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WHISPER OF THE HEART

Review by Ed Nguyen

English Voices: Brittany Snow, David Gallagher, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Cary Elwes
Director: Yoshifumi Kondo
Audio: Japanese or English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Disney
Features: Behind the Microphone featurette, trailers, storyboard feature
Length: 111 minutes
Release Date: March 7, 2006

"It would be nice to be with someone who felt the same way about you."

Film ****

The animated films of Studio Ghibli go against box office conventional wisdom.  In an era when computer-animated films are the current rage, Studio Ghibli steadfastly produces hand-drawn animated films in a tried-and-true traditional manner.  In place of flashy action sequences, snappy one-liners, and cookie-cutter "stories" by committee, the films of Studio Ghibli concentrate on character development and thoughtful narratives.  And in lieu of the purported box office drawing power of machismo protagonists, many Studio Ghibli films, particularly those by Hayao Miyazaki, feature inspiring young heroines.

Whisper of the Heart is a perfect example of the typical Studio Ghibli film.  Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, this film is a tender story of a school girl searching for her true vocation in life.  Whisper of the Heart is utterly devoid of guns, explosions, and deaths.  Instead, we have a young girl conversing with her friends, absorbing herself in books, and slowly discovering within herself the heart and soul of a future writer.  That's it, simply put.

Shizuku is our film's heroine, a young Japanese school girl preparing for her entrance exams.  Her performance on these all-important exams will determine the eventual high school in which she will be enrolled and from there her career path.  Shizuku is a good student, but she also finds time in her leisure to read, particularly fairy tales and poetry.  In fact, for her upcoming graduation, she has penned alternate lyrics to a popular tune, which she hopes to sing along with her friends.

But despite her seemingly confident and cheerful demeanor, Shizuku is unsure what she wishes to create of her life.  This hesitance makes Shizuku feel insecure, particularly when she sees how her older sister deals with life as a young, working adult and how her own mother has chosen to further her own career potential by taking additional university courses.

One day, Shizuku has a "meet-cute" encounter with a boy, Seiji.  He inadvertently embarrasses her, as young boys are wont to do to young girls, but once Shizuku overcomes her initial chagrin and her subsequent contempt for Seiji, she begins to realize that they actually have quite a lot in common.  Seiji, too, enjoys reading, although his true aspiration is to become a violin-maker.  Unlike Shizuku, Seiji has a definite plan to that effect, succeed or fail, even if it entails journeying abroad for additional schooling.  Until such a time, Seiji hones his craft patiently and meticulously in the basement of his grandfather's antique shop, a quaint boutique whose every marvelous souvenir, from a stately grandfather clock to a mysterious cat statue, possesses an intriguing and fascinating history.  Shizuku's increasingly regular visits to the shop and the fantastical stories she hears from Seiji's grandfather about the objects in his shop soon inspire her to develop her blossoming literary aspirations and to follow Seiji's example in discovering within herself the courage to believe in her own abilities.

Whisper of the Heart is part family drama and part romance.  Truthfully, save for a few daydream sequences in which Shizuku's creativity begins to flourish, Whisper of the Heart easily could have been made as a live-action film, such is the strength of its storyline.  This film offers a tantalizing glimpse into the lifestyle of a typical family surviving in the congested concrete jungles of Japan.  While some differences in societal expectations, culture, and even schooling may puzzle western audiences, Whisper of the Heart is a sweet, unpretentious film that succeeds because it addresses universal apprehensions in all of us - our insecurities, our innate fear that perhaps we are "not good enough," our reluctance to venture upon the road not traveled.  These themes are hardly typical ones for a mainstream animated film, but they are at the heart of this touching Studio Ghibli film.

Ultimately, Whisper of the Heart is a re-affirmation that humanity does not exist as separate individuals in a void, that sometimes we need the moral support and strength of others around us to help each of us achieve our true potential.  And that, truly, is what makes us all so very human.

Video ****

Whisper of the Heart is obviously not a flashy film, but nevertheless the transfer looks superb, with vivid colors, sharp details, and a generally pristine appearance.  Kudos to Disney for the high quality of their efforts on all their Studio Ghibli DVDs!

Audio ****

I think we could have done without the embarrassing new lyrics to John Denver's Country Road, but aside from that the film sounds just fine.  The film by default will use the English dub, but the original (and superior) Japanese audio track is also available. And yes, that is Olivia Newton-John on the soundtrack.

Features **

There are two discs in this release.  The first DVD opens with a promo for various Studio Ghibli films, a special edition DVD of The Little Mermaid, Pixar's Cars, and Chicken Little.  These can be viewed in the Sneak Peeks section, too, which also includes trailers for The Chronicles of Narnia and Airbuddies.  Ten minutes of trailers for Whisper of the Heart are available separately as well.

Elsewhere on this disc is Behind the Microphone (8 min.), a quick look at the principal English voice actors involved in the dubbing process.  Brittany Snow (voice of Shizuku) is cute and bubbly, while David Gallagher (voice of Seiji) comes across as somewhat cocky.

Disc Two is devoted entirely to a feature-length presentation of the film's storyboards.  This is a standard feature for Studio Ghibli films as released on Disney DVDs and offers an alternate way of viewing the entire film again, albeit in very rough form (but at least with a finished soundtrack). 

Summary:

Whisper of the Heart is one of Studio Ghibli's sweetest and most endearing animated films.  It is ideal for family viewing and even imparts some heartfelt messages about personal relationships, too.

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