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13 Crowning Facts About Princess Mononoke

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Princess Mononoke sounds like a charming foreign family film. And that would be a fair assumption, if you were going off director Hayao Miyazaki’s previous hits like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro. But Princess Mononoke was neither cuddly nor innocent. The movie’s violent tale of Ashitaka, an exiled prince trying to keep the peace between warring animals and humans, was a stark departure from Miyazaki’s previous work. It was also his most commercially and critically successful movie to date when it opened in 1997.

The film’s phenomenal profits in Japan helped carry it over to America, where Miyazaki was known only among hardcore animation geeks. Today he enjoys a more established international reputation, and it’s all largely thanks to Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, which was released four years later. To celebrate the film's 20th anniversary, discover the movie’s unlikely inspirations and secret leprosy subplots with these 13 fascinating facts.

1. HAYAO MIYAZAKI PLANNED TO RETIRE AFTER IT WAS DONE.  

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Before he even began work on Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki was a little burnt out. Production on his previous movie, Porco Rosso, had been difficult and he was not satisfied with the results. Princess Mononoke wound up being a three-year commitment, so after it was complete, he announced his intention to retire. But it didn’t stick. He returned with one of his most widely praised movies, Spirited Away, in 2001 and made another four movies after that. In fact, all Miyazaki really did with this declaration was establish the first in a long-running series of retirement fake-outs. He ended his latest “retirement” late last year.

2. HE CHANNELED HIS ANGER OVER THE YUGOSLAV WARS INTO THE MOVIE.

The bloody break-up of Yugoslavia had begun while Miyazaki was making Porco Rosso, and it stuck with him as he started work on his next film. “The war happened ... and I learned that mankind doesn’t learn,” he told Empire Magazine. “After that, we couldn’t go back and make some film like Kiki’s Delivery Service. It felt like children were being born to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we’re happy?” He instead decided to take a risk and introduce kids to Ashitaka's combat-driven world.

3. HE WAS INSPIRED BY JOHN FORD WESTERNS.

The movie’s production notes reveal that Miyazaki wanted his frontier community of Tatara Ba (or “Iron Town”) to look like it “could be at the edge of any wilderness” in the world. So he turned to one of his favorite directors: John Ford. Miyazaki used classic Ford westerns like My Darling Clementine to inform the look and feel of Tatara Ba, a town full of “characters from outcast groups and oppressed minorities who rarely, if ever, appear in Japanese films.”

4. THE MOVIE WAS ONLY 10 PERCENT COMPUTER GENERATED.

Despite the success of Toy Story in 1995, Miyazaki remained wary of computer-generated animation. “Computers are really just an electronic pen or pencil, and I like regular pencils better,” the director told Hollywood.com. As a result, just 10 percent of Princess Mononoke is CGI. The vast majority of the movie is comprised of hand-drawn cels—about 144,000 of them.

5. IT BROKE BOX OFFICE RECORDS IN JAPAN.

When Princess Mononoke hit theaters, E.T. had been the reigning champion of the Japanese box office for more than a decade. But Miyazaki’s animated epic set a new record with its 18.25 billion yen, or about $134 million, haul. Unfortunately, the movie didn’t stay on the throne for long. Titanic arrived mere months later and reset the bar yet again with 18.35 billion yen ($135 million).

6. IT WAS THE FIRST ANIMATED MOVIE TO WIN BEST PICTURE AT THE JAPANESE OSCARS.

Princess Mononoke didn’t just break commercial records. In 1998, it became the first animated film to be nominated for and win the top prize at the Japanese Academy Awards. (Miyazaki claimed this award again four years later for Spirited Away.) This is a milestone the U.S. Academy Awards have yet to achieve—and they’ve been around much longer. The Japanese Academy Awards began in 1978 as opposed to the Oscars, which started in 1929.

7. NEIL GAIMAN TWEAKED THE SCRIPT FOR AMERICAN AUDIENCES.

After Miramax picked up the movie for U.S. distribution, the studio hired British fantasy writer Neil Gaiman to adapt the script for English-speaking audiences. Gaiman had to add dialogue explaining Japanese cultural references that likely wouldn’t register with audiences, such as the significance of Ashitaka cutting his hair. He also altered characters so they translated better abroad. For instance, in the original Japanese script, Jigo complains that a bowl of soup tastes like “water,” which is a cutting insult in Japan. That’s hardly a burn by American standards, though, so Gaiman made it “donkey piss.” Finally, he swapped out words that were difficult to translate—although he insisted he wasn’t the one who changed “sake” to “wine.”

8. THE STUDIO WANTED QUENTIN TARANTINO TO ADAPT IT.

JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images

Miramax head Harvey Weinstein originally asked Quentin Tarantino to take a stab at adapting the script, but the director passed on the offer and recommended Gaiman instead. Why? Apparently Tarantino’s mom is a massive Gaiman fan.

9. MIYAZAKI SENT HARVEY WEINSTEIN DEMANDS VIA SAMURAI SWORD.

Weinstein wanted to seriously scale back Princess Mononoke’s 134-minute running time for the U.S. release, but Miyazaki didn’t want a single frame altered. So, the legend goes, Miyazaki sent a samurai sword to Weinstein’s office with a two-word message: “No cuts.” The story is mostly correct, except for one key detail. “Actually, my producer did that,” Miyazaki said in an interview with The Guardian. “I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein, and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts. I defeated him.”

10. PIXAR'S JOHN LASSETER WAS AN ENORMOUS FAN.

When Miramax began marketing its English-language version of Princess Mononoke, they called on a number of big names to sell the movie and its director to American audiences. The star-studded voice cast—which included Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson, and Jada Pinkett Smith—was one component. But Pixar’s emerging wunderkind John Lasseter was another. The director of Toy Story heaped praise on Miyazaki, saying that “throughout my career, I have been inspired by Japanese animation, but without question, I have been most inspired by the films of Hayao Miyazaki." He continued, “At Pixar, when we have a problem and can not solve it, we often watch a copy of one of Mr. Miyazaki’s films for inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired.” Lasseter also recorded an introduction for the movie on TCM and later presented Miyazaki with an honorary Oscar in 2014 (above).

11. IT WAS ADAPTED INTO A STAGE PLAY.

Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli apparently received numerous requests from theater groups around the world begging for permission to adapt Princess Mononoke for the stage. All of them were denied, until the UK troupe Whole Hog Theatre approached. Its version was deemed weird enough by Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, who approved the pitch. Whole Hog Theatre sold out its limited run of Princess Mononoke in 72 hours, a full nine months before the show even opened. The production migrated to Tokyo the following year, where it played to even larger crowds.

12. IT INSPIRED A CANADIAN MUSIC VIDEO.

The Canadian indie rock band You Say Party paid homage to several Miyazaki films in its music video for “Underside.” But Princess Mononoke got perhaps the biggest shout-out due to the location. Jeremy Rubier shot the video on Yakushima, an island famous for its ancient forests. It also directly inspired the woodland setting for Princess Mononoke. See if you can spy the similarities—or any stray kodama—in the video.

13. THE MOVIE IS SECRETLY ABOUT LEPROSY.

Princess Mononoke fans have long touted a theory about the workers in Iron Town. When Ashitaka first meets them, they explain that they fled brothels for the Iron Town factory, because it’s one of the few places where they are accepted. Several are covered from head to toe in bandages. Although the Japanese script says they suffer from “gyobyo” or “an incurable disease,” the fan theory claims they’re actually afflicted with leprosy. Miyazaki finally responded to this idea in January. And his verdict? It’s all true.

Ahead of World Leprosy Day, the director confirmed that the disease and how people live with it were his inspiration. “While making Princess Mononoke, I thought I had to depict people who are ill with what’s clearly an incurable disease, but who are living as best they can,” he explained. He apparently even visited a sanatorium in Tokyo to talk with patients about their experiences.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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