The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Director: Isao Takahata (2015)

Magical and moving, this animated folktale is charming, moving and a beautifully crafted joy, bursting with humour and life.

When sent to the Earth as punishment, a young Moon spirit discovers that mortal life involves responsibility and pain as well as love.

Deservedly nominated for best animated feature at the Oscars, it’s a captivating combination of glorious pencil-work and delicate pastel colours.

Working in a secluded grove, an old Bamboo Cutter (James Caan) is startled when a bright light reveals a tiny female form inside a tree. The kindly man takes her home to his wise wife (Mary Steenburgen) where the sprite changes miraculously into a baby.

Being without children they resolve to look after the baby as if she were their own. She grows at a prodigious rate, sprouting from baby to toddler in a single crawl.

The Princess is named ‘Li’l Bamboo’ by the local children and joins the gang of Sutemaru (Darren Criss) with whom a strong emotional bond develops.

Loyal, clever, impetuous and mischievous, Li’l Bamboo accelerates through a joyous, gentle and comic childhood in a wonderful rural adventure land. It’s alive with gorgeously animated birds, frogs, spiders, pigs, snakes, squirrels, beavers, fish and deer.

Returning to the magic grove the Bamboo Cutter finds a tree filled with money, then another with swathes of fine cloth. He concludes Li’l Bamboo is a true princess and must be raised as one.

So he builds his daughter a palace in the Capital and when she turns 13 years old he moves the family there to live, away from her friends.

Stern Lady Sagami (Lucy Liu) is employed to teach Li’l Bamboo courtly social graces but the spirited girl rails against her tutoring and the subduing of her personality. She mocks the painful beauty procedures and rejects the subservient idea of womanhood.

At a three day banquet to mark her coming of age, she is given the name Princess Kaguya and to please her father tries to become an obedient, studious daughter. With her great beauty and social skills she attracts a multitude of suitors, including the greatest nobles in the land.

But the Princess isn’t impressed by their status and to her father’s consternation Kaguya issues them impossible tasks to prove their love.

However she’s aghast when one by one they return to make her keep her word and she makes a rash wish which changes her life.

It is more measured in pace and tone and lacks the delirious colours and engineered wackiness of contemporary megaplex crowd pleasers such as Disney’s excellent Big Hero 6. Plus with a running time of 137 minutes it is for older rather than younger children.

With it’s strong-willed country girl who learns of life in the city it’s similar to the story of Heidi which director Takahata adapted in 1974. It is a tale celebrating life but also reflective of grief, loss and suffering, heralding the virtues of honesty and friendship over wealth and looks, taking to task the way female identity is constructed for the benefit of men.

The animation is impressionistic in style with characters and backgrounds being drawn on the same page – unlike in traditional cel animation where characters are drawn separately and superimposed onto the background. It is a wonderfully immersive and suitably organic technique, emphasising the passion for the story in every exquisite and entertaining frame.

American Sniper

Director: Clint Eastwood (2015)

Astonishingly nominated for six Oscars and almost comical in feverish flag-waving patriotism, this celebration of a real-life cold-blooded killer is way off target.

Set during the Iraq war, it’s action scenes are directed by Eastwood at his most gun-lovingly, gung ho.

Rodeo-rider Kyle is a dim and unquestioning believer in the need to protect god, country and family.

In the backwoods as a boy his father taught him to shoot deer and be independent; to be a sheepdog not a wolf or a sheep.

As Kyle, the most successful sniper in US history, Bradley Cooper hides his charisma under a bushy beard and a beefed up physique. These are dog-whistles for nominations at the Academy during the awards season.

After the atrocity of 9/11 Kyle signs up for the navy SEALs. After a brief romance and some basic training (or possibly some basic romance and brief training) he’s off to Iraq where he kills women, children and other anonymous Iraqis while equally anonymous comrades fall.

Four lethal tours rush past in a cloud of dust and bullets. Kyle becomes a celebrity and is nick-named the ‘Legend’, though humbly, mumbly dismisses any uncomfortable hoopla.

Sienna Miller as home-alone wife Taya does her best in a role than demands she only be sexy, nagging or pregnant. Their long-distance phone calls are unpardonably ill-timed and unconvincing.

Two neither particularly interesting or formidable bad guys contribute to a ragged script structure with Kyle’s sights split between them.

One’s a driller-killer leather-clad maniac called The Butcher and the other a sniper called Mustafa.

He and Kyle engage in a long distance duel during which Kyle chooses to put his entire squad in danger. Though considering Kyle’s loose cannon approach and the amazing levels of military mis-management, it’s not much of a surprise.

Eastwood directs in his usual pared-down style, at 84 years old it’s doubtful he’ll be trying new tricks any time soon.

Working with a familiar crew, the editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach are multiple Oscar nominees – mostly for Eastwood pictures – and their work brings a solid dynamism.

We see Kyle suffer a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder and the film ends abruptly, just like the life of all the people he shot from a mile away.

If even the mafia’s Sonny Corleone (James Caan) questions the validity of your approach to killing, a little self-awareness might go a long way.

★★☆☆☆