Nausicaš of the Valley of the Winds

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 02/22/05 18:10:43

"Cooler than the giant worms in 'Dune!'"
5 stars (Awesome)

For over a quarter century, Japanese writer-director Hayao Miyazaki (the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away") has been making imaginative movies that manage to nourish the head and the heart equally. He's one of those rare artists who can use his imaginary worlds to explore real world issues, but he can entertain so expertly that his films never seem like feature-length sermons.

Most importantly, he's resoundingly demonstrated that animation might appeal to children, but adults can get more out Miyazaki's offering than most live action films.

So why has it been so tough to get legal versions of his films here in the States?

Thankfully, Disney has taken a break from making crummy straight-to-video versions of their previous hits and has released new DVDs of three first-rate offerings from Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli.

The folks at Disney deserve some special credit for restoring Miyazaki's breakthrough 1984 movie "Nausicaš of the Valley of the Winds" to its full 116-minute length. Until now, American audiences have had to settle for a butchered 95-minute version that New World Pictures distributed called "Warriors of the Wind." Miyazaki was reportedly so upset with the deletions and alterations that he hesitated to have his films distributed in the States again.

Fortunately, "Nausicaš" can now be viewed either with its original Japanese soundtrack or with a new English dub. Either way, it's a delight.

The ecological fable set in a post-Apocalyptic future concerns a young princess named Nausicaš (voiced in the English version by Alison Lohman from "Matchstick Men") who may have to assume her throne early because her father the king is ill.

The world she lives in has been devastated by the ancient Seven Days of Fire where warring kingdoms used lethal robots called god warriors and ended up destroying themselves in the process. Now the humans that have been left in millennium since are clawing for a piece of what's left.

Not only do the rival kingdoms of Pejite and Tolmekia duke it out over limited space, but also a toxic forest loaded with giant insects called Ohmu is further eroding the limited areas where humans can live safely.

Nausicaš's isolated valley soon becomes a flashpoint in a multi-pronged battle when the queen of Tolmekia, Kushana (Uma Thurman) overtakes the princess' homeland and uses it as an incubator to revive a dormant god warrior.

Kushana's plan is dubious to begin with, but she hasn't figured on her enemies the Pejites, led by their double-dealing mayor (Mark Hamil), conceiving an equally dangerous counter strategy.

Caught between the feuding humans and natural forces that could soon make all human life extinct, Nausicaš and her mentor Lord Yupa (expertly voiced by Patrick Stewart) have to negotiate a seemingly impossible labyrinth of deceit and malice to prevent another Armageddon.

Throughout all the intrigue, Miyazaki manages to expertly juggle philosophical concerns with breathtaking action scenes. There are nail biting aerial dogfights, insect stampedes and nifty make-believe creatures. But in his fantasy world, Miyazaki asks an eternal question: Can people look past their hatreds to address more pressing issues?

The answer is difficult because many of Kushana and the Pejite mayor both have legitimate reasons for their animosity, and both sincerely believe in their own righteousness. Miyazaki views these characters as destructive, but gives them sympathetic qualities, so that viewers actually hope they get a clue.

One of the joys of Miyazaki's films is that his characters are frequently more complicated than the ones in live action flicks. Military leader Kurotawa (Chris Sarandon) might be horribly duplicitous toward his superior Kushana, but he realizes that he and his soldiers might die needlessly because of her plans.

The animation in "Nausicaš" lacks some of the polish and finesse of Miyazaki's later films like "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke," but that's because his current crew has access to training and technology that the makers of the older film could only dream of having.

As it stands, the film still looks pretty impressive 20 years later, and, more importantly, Miyazaki's storytelling instincts were well developed by the time he made this. "Nausicaš" is the first movie Miyazaki made with his own characters and story, and the trademarks that show up in his later movies are all here: flight sequences, strong female characters, metaphorical storylines and a sense that his characters have more to do than simply embody flat notions of wrong or right.

Fans of the film might want to catch Miyazaki's massive graphic novel of the same title. He goes into even more head spinning detail there. The new DVD dub is decent, but the extras a mixed bag. The standard "Behind the Microphone" featurette is bland and marginally interesting, and the Studio Ghibli history documentary is informative, but bizarre. It awkwardly balances real footage and recollections with goofy reenactments that distract more than they enlighten.

Still, it's great to see Miyazaki's first signature effort treated with the sincerity and care it deserves. We can only hope the wait for some of Ghibli's other worthy titles like "Whisper of the Heart" won't be as long as this one was.

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