April 22, 2008
Say "environmentally themed animation" to most people and they'll think of FernGully: The Last Rainforest or Captain Planet—both well-intentioned, but as subtle and as thrilling to experience as a boot to the head. Presented in alphabetical order, here are five titles that get it right; essential viewing not just on Earth Day, but every day.

The Lorax
When we talk about Warner alumna who worked with Dr. Seuss, we tend to mention Chuck Jones and, er, that's it. But it was Hawley Pratt who directed The Lorax, the 1972 adaptation of the good doctor's book from the year earlier. In it, the Lorax—a typically Seussian odd-looking, oddly coloured creature who says he "speaks for the trees," tries to convince an industrialist not to chop down the Truffula trees, which he uses to make a unique form of clothing called Thneeds.

The industrialist doesn't listen, and the Thneeds take off. His small shop becomes larger, which leads to the construction of larger factories and more roadwork, which leads to increasing destruction of the forest and the air—and eventually, the growth of a whole city, which just makes the problem worse. Futile though it is, the Lorax protests the whole time. Near the end of the story, the industrialist chops down the last tree and realizes he's not only ended his business, but destroyed the very reason he came to the forest in the first place—and the Lorax sadly picks himself up (literally) and flies away.

The Lorax is pads the original story with reasonably entertaining songs, gags and bits of business to bring it up to a half-hour special, and it captures the Seuss look pretty well. While it's comparatively strident—"greedy industrialist" is all you need to know about the antagonist—it's still a striking look at how we can carelessly consume and destroy resources when we're not careful.

The Man Who Planted Trees
Frédéric Back believes passionately in the need to protect and co-exist with the environment, and his most moving testament to that belief is his 1987 masterpiece The Man Who Planted Trees, an adaptation of a 1953 French short story. In the story, a man visits an abandoned valley in France three times. The first time is before World War I, when the valley is dry and desolate, and he meets a young shepherd who is planting acorns; the second time is between both world wars, when the young trees are starting to dot the landscape; and the third time is after World War II, when the valley is a green, lush paradise, and a small village has sprung up around it.

The story itself, in which one man selflessly and patiently turns emptiness into a thriving, living community, is inspiring, but what makes it work as a film is Back's method. Using coloured pencils and frosted cels (like traditional acetate cells, but with a tooth to them so that traditional but inkless drawing tools can be used on them), he made each frame a gorgeous illustration, with each one cross-dissolving into the next. When we return to the valley-as-Eden, that technique serves to make every leaf on every tree burst with life. When we hear that our actions have far-reaching implications, it's usually when we're being warned not to do something. When you see the forest in The Man Who Planted Trees flowing across the screen, you realize that there's a positive aspect to that as well.

See a clip and storyboard images from The Man Who Planted Trees

My Neighbor Totoro
In 1950s Japan, Mei and Satsuki move to the countryside with their father, as they wait for their hospitalized mother to recover from her illness. From the moment they set foot in the house, the girls discover (magic?) forest creatures large and small, who seem to be presided over by the largest of three creatures, that seem like a jovial cross between a cat and a bear; Mei calls them Totoro.

Not much more needs to be said, because if you haven't seen Totoro, you've probably heard of it (and, really, should make the time to go see it.) It's the 1988 film that made Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli icons in Japan (literally, as Totoro now graces the Ghibli logo on every movie opener), and, after some time, abroad as well. The three Totoro are probably the Ghibli characters you're most likely to see pop up in the background of comics and animation, as artists the world over pay homage.

The reason for all the love is simple: Totoro is a gentle film that is as much about the joys of childhood as it is about the beauty of nature. Linking expertly realized scenes—of napping in a forest, of skipping over a creek, or of savouring the night breeze through the trees—to our own memories makes a better case for preserving forests than any amount of brow-beating. The Japanese public apparently agreed, and Totoro has become a symbol, both official and unofficial, of its environmental movement.

Princess Mononoke
Nine years after Totoro, Ghibli released its flip side: Miyazaki's look a fifteenth-century Japan where the powerful forest spirits still walk the Earth with both majesty and terror. The young prince Ashitaka is banished from his village when his arm is scarred in an encounter with a deranged boar god, and during his travels he encounters San—the demon princess of the title—and Lady Eboshi, who has founded and runs Iron Town on the edge of the forest. San has literally been raised by wolves (or, more accurately, wolf gods), and is constantly sabotaging Iron Town's operations, as their manufacturing facilities are encroaching further on the forest.

Ashitaka, and the audience, quickly learns that things aren't as black and white as they may seem. Lady Eboshi has taken in lepers, prostitutes, and other people cast off from society and given them a home; by mining and refining the iron she's been able to keep Iron Town self-sufficient. San and many of the forest creatures see humanity as a threat, an ever-reproducing virus that needs to be destroyed for their safety. The result is the beginning of a bloody war, with interested outside parties looking for opportunities and Ashitaka risking life and limb to keep things from escalating past the point of no return.

Princess Mononoke carries two messages within it, both rarely said in environmentally themed films. First is that if you push nature too hard, nature will push back harder. The second echoes a sentiment spoken by John Muir, godfather to the American environmental movement: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe." The fatal error that is often made in the movie, and in real life, is that humanity is somehow separated from nature.

Respire
French group Mickey 3D's 2003 CD Tu vas pas mourir de rire (You Won't Die Laughing) is full of politically conscious songs set to toe-tapping music. Its second track, Respire (Breathe) is the basis for a CGI music video that features, for the most part, nothing but a young girl running barefoot through an open field, skipping through creeks and climbing trees, all under a gorgeous blue sky. The laconically delivered lyrics speak of what man has done to his world, and how action needs to be taken by everyone, right now.

It's the end of the video that brings everything together as, with a Twilight-Zoneish twist, we discover that things aren't what they first seemed. Frankly, I find this scenario all too plausible. Consider Respire a warning you can dance to. Watch the video and decide for yourself.



Where to Get It
Buy
The Lorax DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy
The Man Who Planted Trees DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy
My Neighbor Totoro DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy
Princess Mononoke DVDs and more from Amazon.com
Buy
Respire (part of the Imagina Trips Vol. 2 compilation; PAL, Region 2) on DVD from Amazon.fr
Buy
Tu vas pas mourir de rire on CD from Amazon.com

Previously on Frames Per Second
Imagina Trips Vol. 2 review

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Comments:
Princess Mononoke is an epic. I think its Miyazaki's most complete film and is one of the most clearly and violently honest productions about humanity's relationship with nature... at times implying that our destruction of one another, finding peace through self-profit, feels inevitable.
What a great themed piece to go with for Earth Day. Frederic Back's films are amongst the most elegant and mesmerising animated films I have yet seen. Joyful, really. As I understand it, Back's beautiful films have had their share of influence on Mayazaki's work.
All the best
James Clarke
www.james-blueskies.blogspot.com
A nice mixture of animations to mark the occassion.

On the subject of Mayazaki, you could mention his first film with Gibhli, which was Naussica:Valley of the Wind. That had a strong environmental message, mixed with some escapist entertainment of action (probably his most violent, but truly deserves a look for an action adventure with an environmental mesage.)
When I started putting this list together it was in danger of becoming the Back and Miyazaki show: The Man Who Planted Trees, The Mighty River, Nausicäa, Totoro and Princess Mononoke were what immediately came to mind, along with The Lorax. This wouldn't do, so I carefully considered what I'd have to prune from the list.

As much as I love Nausicäa I ended up trimming it because I think it's not as mature a film as Princess Mononoke. Most of the elements that make Nausicäa compelling find their way into Princess Mononoke, but with the benefit of more than a decade's added filmmaking and experience.

They're not exactly the same stories, of course, and I think the setting is another factor in Princess Mononoke's favour. We tend to look at man and nature as two separate entities, and I think by stripping away the technological trappings of Nausicäa, Princess Mononoke better highlights our interdependence.

None of this is to say that one film is better than the other. I can't really say I have a favourite Miyazaki film because several of them are constantly jostling for the top spot. But as movie meant to spotlight the environment, I prefer Princess Mononoke.


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