As I write this, Isao Takahata’s The Tale of The Princess Kaguya has a perfect approval rating among film critics on the aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t exactly fault this, since Princess Kaguya has, on no level, any gaping weaknesses. At the very least, its beautiful hand-drawn visual style — which makes excellent use of watercolor and is never too busy — makes the film worth a look by itself. But that being said, besides the look of the movie, I just can’t find that much to get excited about. It’s classy, mature and austere — the exact kind of thing Studio Ghibli excels in — but there’s nothing in the film that astonishes or generates awe.
Fans of Studio Ghibli and anime in general (the latter rarely appeals to my own personal tastes, unfortunately) will likely get more mileage out of the film than I did — assuming they have the patience for it. Though I said earlier that Princess Kaguya has no glaring flaws, it does have a testy issue, that of its running time. At 137 minutes, the film’s just too damn long, especially for a movie that’s both incredibly reserved and languidly paced (to be honest, it actually feels longer than it is) — and with such a simple plot.
The storyline is based on the 1,100-year-old Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. From what I can tell, the film is quite faithful to the traditional version, where a simple bamboo cutter (James Caan) finds a glowing bamboo sprout in the woods, and inside that, a tiny girl. After bringing her home to his wife (Mary Steenburgen), the girl immediately begins to grow, soon becoming a young woman (Chloë Grace Moretz), whom the couple quickly decides to raise as a princess — despite her yearning for a simple life in the country.
The film takes some asides from here — as the young princess is trained to become a lady and is later set upon by suitors — and finally ends after taking a total left turn that only works because of the fairy-tale nature of its source material. There are some concerns at play here — like the consequences of weighty expectations parents place on their children — but they don’t really flesh the film out all that much. And anyone familiar with fables and folktales will have an idea what lessons Princess Kaguya wants to dole out. What this creates is a simple, quiet movie that’s easy on the eyes but definitely requires a good bit of audience patience. Rated PG for thematic elements, some violent action and partial nudity.