Animation fans, rejoice: Disney’s efforts to bring the Studio Ghibli backcatalog to the U.S.A have resulted in new and gorgeously detailed Blu-rays of Castle in the Sky, Whisper of the Heart, and Ghibli’s most recent feature, The Secret World of Arrietty.  Now, while the HD market still lacks some of the studio’s most iconic works (no Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away yet?  Really?), these three titles provide a wonderful illustration of the best – and, in small doses, the worst – that Studio Ghibli can offer.

Now, moving in chronological order…

Directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, Castle in the Sky debuted in 1986 to much acclaim, and with great reason: it is unquestionably Miyazaki’s first masterpiece.  You can see him fixing the issues that plagued his previous film, 1984’s flawed-but-thrilling Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; the characters are stronger, the narrative more propulsive, and the animation more fluid.

With its mismatched protagonists, colorful supporting cast, and convoluted fantasy myth – while on the run from scores of baddies, heroine Sheeta tries to determine the connection between herself and a mysterious floating city – Castle in the Sky resembles nothing less than an even more pop-fantastic Star Wars, though its dreamy exposition scenes and stunning aerial animation lend it a hallucinatory languor that George Lucas could never muster.  Any director would have a hard time topping this one.  Miyazaki managed to at least three times over.

The tragic circumstances surrounding the coming-of-age fable Whisper of the Heart lend this otherwise gentle tale a melancholy air; this project was the grand entrance of director Yoshifumi Kondô, the Ghibli animator that Miyazaki had hand-picked to become his successor, but Kondô’s sudden death in 1998 (three years after his directorial debut) kept him from realizing this grand ambition.

Based on Whisper of the Heart‘s existence, this tragedy denied viewers a potential animation titan.  I think it’s Ghibli’s most underrated picture, an effortlessly charming character study about a young girl encountering first love in contemporary Japan.  Kondô makes his lead character’s emotional awakening as visceral as any of Castle in the Sky‘s action sequences, and his realistic depiction of ‘90s Japan lends the piece a verisimilitude often lacking from Studio Ghibli’s more visually extreme adventures.  My only qualm?  The segments centering on mystical feline “The Baron” distract from the main narrative, as if Kondô felt the need to placate his audience with obvious fantastical material in order to keep them interesting during the boring “normal” stuff.

Despite The Secret World of Arrietty‘s literary (Miyazaki’s screen adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers) and aesthetic (Studio Ghibli, natch) pedigrees, many Ghibli fans treated it like the company’s proverbial redheaded stepchild.  It’s too long; it’s too slow; nothing happens.  I look at those complaints objectively, and I guess I agree, but they didn’t stop me from enjoying the end result any less.  Maybe it’s a question of expectations.  I say I’m making a movie about a species of four-inch-tall humans who live in the crawl spaces around your house, and you might expect a bunch of action scenes depicting how hard it is for a person that small to survive in a big person’s world.

As The Secret World of Arrietty tells it, you would be wrong.  While the movie has some pure adventure – the most thrilling being a late-stage attack on Arrietty’s family’s home – Miyazaki and his director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, care less about thrills and more about perspective; they want you to experience the world from an inch off the ground, to view a grassy lawn as an endless forest, to see a cat loom as large as the Manhattan cityscape. The Secret World of Arrietty gives you ample time to luxuriate in this new (old) world, and as a sensory experience, it is near-faultless.  The lack of overt conflict may bother some people (I have a bigger issue with the bland, sickly male lead who serves as the object of Arrietty’s affections), but I like that Miyazaki and Yonebayashi give us a world without villains.  Their cast – big and small alike – is filled with people, just trying to live their lives as best they can.  It isn’t swashbuckling, for sure, but it’s a whole lot more important.

Disney has given each of the three films a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with sterling A/V quality.  The Secret World of Arrietty looks best by degrees – it’s the newest flick of the bunch – but both Castle in the Sky and Whisper of the Heart have so much more lushness and texture than their previous DVD editions allowed.  Best of all: crisp, clean 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks for the films in both English dubbed and Japanese (w/English subtitles) sound options.

The supplement quality varies from movie to movie. The Secret World of Arrietty has the weakest selection: a great storyboard version of the film, two inessential music videos (from Bridgit Mendler and Cécile Corbel), a making-of featurette for the Mendler video, and the original Japanese trailers and TV spots.  Whisper of the Heart does a little better, with animator Naohisa Inoue’s four-part animation workshop, original storyboards, a featurette on the vocal talent, and more trailers/TV spots.  Finally, as befitting its more venerated status, Castle in the Sky gets the strongest roster.  I’m talking a storyboard archive; another featurette on the voice actors; trailers; an introduction from Pixar head honcho John Lasseter; and five well produced featurettes that detail different elements of Castle‘s production history.

Taken together, animation fans should feel well taken care of.  These three films are screen treasures, and the Blu-rays give them the aural and visual respect they deserve.  Highly recommended.

The new Studio Ghibli Blu-rays street on May 22nd.  Click HERE for Castle in the Sky‘s Amazon listing, HERE for Whisper of the Heart‘s Amazon listing, and HERE for The Secret World of Arrietty‘s Amazon listing.

Home Culture Blu-ray Roundup: Surveying Studio Ghibli in High Definition