use the word "art" to describe anything, since the term "art" has always meant less than nothing to me. If "Tree of Life" is art, and movies I love like "Independence Day" are not, then I really don't want anything to do with art. Art is a word of oppression, there's a clique of stogy often close-minded hipsters who decide that art means, and usually art is synonymous with being unreachable. The more incomprehensible a work ultimately is, the more exclusive it becomes, so that only a select few of those chosen in a semi-Calvinistic process are allowed to appreciate art. Regular people don't get to have art, we get to have only entertainment. However, I'm going to shatter that miserable definition of art right now. Art is not Terrence Mallick boring away 99% of the viewing public with endless movies that go nowhere, so that the remaining 1% can congratulate themselves on being better than everybody else. Art is something much more primal and easier to understand.
Studio Ghibli has been creating art for decades now, and its not because their movies require several degrees in advanced literary quantum mechanics to comprehend. Its because they make movies for everybody, every waking person can watch "Spirited Away" and find something to appreciate within. "Wolf Children" actually feels in a number of ways similar to a Ghibli production, and not only because most of it takes place in a Japanese country house that may be down the road from Satsuki and Mei's home. Hosoda takes several cues from Hayao Miyazaki, somehow copying that man's ability to replicate the absolute beauty of nature. Only a few people can make cinematic Romanticism, only a few people can actually make you feel the same emotions that you do when actually stepping out into the wondrous outdoors, and for some reason, they're all Japanese, and they only make cartoons*.
Where most directors with the concept of "woman falls in love with a shapeshifting werewolf man and has kids with him" would take that story and go into the realm of impossibility, Hosoda keeps to a deep discipline of reality. Yeah, the plotline is entirely impossible, werewolves don't exist, but he's not in the mindset of "what kind of wolf gags can I make?" but rather "what if werewolves really did exist?" What kind of difficulties and hurdles would a single mother have to endure when dealing with unique children whose powers truly put them all in danger? And event that's not even the real point of "Wolf Children", the children could have been perfectly human and the real human meaning would still be there. Fantasy should be disciplined. You can have amazing elements to your story, but your story shouldn't be about those amazing elements - don't make a movie about robots and Gods and magic - make a movie about people. Relationships. The important things that actually matter.
Where "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" wasn't actually about time travel, it was about high school romances and accepting adulthood, and "Summer Wars" wasn't actually about evil viruses conquering the anime Internet, it was about a traditional tight-knit family holding together, "Wolf Children" isn't about werewolves: its about motherhood and raising your children to be what they were meant to be. That's not to say that the little werewolf kids aren't really cute, but that's again, not really important. (Similarly, the best SciFi film of the last two years, "Robot and Frank" wasn't really about the robot as much as accepting age and giving up your independence in the face of senility.) So this is why again, I have to feel like a televangelist screaming at my public watching from the safety of their couches while they channel surf between me and "Honey Boo Boo" - REPENT, YE HOLLYWOOD. "WOLF CHILDREN" IS THE TRUE GOD!!! WATCH THIS MOVIE!
Again, did I mention how unbelievably pretty "Wolf Children" is? I think that implication might have come through at some point, but seriously, nothing can prepare you for sequences as gorgeous as the mother and her pups running through a fresh snow in the woods. I almost burst into tears it was that impressive. Every frame of "Wolf Children" is lightyears ahead of just about everything else that has been made this year. I am never going to be a mother, I can really understand what that role in life is like as much as I can understand what a bacterium feels as it exchanges its DNA with another single-celled organism. But if there has ever been a film that has so perfectly captured that life, I don't think I could ever stand watching it. The beauty of it would melt my face off.
Now, just for quickness and fairness, I must admit that "Wolf Children" is not perfect. At two-hours long, it is simply too much for a single sitting, and frankly, I was getting bored towards the end. Another major issue for me was that the little girl, Yuki, wound up changing from such a powerful character dominating every scene and taking reigns of the entirely world as a little kid, into a demure culturally-acceptable Japanese schoolgirl, fading into the background, with apparently few opinions of her own. Perhaps the drive to conformity in Japanese schools is mind-breaking on a level equaled to the Ministry of Love, or maybe its bad writing, I don't know.
But even with those two facts, I really cannot imagine that "Wolf Children" will result in anything less than being the Best Movie of 2013. Maybe I will be blessed by the heavens to see something even better in the remaining third of the year, I really doubt it. This is Hosoda's best movie, which is saying quite a bit considering his career so far. Even if by chance you find that "Wolf Children" is somehow not to your tastes, I think the power of this thing is indisputable. You may not like "Wolf Children", but dear god, you will respect this, and it is a film experience that is impossible to forget.
* Any movie maker can just film a forest with their camera. But they don't actually incorporate the surroundings into their movies, they don't make the natural world a character. Jason Vorhees might be stabbing teenagers at a lakeside, but that lakeside is entirely incidental. Maybe its the fact that these handdrawn cartoons require a team of craftsmen to slowly build every single moment, they have to draw every blade of grass and little woodwork detail on every surface. So they can't take anything for granted, they have to create it all. Which is why the forest in a Miyazaki film or "Wolf Children" feels like such a dominant presence, its actually something they built and loved and created, and it has to have depth. While the pretty flowers and architecture Terrence Mallick took some photos of feel like... well, just a photo of a pretty flower.