Those who have proclaimed 2D animation dead haven’t seen “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” the latest hand-drawn fantasy from Japan’s Studio Ghibli.
Isao Takahata employs this art form to entertaining, sad and beautiful effect in his telling of a centuries-old story about an otherworldly peasant girl transported into a world of hollow royalty.
Less known on these shores than Studio Ghibli cofounder and fellow animator Hayao Miyazaki, the tonally darker but similarly masterly Takahata (“Grave of the Fireflies,” “Pom Poko”) presents an all-ages adventure containing neither the fast action nor the wisecracking characters of Hollywood animated fare. For a welcome 137 minutes, it delivers sweepingly gorgeous backdrops and a gently unfolding story. A plucky girl (a virtual staple of contemporary commercial animation) supplies the driving spirit.
The title character, a tiny infant, descends from the heavens when a humble bamboo cutter discovers her inside a glowing stalk. When his wife holds her, the Thumbelina-like girl becomes the size of a normal baby. Soon the “princess,” as she’s called, is a strange but happy child frolicking among the mountain flora and fauna.
That changes when the loving but misguided bamboo cutter decides that his daughter must have official princess status. The family moves to a palace. An etiquette coach begins tutoring the child. But the feisty, homesick girl isn’t interested in plucking her eyebrows or marrying any of the puffed-up men hoping to woo her. To sabotage all wedding possibilities, she hatches a clever plan.
A brief escape and reunion with her childhood love, Sutemaru, yields temporary bliss. But the two come from different worlds. While the princess cherishes her earthly existence, the moon beckons.
It’s not hard to guess where the story is generally heading. But the details abound with beauty and surprise.
Takahata draws masterfully, using pastel colors, expressive lines and fluid watercolor to suggest the art of a traditional scroll. His natural-world images – cherry trees, garden bugs, dangling grapes – are exquisite. The princess’ escape from the palace, rendered in rough, charcoal-like strokes, conveys urgency. The arrival of a celestial task force gives the non-Hollywood ending a penetrating melancholy.
Takahata’s screenplay (cowritten by Riko Sakaguchi) features impressively intricate scenarios. It contains, better than a conventional villain, flawed but human characters.
The princess, whose presence on Earth reflects punishment for something undefined, is a dynamic force of positive spirit (and, when considering the state of women’s roles, is probably one of the strongest big-screen female protagonists this year).
The film is playing in subtitled and dubbed versions. The English-language voice cast includes Chloe Grace Moretz, James Caan and Mary Steenburgen as the princess and her adoptive parents.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Three and a half stars
Starring: Voices of Chloe Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Lucy Liu (in English version)
Written by: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi
Directed by: Isao Takahata
Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes