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2002 - Theatrical Anime in Review

by Mike Crandol,
2002 saw Anime continue to make steady inroads into mainstream American culture, and nowhere was this more evident than at the movies. American toons like The Powerpuff Girls Movie and Lilo & Stitch showed a strong anime influence, big Hollywood studios announced plans for live-action remakes of Akira, Dragon Ball Z and Ninja Scroll, and Robin Williams even gave a shout-out to Evangelion in One Hour Photo. And of course there were several top-quality anime films in theaters as well, among them the single best-reviewed picture of the year.

January brought Bandai's release of the theatrical version of Escaflowne. Produced by Bones, the studio founded by veterans from Sunrise's Escaflowne and Cowboy Bebop television series, the Escaflowne movie retells a condensed version of the beloved TV show with souped-up animation and a darker edge. While some fans were disappointed by changes and/or omissions of character, the film's breathtaking visuals and beautiful music (courtesy of Yoko Kanno) won praise from moviegoers and critics alike. It did respectable business in limited release but quickly faded from the public eye.

Metropolis, released the same day as Escaflowne, made a bigger impression. Based on an early manga by Osamu Tezuka, adapted by Akira's Katsuhiro Otomo and directed by Madhouse's Rin Taro, Metropolis tells the story of a little android lost in a sprawling futuristic city. The characters were animated using traditional techniques but the backgrounds were almost entirely CG, giving the film a unique look and making it one of the most innovative anime productions of recent years. This was also the first anime offering from Columbia Tristar's newly formed Destination Films, another indication that Hollywood is finally beginning to sit up and notice Japanese animation.

The critics noticed Metropolis, too; Roger Ebert gave it his highest possible rating, and Good Morning America's Joel Siegel likened it to fine art. Though it opened on a mere nine screens the movie made $100,000 dollars on its opening weekend. The film performed so well in fact Destination Films delayed its DVD release for over a month so that it could continue to play theatrically, and for a brief while it was the highest grossing limited-release anime in American cinema history.

It was dethroned several months later by Disney's release of Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. An international sensation, Spirited Away had outgrossed Titanic in Japan and won the illustrious Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival…a first for an animated film. Disney was reluctant to handle more Miyazaki after 1999's disappointing box office for Princess Mononoke, but Spirited Away's more child-friendly tone coupled with its thundering overseas business made it impossible to ignore.

John Lasseter, Pixar Animation Studio's genius behind the Toy Story films and a personal friend of Miyazaki, supervised the American release, and Beauty and the Beast's Kirk Wise directed the English dub. In an unprecedented move, Miyazaki actually gave Lasseter permission to edit the film if he thought it would help its chances of succeeding in America. In the end Lasseter chose not to trim a single frame, and in September Spirited Away opened uncut to rave reviews. The film did brisk business and quickly surpassed Metropolis's take at the box office, leaving many to speculate how well it might have done in wide release. It has since won numerous critics awards, and even with all the great films that came out in 2002 Spirited Away remains the most highly praised movie of the year.

Ironically enough the only anime bomb to hit the multiplexes this past year was Pokémon 4Ever, which debuted on almost twice as many screens as Spirited Away. The first Pokémon movie grossed $86 million in 1999 and is far and away the All-Time Anime Box Office Champ, but by 2002 the franchise's former legions of schoolyard fans had apparently taken a greater interest in Yu-Gi-Oh!, or simply no longer cared. Warner Bros. sensed the change in the wind and declined to release the 4th Pokémon installment, leaving it to Miramax to distribute the film, which premiered in October and failed to top $2 million in ticket sales. Parents and hardcore anime fans everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief: "Pokémon: The First Movie" may have been an unwelcome promise, but "Pokémon 4Ever" was an empty threat.

Wrapping up the year were a couple of sneak-peeks at good things to come. Following their successful release of Metropolis Destination Films plans to unveil the highly-anticipated Cowboy Bebop movie in 2003. Folks at the Big Apple Anime Fest over Labor Day weekend were treated to a special showing of the English-dubbed version attended by Director Shinichiro Watanabe and Composer Yoko Kanno. Fears that Columbia Tristar would be insensitive to the fan community were allayed as it was revealed that every single voice artist from Bandai's celebrated dub of the television series had been retained for the theatrical version, down to the three old men who perpetually lurk in the background of the Bebop universe.

Also showing up at various film festivals was Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress, in which the director of Perfect Blue uses his groundbreaking story techniques to recount 75 years in the life of a fictional Japanese actress. Again a major Hollywood studio showed an interest, and DreamWorks SKG licensed Millennium Actress for American distribution. To date no details have been announced, but DreamWorks has previously shown faith in unconventional animated projects, and a wide release has not been ruled out.

Of these films, only Miyazaki's Spirited Away was deemed eligible to compete for this year's Best Animated Feature Academy Award. Metropolis's sneak previews in late 2001 voided its Oscar chances, and the same fate will likely befall Cowboy Bebop and Millennium Actress next year. Though the final nominations have yet to be determined, Spirited Away is practically a shoe-in. The final race is not so easy to call; there is some tough competition from Disney's excellent Lilo & Stitch. Even many anime fans have professed to prefer the latter film, yet the Academy may not want to pass up this chance to honor one of animation's most legendary filmmakers.

If Anime is ever going to take home Oscar, this will be the year.

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