“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”: Is Studio Ghibli getting spirited away?

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“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” has its Madison premiere on Friday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. at UW-Cinematheque screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. FREE! Not rated, 1:57, three stars out of four.

UW-Cinematheque will also show “The Wind Rises” on Saturday, Jan. 24 at 2 p.m. And the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1208 W. Dayton St., will show “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” on Saturday, Feb. 28 and Sunday, March 1.

Responsible for some of the most delightful and imaginative animated films in the last 50 years (“Spirited Away”, “Ponyo”) from his Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki has been called the “Japanese Walt Disney.”

I’ll bet he hates that.

With his shopkeeper’s apron, dangling cigarette and severe expression, Miyazaki is the antithesis of the glad-handing showman Disney. He’s a demanding artist with a wry, even cutting sense of humor, and when he looks back on his long career of beloved films, he seriously wonders if any of it amounted to much. “Filmmaking only brings suffering,” he sort of jokes to the camera.

“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” is a documentary that gives audiences the chance to go inside Studio Ghibli as Miyazaki is making his latest film, “The Wind Rises,” based on the life of his father. Meanwhile, we hear of (but rarely see) the studio’s other legendary animator, Isao Takahata (“Grave of the Fireflies”) is trying to finish his first film in ages, the lovely “Tale of the Princess Kaguya.”

It should be an era of celebration at Studio Ghibli, but there’s a quiet pall over the place, where hundreds of animators hunch over their desks like schoolchildren and hand-draw page after exquisite page of images. Both Miyazaki and Takahata are very old, and there’s a growing realization that they may both be working on their final films. And then, what’s left of Studio Ghibli?

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Director Mami Sunada takes a patient, fly-on-the-wall approach, watching as Miyazaki nudges “The Wind Rises” closer to completion, his animators and other film crew nervously laughing at his dry jokes and gentle rebukes. Some of “Dreams and Madness” plays like a standard DVD making-of featurette, but it’s so candid in showing us Miyazaki’s working life and frank assessment of his legacy that a poignancy can’t help but creep in.

We see board meetings and press conferences and recording sessions, and amid the familiar tedium of working life are some lovely moments. We see Miyazaki and his animators to do calisthenics at their desks, and climb up onto the roof to watch the sun set, the studio’s cat, sporting a Marilyn Monroe-style mark above its lip, lolling nearby.

The sunset is a familiar but vivid metaphor for Studio Ghibli’s uncertain future. It may well go on with a new generation of animators still committed to hand-drawn images in the age of computers. Or it may be the last glorious remnant of an art form whose time has come and gone.

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