Given yesterday’s announcement that Takahata Isao’s new film will be based on a depressing Japanese nursery lullaby, and Studio Ghibli’s recent focus on key members’ pre-Naushika films (Chie the Brat, Sherlock Hound (movie version) and Puss In Boots, all of which I’ve yet to see, are getting re-releases on DVD/Blu-Ray with the Ghibli Nursery project), I was finally inspired to plunder that obscure back-catalogue, starting with this 1969 co-production with Russian companies. I have versions in Japanese and Russian, but the latter was better-quality, and as both can be regarded as original versions, as well as because I was interested in hearing Russian voice-acting, I chose to watch that one.
The movie is remembered principally because Miyazaki Hayao worked on it as a key animator, and in his usual way, muscled into the creative process, suggesting new scenes and being responsible for some important animation sequences. But for once, despite his segment having perhaps the most interesting cuts and angles, his artistic vision was probably to the detriment of an already highly dubious film.
Let’s face it, this is a bad movie. Very bad. So bad it’s highly entertaining, but definitely bad.
In its sub-sixty-minute-minute run-time, we see a truly gratuitous amount of incongruous clichés – giant robots, phantoms, haunted houses and Flying Dutchman-like ghost ships (armed with rockets). James Bond underground bases and government conspirators (complete with deathtrap chairs). Sea monsters and rebel organisations, evil corporations poisoning their customers for no reason whatsoever, and an old, old plot twist I would assume was stolen from Star Wars if not for the fact that this predates it by nearly a decade.
Its main character is your stock plucky young boy, a bridge in character design between Osamu Tezuka and the Ghibli style, and the rest of the characters are similarly palatable, if totally forgettable. The skull-faced captain makes the real visual impact, but narrowly avoids just being completely laughable. There’s also a comedy dog who raises some smiles, though its inclusion in a moment of tragedy midway through the movie should make Disney detractors realise that while that studio's films are emotionally manipulative, at least they have a bit of subtlety rather than sticking in token sad scenes that are so rushed they neither have purpose in and of themselves nor advance the plot. Everything about this movie is basic, derivative and poorly-executed, with plot points often nonsensical or included for their own sake rather than as part of a coherent plot, and the links between them rushed and stumbling. And yet...it has its simple charm.
I would definitely - albeit charitably - say this one is so bad it’s quite good.
(originally written 3.3.08)