Akin to this year’s Academy Award-winning animated film “Spirited Away”, “Princess Arete” concerns the adventures of a particularly resourceful and imaginative little girl. While Miyazaki’s film was unquestionably a masterpiece, “Arete” is simply passable. An adaptation of the fable known as The Clever Princess, the film is set in a magical European kingdom during the Middle Ages. Princess Arete has been “imprisoned” by her father, the king, in the highest tower of the castle with nothing but her books and the incredible view to stir her imagination. She is to remain there until the day when the right suitor wins her father’s favor and her hand in marriage. To even compete for this honor, the many suitors must bring back exotic treasures from foreign lands. The princess, however, is thoroughly unimpressed by their efforts when they return and sees straight through their naked ambition. She dutifully dismisses one after the other until a powerful wizard named Boax appears one day and puts a spell on her, apparently “curing” young Arete of her pesky “cleverness”. The wizard’s spell renders the princess docile and submissive, “the way a princess should be”, proclaim the men of the court. The king is so awed by Boax’s “taming” of his daughter that he allows him to take her as his own. Upon arriving back at his lair, Boax foresees his fate at the hands of his new bride and immediately imprisons her in the dungeon. Her imagination stifled and her resolve broken, Arete simply wallows away in the maddening tedium of the hours. When a servant named Ample suggests to the princess that she create stories to pass the time, Arete’s mind reels and the spell is broken.
There’s much more to this story (involving a magical ring, a dried-up little town forced into an unholy alliance with the evil wizard, and a giant golden eagle) than I’ve included here, but I think you get the idea. Clearly, this tale is meant as a sort of feminist fantasy: a young girl’s life is dictated by the social norms of the day. This girl is to be holed up in her home until a dashing nobleman swoops in and rescues her. When said girl rejects this chivalric notion and yearns for simply living her own life, she is forced to marry an evil man, who suffocates her very spirit. This evil man imprisons her in his home, ostensibly in mockery of her former imprisonment, taunting: Where is your savior prince now? Yet the girl’s inner strength and creativity eventually overcome her wicked husband/captor. What the girl does with this newfound freedom is crucial and at the heart of this film… a notion that is all well and good, except that the film often moves at a snail’s pace. There are long, long stretches where really nothing happens to advance the story. Okay, chalk it up to the “passage of time”, but aren’t there better ways to do so without literally… passing the time? And the stiff and uninspired animation doesn’t help matters either. There’s very little to marvel at in this film. The tableaus are mostly dark and dingy, at least to this critic’s eye. Director Sunao Katabuchi, previously an assistant director on Miyazaki’s charming “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, fails to inject this story with a sorely needed sense of magic. In the end, “Princess Arete” is a moderately sweet fantasy, played straight and by the book. If you’re looking to be transported to truly magical realms beyond your imagination, look elsewhere.