Whisper of the Heart Review: Stunning, fun, and emotional, but just short of a Ghibli masterpiece
Studio Ghibli has crafted some of the most imaginative, magical worlds filled with colorful characters and fantastical adventure and that’s why when they create a film that’s set in a more grounded world and focuses on average characters, it’s actually pretty special. Films like Grave of the Fireflies and The Wind Rises have magical elements to them, but the overall atmosphere of the film is much more real and is less so about characters battling against magical forces or traveling through whimsical world, but rather about characters dealing with the real world around them and their internal struggles. That’s why when I saw that Whisper of the Heart was on this year’s list for Studio Ghibli Fest, I was intrigued to see why many Ghibli fans highly regard the film. Many see the film as one of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s best and it even garnered a spin-off film, The Cat Returns, that’s also pretty highly regarded, even if wasn’t necessarily by me.
After seeing the film now, I can definitely understand how this film has left such a strong impact on fans and even the world of animation, but I also just find the film to be, well, strange. Not necessarily in a bad way or anything like that, but Whispers of the Heart just doesn’t have that tight story or the strong sense of focus with all its characters to be a strong showing for Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Frankly, when the film ended, I wasn’t even sure if I liked it. However, with more time to ponder on the film’s impact and the issues I had with it, I’ve come to appreciate what the film attempts to do and its impact on animation. Thus, it’s time to delve into my thoughts on this Ghibli classic and see why it didn’t fully land for me.
Based on a manga of the same name, the film follows a young teen named Shizuku (voiced by Brittany Snow), who is a true bookworm and intrigued that all of the previous books she has taken from her library have also been taken by another boy. As she searches for who this boy is, Shizuku struggles to help her friend Yuko (voiced by Ashley Tisdale) get the attention of the boy she likes and to understand what she sees for her future. However, things change after a chance meeting a young violin maker Seiji (voiced by David Gallagher) and Shizuku sees a statue called The Baron (voiced by Cary Elwes) that inspires her to write a fantasy story. From here, Shizuku begins to learn more about herself, love, and have an adventure that will surely change her future.
One of the things that made Whisper of the Heart kind of a head-scratching watch was that it’s incredibly unfocused. There’s so much going on at times and so many story threads that I eventually questioned what the movie was really about. Things like Shinzuku helping Yuko get her crush’s attention and her writing Whisper of the Heart seem like big plot threads at first, but don’t have a strong resolution. Even Shinzuku attempting to write her own version the John Denver classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads” feels like it’s going to be a strong part of her journey, but it only manages to be mentioned from time to time. In the moment, these threads are great and round out the film’s main plot of Shinzuku and Seiji’s love story, but the film focuses on these other story points too much and doesn’t give them the resolution you would think that they get.
Honestly, I actually wished they focused more on Shinzuku and Sheiji’s relationship as it’s one of the strongest parts of the film. There’s a lot of great chemistry between them and the scene with them singing Shinzuku’s version of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is easily the strongest of the film. It’s interesting to see Shinzuku’s growing affections for him and these two are made better through the excellent voice acting from Snow and Gallagher. Not to mention, their confident, mature, and caring personalities are a true Ghibli staple and I think that Miyazaki is at his best here in terms of creating compelling and engaging characters. Even the moments where Shinzuku finds her desire to be a writer and questions her future reflect this attitude, and lets viewers delve deeper into her as a character. There’re also some great comedic moments that comes from their classmates and adds some sweet coming-of-age moments that never get old. However, what sort of soils all of the great building Miyazaki does here is lost due to the incredibly abrupt ending. I don’t know if it’s because of the way Miyazaki wrote or the direction from Yoshifumi Kondo, the first director to direct a Ghibli film that isn’t Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, but it’s almost shocking how abrupt and unsatisfying it is. I can see what Miyazaki was going for with having Shinzuku and Sheiji actually committing to their future together, but I think that Sheiji needed to be in the film more for this to work so that his reactions in the film’s final moments didn’t come off as strange and rushed.
The one thing that was consistently excellent throughout Whisper of the Heart, though, was the multi-layered animation that create a living, breathing world. At my screening, there was actually an opening monologue from Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe, where she discussed how the film was incredibly impactful to her as an animator and the world of animation and, after seeing the film, I can see why. The animation is absolutely stunning and the use of having things move in the foreground and background creates a fully living world that viewers can get invested into. Even the sequence with Shinzuku and The Baron is truly magical, even for how short it is, and is made better through a solid performance from Elwes. I’ll also say that The Baron’s design is simple and eye-catching, just like most of the animation here, and there’s plenty of intriguing mystery surrounding the statue that I can see why there’s was a spin-off film surrounding him.
Whisper of the Heart has plenty of the simplistic Miyazaki magic that plenty of his other films have, but is just missing the mark of have a tight story that draws viewers in. The film has plenty of great, isolated moments and amazing animation that make it more than worth the watch, but it’s lack of focus and satisfying resolution leaves it just short of being another Ghibli masterpiece to me.