Reviewby Theron Martin,
Horus: Prince of the Sun (Little Norse Prince)
Horus has been living an isolated life with his father for a while, before his dad's dying words reveal that Horus is actually from a village destroyed by the devil Grunnwald. Horus takes up his father's request to seek out that village and defeat Grunnwald, but after a harrowing encounter with the devil, he winds up in a fishing village instead. After helping the village wrangle a monstrous pike, he encounters Hilda, a girl with a beautiful singing voice who claims to be the only survivor of a village destroyed by Grunnwald. But Hilda is more than she appears, and the village's problems are only beginning. To defeat Grunnwald, Horus will have to reforge the Sword of the Sun, which he pulled from the rock creature, but he soon discovers that this is a task he can't conquer alone.
Also known in English as Little Norse Prince Valiant, this 1968 movie holds a place in anime history for two important reasons. It marks the directorial debut of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata and his first collaboration with Hayao Miyazaki, who is credited with concept art, scene design, and key animation on the project. Though it was initially regarded as a flop, so much so that Takahata never directed for Toei again, the movie quickly gained a cult following and earned long-term notoriety.
In some respects, the movie can be seen as a transition point between early Disney-influenced Japanese animation and the more distinctive styles that define anime today. To be sure, the movie still shows a lot of Western sensibilities in all production aspects – artistry, animation, music, and even storytelling – but certain aspects of it also have a harder edge than what you would typically see in the West, and the nascent stages of the template for shonen action heroes can be seen in Horus. Much of the credit for this doubtlessly goes to a young and ambitious production crew (Takahata was only 30 when pre-production started) who were perhaps more prone to experiment.
Unfortunately, some combination of that youth and experimentation also contributed to the movie's great difficulties staying on schedule and budget, which resulted in the runtime being reduced by a quarter of the original plan with choppy scene transitions and minor story jumps. Takahata's inexperience as a director at the time may have contributed to this, but an even bigger sign of production woes comes midway through the movie where a couple of minutes aren't animated at all, just a collection of panned stills. This stands out even more because most of the film's animation is remarkably fluid, giving a frenetic flow to action scenes that's reminiscent of early Disney works. (The movie set a Japanese record for the most cels used on a single animation project to that point, at around 150,000.) You just don't see action animated this way in recent decades, even in top-tier projects. The character and critter designs lean more toward the simpler designs typical of kiddie fare, though one scene showing a village girl in her elaborate bridal dress is still a visual spectacle.
The story being told isn't so much a coming-of-age story as it is about a boy growing into his heroic destiny and coping with a life that has left him scarred on the inside. Horus never hesitates to act, but he also acts impulsively and obsessively. Even with his various nuances, he seems simple compared to Hilda, who was a groundbreaking character for the complexity of her inner turmoil. She's embittered about being isolated by the loss of her village and trapped into a role due to her heritage, which requires her to do some things that she'd rather not. Her internal conflict manifests in the contrast between her captivating singing voice and the rather dark lyrics to her songs. No other characters in the story have much characterization, much less come close to the level of the leads; the only other notable characters are Hilda's talking squirrel companion, who represents the “good angel” of her conscience, and the conniving assistant to the village leader (think Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings, though the character is actually meant to reference one from the Russian film Alexander Nevsky).
The plot covers the travails typical of a family-friendly adventure story: battles against wolves and rat swarms, interactions with supernatural creatures, standout village festivals, coming together to defeat a common foe, and so forth. At times, scenes take on a somewhat darker tone though, and additional meaning can be read into the story given the context in which it was made; some scenes and characters take on interesting undertones given parallels to the Vietnam War, and other scenes may represent aspects of the bitter unionization struggle that animators were waging with Studio Toei at the time.
Contrarily, the musical score is far less layered. The orchestrated music embodies the cinematic sound of the era, but not in an innovative or exciting way; it's quite pedestrian in execution, easily the movie's weakest technical point beyond the scene of unfinished animation. The score also contains several insert songs, with lively village celebration numbers and Hilda's more melancholy songs.
The original Japanese dub for the movie is performed in a more theatrical style that was typical for the time but doesn't match well with modern standards, making it sound relatively weak. The English dub, which only uses four different voice actors, isn't any better. It does makes a reasonable attempt at dubbing some of the songs into English but entirely skips dubbing a couple others, which results in only background music playing during two insert songs. It also renames some of the minor supporting characters and changes line meaning a bit in places.
The movie has been available streaming on Hulu and Netflix for a while now and got released on DVD in 2014, but this offering from Discotek Media marks its release on Blu-Ray. Some degree of restoration must have been done at some point, as the picture quality and color saturation look amazingly crisp for an animated movie that's nearly 50 years old. The horde of extras included in the release are an exact replication of the DVD release, including an art gallery and theatrical trailers, video and print interviews with Takahata, a video interview with character designer Yōichi Kotabe, separate audio commentaries by ANN's own Mike Toole and writer Daniel Thomas MacInnes, and a print tribute to key animator Reiko Okuyama (a pioneering female animator). The most interesting inclusions are a pair of informative print examinations of various allusions and references raised by the movie, including a list of places where elements from the movie were used in later Miyazaki and Takahata productions.
Overall, Horus - Prince of the Sun is well worth a look by animation fans of any stripe. It can be taken straight-up as a family-friendly work of nostalgia just as well as it can be examined as commentary on its time. This is definitely the release you want if you passed on picking it up in DVD form or just want to double-dip for the step up in quality.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : B-
Music : C
+ Fluid and exciting action animation, ground-breaking heroine, more layered in meaning than it appears
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