IT CAME FROM HULU! (Or Netflix): The Princess and the Pilot

This new column of mine seeks to search the buried masses of the various streaming sites for treasures of the deep ...and sometimes finding sea bass, to put it in Animal Crossing terms.

First up, we have The Princess and the Pilot. About six years ago, Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii made the film The Sky Crawlers. Even with immense detail work and some stunning aerial action sequences, the movie itself was a ponderous, deliberately paced, and sullen look at the quiet desperation of human existence and many other allegorical things that excite essay writers. It's one of my favorite movies, but I do understand I risk getting punched in the throat if I would recommend it to a general audience, especially given the VERY misleading English trailer that suggests a venture more similar to Top Gun.
Let's say you would like an aerial adventure that's both quality and crowd pleasing, and I would like to keep my windpipe intact. Enter 2011's The Princess and the Pilot, a movie based on a light novel by Koroku Inamura. It came to American shores last year, and while NIS America did release a nifty box set, it's currently available on Hulu for the price of a few commercials.

You'll have to bear with me a little bit because the movie has a very stock setup. The country of Levamme is involved in an air war with the nation of Amatsukami. In the midsts of the conflict, Prince Carlo of Levamme arranges a marriage between himself and Lady Juana del Moral, the daughter of a well-to-do family in the island city of San Maltilia at the edge of the country's border. Struck by Juana's beauty, Prince Carlo promises to end the war within a year so she can be whisked away to the capital to become princess.

A year passes, and not only is the war still raging on, but Lavamme is losing thanks to the superior technology of Amatsukami's Shinden aircraft. After an air raid attempts to assassinate Lady Juana and kills her father instead, a secret plan is initiated to transport Juana 12,000 kilometers to the mainland so she can be married and the morale of a crumbling nation can be restored.

While the entire fleet of San Maltilia distracts Amatsukami's air force on a suicide mission, a woefully ill-equipped hydro-powered reconnaissance plane called the Santa Cruz is assigned to escort the future princess stealthily on a three-day journey through the war zone. Assigned as the escort is Charles Karino, a half-breed of the two nations and considered next to vermin in their caste system. Spending years working his way from a janitor to a first-class mercenary pilot, Charles is begrudgingly acknowledged by his superiors as the best person for the job even as he's insulted as a rat and a thief. Lady Juana's matched luggage in tow, the Santa Cruz sets off on its fool's hope of a journey with only the future princess to act as lookout and gunner.

I think most of you can probably discern where 75% of this movie is going. The line about the matched luggage probably brings to mind the movie Spaceballs with the lowly Lone Starr and Princess Vespa arguing over an oversized hair dryer in the desert. That isn't this movie at all (First and foremost, it's not a parody). What makes most of the difference between a generic action/adventure and The Princess and the Pilot is that rather than being carved out of archetypes, the characters here are reasonable adults trying to find their way out of a nearly impossible situation.

Prince Carlos would normally be painted as an over-privilidged buffoon in most works, but here, he's a decent fellow who is so genuinely awestruck in his first meeting with Juana that the aspect of additional wealth just seems like a bonus to him. His only major flaw is he isn't a particularly decent military mind. Charles doesn't have a chip on his shoulder from being belittled and battered his entire life, but instead endures whatever he must be able to fly, the only true freedom of his life. Juana is quiet and sheltered, but is adaptable, understanding, and when properly taught, an effective co-pilot.

The main duo are admirable, sympathetic, and most of all, human, which are all the right ingredients for a movie that rises or falls on the audience being invested in their survival. Rather than playing up its action beats, it is more of a cat-and-mouse game since the plane itself is pretty much a sitting duck if it's caught. If the characters were more standard issue, their mistakes, lapses of attention, or conflict with each other might feel artificial and deflate the suspense with contrivances.

The movie is helmed by Jun Shishido, a relative unknown in the anime business. While he has directed a couple seasons of Hajime no Ippo and that's nothing to sneeze at, his career has been more focused on storyboarding and sitting in to direct a few episodes of an anime here and there. In his first feature film, he has a solid confidence that shows definite skill and promise. Making a great entertainment can be just as difficult as high art, and Shishido finds almost the right balance in moving the story along, keeping the generally same setting looking fresh and striking, and reeling in the characters to just the right emotional level. Having Mamoru Hosoda's screenwriter Satoko Okudera (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars) building a strong foundation doesn't hurt, either.

With features like Paprika and Redline under its belt, this movie is not Studio Madhouse's most accomplished animation, but it's more than up to theatrical standards. The character designs are detailed without being outrageous and are animated well even with a few cut corners. In comparison to The Sky Crawlers, the flying portions of the movie are less detailed, but they deliver the same realistic and satisfying movement just the same. What makes up for most of its shortcomings is the gorgeous setting with tropical archipelagos dotting a shimmering ocean tinted by dense rainfall, vibrant sunsets, and everything in-between.

If there's one nagging flaw, it's a plot point that stumbles out early on, but the movie drags its feet in dealing with it. Charles and Juana knew each as children, and instead of recognizing each other immediately, it takes until over halfway into the movie's running length for them acknowledge each other's past when there have more pressing matters to be concerned with. It's also in this moment where Charles and Juana decide to have an argumentative conversation about the difference in class the movie's been carefully avoiding the entire time. The scene has a very important character point that pays off later, but it also has extra baggage the movie should've dumped with the princess' luggage on the first day of the journey.

The biggest problem with explaining movies that are more than the sum of their parts is I have to tell you why it's so worthwhile while still being fair to its flaws. Despite The Princess and the Pilot being made out of pieces you've seen before, the pieces are finely tuned into a work that is not only enjoyable, but memorable. What I've neglected to mention is the movie's ending, which is both beautiful and resonant enough to not only leave a crowd satisfied, but wanting to see it again. While I wouldn't dream of spoiling it, I will say it reminded me of something from Wall-E, and anything that garners positive comparisons to that is more than pulling its weight.

The Princess and the Pilot can be watched here for US audiences.


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