How ‘The Story of Princess Kaguya’ is Making Pixar Look Bad

By  · Published on November 8th, 2013

The words “Studio Ghibli” are more or less synonymous with gorgeous animation. After all, it’s the same Studio Ghibli that was founded by Hayao Miyazaki, the man who introduced the world to Totoros, enchanted bathhouses, pig parents and super-sized flying wolf heads in some of the most enchanting animated films ever made. But contrary to popular belief, there are other people putting ink on paper at the renowned studio (something of a relief, considering that Miyazaki’s next feature-length film, The Wind Rises, will also be his last). One such filmmaker, Isao Takahata, has his own film releasing shortly. Chances are, Takahata’s upcoming The Story of Princess Kaguya will end up eclipsed by the enormity of “Miyazaki’s final film ever” yet that’s an entirely undeserved fate. It’s absolutely worth taking a look at the film, which, conveniently, you can do below.

Studio Ghibli may champion hand-drawn animation, but even the most gorgeous of animated films end up looking like… well, animated films. Think of Princess Kaguya as a watercolor painting brought to life through some ancient and powerful magic spell. It’s absolutely stunning, to such a degree that basically every frame of the trailer is a work of art unto itself- the magical transformation of a pocket-sized princess into a healthy human baby holds just as much charm as an errant frog sitting on the floor. That’s not to say that The Wind Rises (or any of Ghibli’s previous films) aren’t comely in their own right, but as a deviation from the norm, Princess Kaguya really sets itself apart from the pack.

Were you to apply “deviating from the norm” to the state of Western animation, and things become so much more depressing. Looking at this year’s crop of potential Oscar-nominated animated features, you might be tempted to bang your head repeatedly against the nearest hard surface. Every film coming from the US of A is of the CGI-animated variety, and of those, the vast majority just aren’t any good at all. Granted, ten of the nineteen offerings are American, and with that many you’re bound to get the chaff alongside the wheat.

What Ghibli has provided- a touch of variety- is totally alien to Hollywood’s animated fare. Nearly every one of those ten films is a variation on wacky cartoon hijinks, via talking planes, talking snails, talking turkeys or talking whatever the Despicable Me 2 minions are. Frozen and Monsters University, at least, manage to distinguish themselves with a slight narrative spin- one’s a traditional fairy tale, the other Animal House for kids. But visually, they’re more or less indistinguishable. Perhaps not in terms of animation quality (as Pixar tends to destroy the competition in that regard), but within all ten films you’ll find the same Disney eyes, the same bright colors, the same hesitance to do anything outside the ordinary.

In many cases, CGI animation just isn’t necessary. Frozen is an especially egregious offender- the film was originally to be a hand-drawn feature titled The Snow Queen, but when the project stalled and Tangled proved a hit, the whole thing was redone in Tangled’s image. Artwork like what you see below was lost to the ages.

Films like Frozen or Tangled are fairy tales, and few things evoke the magic and majesty of an old storybook like hand-drawn animation. So much time, effort and processor speed is spent on the lifelike textures of Merida’s hair in Brave or the snow in Frozen, yet in the end a 3D princess looks far more cartoonish than her 2D counterpart. Perhaps it’s that, in an attempt to keep human characters far away from the uncanny valley, CGI-animated features aim for a more cartoons-and-caricatures art style, whereas 2D animation and the uncanny valley are far more mutually exclusive. 3D also has the tendency to feel smaller in scope- fourteen films in and Pixar has yet to match the sheer size and grandeur in just the first four minutes of The Lion King.

But if the Best Animated Feature category gives you a headache, look just below it and you’ll find a consistently wonderful treasure trove in the Best Animated Short Film category. Here, you’ll find Disney’s return (sort of) to the animation of old with the hybrid hand-drawn/CGI short Paperman, or the slow, subtle 2D beauty of Adam and Dog, which packs Lion King-sized natural majesty into a scant fifteen minutes. Disney’s Get a Horse is guaranteed to be a contender for the next Best Animated Short Film statuette; it’ll see Mickey Mouse dancing from black-and-white to color, 2D to 3D, and will re-purpose old recordings of Walt Disney to give Mickey his voice. Get a Horse premieres in front of Frozen, but will probably be worth the price of admission on its own.

That string of smash hits that Pixar and Dreamworks churned out in the early 2000s cemented CGI animation as the new industry standard. And Pixar themselves are a studio that’s always done CGI animation- you can’t expect them to up and change their mode of operations on a moment’s notice. But everyone else out there (especially those who seek to emulate Pixar’s success) may need Studio Ghibli to demonstrate just how much the medium has to offer.