By Brad Cook | March 18, 2010

My only Miyazaki experience before watching “Castle in the Sky,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Ponyo” was “Princess Mononoke,” a film I enjoyed over a decade ago but which has faded a bit in my memory. Hopefully Disney will go back to the well and start releasing more two-disc Special Editions of Miyazaki’s films, because all four lived up to the precedent set by “Mononoke.” The same went for my kids: when a two-year-old will sit in rapt attention for 100 minutes, you know you’re watching something special.

Of the four, I enjoyed “Castle in the Sky” the most — it’s more plot-driven than the others, which tend to get a bit squishy in the storytelling in favor of character building. “Ponyo,” Miyazaki’s latest, came in a close second; again, I tended to favor the well-oiled plot mechanics. That’s not to say I thought “Kiki” and “Totoro” were poor films, of course: they’re just as wonderfully imaginative as the others, but their plots tended to take a back seat to the characters. I would rank “Totoro” third, simply because I can relate to the family issues it explores and I was attracted to its Japanese mysticism.

Now I find myself wondering why I didn’t get around to watching more of Miyazaki’s films after seeing “Mononoke.” It’s a shame he doesn’t have a wider audience in the US: “Ponyo” earned a miserable $15 million here in 2009, compared to $185 million elsewhere. Even after seeing just half of his output, it’s obvious that the only rival for Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli is John Lasseter and Pixar.

Speaking of which, Lasseter pops in to introduce all of the films except “Ponyo” (although he does appear in a conversation with Miyazaki on that DVD), offering his thoughts on why he loves them so much. Miyazaki veterans may find themselves muttering “Yeah, yeah, get on with it, already,” but hopefully Lasseter’s presence will help garner these films a wider audience. All four DVDs also serve up the obligatory Disney trailers, including one for this summer’s “Toy Story 3;” it looks like a fun film, but it will be tough for Pixar to top the first two “Toy Story” entries. I hope they continue to take the roads less traveled, rather than relying more and more on sequels.

Moving on, each Miyazaki film also includes a series of featurettes that follow the same basic format: a few minutes on creating the film, a brief character discussion, a couple minutes of thoughts from the producer, a little bit of time with the voice-over actors from the English version, and so forth. There are a couple exceptions, such as the 28-minute locations piece on the “Totoro” disc, but most of them are in the five-minute range, which barely gives the subject matter much time to develop.

Personally, I’m not a fan of DVD supplements structured that way; I prefer one large making-of, rather than bouncing back to the main menu every few minutes. I’ve read that some lengthy, in-depth Miyazaki documentaries have been released in Japan — I wish Disney would have been more generous in using that material, rather than bits and pieces from them.

If you’re curious, yes, the “Behind the Microphone” featurettes for the older movies were created for their theatrical releases, so, for example, we get to hear from 13-year-old Kirsten Dunst and Phil Hartman, who recorded his thoughts just months before his tragic death. It’s nice to hear again from such a great actor, as well as see an actress while her career was in its early stages.

In addition, each DVD includes the original Japanese storyboards as well as a supplement called “Enter the Lands,” which lets you choose from any of the four films and learn about its characters. None of the content offers anything new if you’ve watched the movie, although I suppose little kids might get a kick out of it, especially the multiple-choice questions in “Totoro” that match answers with characters the respondent is most similar to.

“Enter the Lands” presents a map with all of Miyazaki’s movies represented, although only four of them are clickable. That’s the strongest evidence that more Miyazaki Special Editions are likely in the works.

The bottom line: great movies, but only so-so bonus features. If you already have the three older movies on DVD, you may not feel terribly interested in upgrading your discs.

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