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.

10 Sweet Facts About Napoleon Dynamite

© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox
© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

ChapStick, llamas, and tater tots are just a few things that appear in Napoleon Dynamite, a cult film shot for a mere $400,000 that went on to gross $44.5 million. In 2002, Brigham Young University film student Jared Hess filmed a black-and-white short, Peluca, with his classmate Jon Heder. The film got accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival, which gave Hess the courage to adapt it into a feature. Hess used his real-life upbringing in Preston, Idaho—he had six brothers and his mom owned llamas—to form the basis of the movie, about a nerdy teenager named Napoleon (Heder) who encourages his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) to run for class president.

In 2004, the indie film screened at Sundance, and was quickly purchased by Fox Searchlight and Paramount, then released less than six months later. Today, the film remains so popular that in 2016 Pedro and Napoleon reunited for a cheesy tots Burger King commercial. To celebrated the film's 15th anniversary, here are some facts about the ever-quotable comedy.

1. Deb is based on Jerusha Hess.

Jared Hess’s wife Jerusha co-wrote the film and based Deb on her own life. “Her mom made her a dress when she was going to a middle school dance and she said, ‘I hadn’t really developed yet, so my mom overcompensated and made some very large, fluffy shoulders,’” Jared told Rolling Stone. “Some guy dancing with her patted the sleeves and actually said, ‘I like your sleeves … they’re real big.'"

Tina Majorino, who played the fictional Deb, hadn’t done a comedy before, because people thought of her as a dramatic actress. "The fact that Jared would even let me come in and read really appealed to me," she told Rolling Stone. "Even if I didn’t get the role, I just wanted to see what it was like to audition for a comedy, as I’d never done it before."

2. Napoleon's famous dance scene was the result of having extra film stock.

At the end of shooting Peluca, Hess had a minute of film stock left and knew Heder liked to dance. Heder had on moon boots—something Hess used to wear—so they traveled to the end of a dirt road. They turned on the car radio and Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” was playing. “I just told him to start dancing and realized: This is how we’ve got to end the film,” Hess told Rolling Stone. “You don’t anticipate those kinds of things. They’re just part of the creative process.”

Heder told HuffPost he found inspiration in Michael Jackson and dancing in front of a mirror, for the end-of-the-movie skit. But when it came time to film the dance for the feature, Heder felt "pressure" to deliver. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ This isn’t just a silly little scene,” he told PDX Monthly. “This is the moment where everything comes, and he’s making the sacrifice for his friend. That’s the whole theme of the movie. Everything leads up to this. Napoleon’s been this loser. This has to be the moment where he lands a victory.” Instead of hiring a choreographer, the filmmakers told him to “just figure it out.” They filmed the scene three times with three different songs, including Jamiroquai’s “Little L” and “Canned Heat.”

3. Napoleon Dynamitefans still flock to Preston, Idaho to tour the movie's locations.

In a 2016 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, The Preston Citizen’s circulation manager, Rhonda Gregerson, said “every summer at least 50 groups of fans walk into the office wanting to know more about the film.” She said people come from all over the world to see Preston High School, Pedro’s house, and other filming locations as a layover before heading to Yellowstone National Park. “If you talk to a lot of people in Preston, you’ll find a lot of people who have become a bit sick of it,” Gregerson said. “I still think it’s great that there’s still so much interest in the town this long after the movie.”

Besides the filming locations, the town used to host a Napoleon Dynamite festival. In 2005, the fest drew about 6000 people and featured a tater tot eating contest, a moon boot dancing contest, boondoggle keychains for sale, and a tetherball tournament. The fest was last held in 2008.

4. Idaho adopted a resolution commending the filmmakers.

'Napoleon Dynamite' filmmakers Jerusha and Jared Hess
Jerusha and Jared Hess
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

In 2005, the Idaho legislature wrote a resolution praising Jared and Jerusha Hess and the city of Preston. HCR029 appreciates the use of tater tots for “promoting Idaho’s most famous export.” It extols bicycling and skateboarding to promote “better air quality,” and it says Kip and LaFawnduh’s relationship “is a tribute to e-commerce and Idaho’s technology-driven industry.” The resolution goes on to say those who “vote Nay on this concurrent resolution are Freakin’ Idiots.” Napoleon would be proud.

5. Napoleon was a different kind of nerd.

Sure, he was awkward, but Napoleon wasn’t as intelligent as other film nerds. “He’s not a genius,” Heder told HuffPost. “Maybe he’s getting good grades, but he’s not excelling; he’s just socially awkward. He doesn’t know how much of an outcast he is, and that’s what gives him that confidence. He’s trying to be cool sometimes, but mostly he just goes for it and does it.”

6. The title sequence featured several different sets of hands..

Eight months before the theatrical release, Fox Searchlight had Hess film a title sequence that made it clear that the film took place in 2004, not in the ’80s or ’90s. Napoleon’s student ID reveals the events occur during the 2004-2005 school year. Heder’s hands move the objects in and out of the frame, but Fox didn’t like his hangnails. “They flew out a hand model a couple weeks later, who had great hands, but was five or six shades darker than Jon Heder,” Hess told Art of the Title. “If you look, there are like three different dudes’ hands—our producer’s are in there, too.”

7. Napoleon Dynamite messed up Netflix's algorithms.

Beginning in 2006, Cinematch—Netflix’s recommendation algorithm software—held a contest called The Netflix Prize. Anyone who could make Cinematch’s predictions at least 10 percent more accurate would win $1 million. Computer scientist Len Bertoni had trouble predicting whether people would like Napoleon Dynamite. Bertoni told The New York Times the film is “polarizing,” and the Netflix ratings are either one or five stars. If he could accurately predict whether people liked the movie, Bertoni said, then he’d come much closer to winning the prize. That didn’t happen for him.

The contest finally ended in 2009 when Netflix awarded the grand prize to BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos, who developed a 10.06 percent improvement over Cinematch’s score.

8. Napoleon accidentally got a bad perm.


© 2004 Twentieth Century Fox

Heder got his hair permed the night before shooting began—but something went wrong. Heder called Jared and said, “‘Yeah, I got the perm but it’s a little bit different than it was before,’” Hess told Rolling Stone. “He showed up the night before shooting and he looked like Shirley Temple! The curls were huge!” They didn’t have much time to fix the goof, so Hess enlisted Jerusha and her cousin to re-perm it. It worked, but Jon wasn’t allowed to wash his hair for the next three weeks. “So he had this stinky ‘do in the Idaho heat for three weeks,” Jared said. “We were shooting near dairy farms and there were tons of flies; they were all flying in and out of his hair.”

9. LaFawnduh's real-life family starred in the film.

Shondrella Avery played LaFawnduh, the African American girlfriend of Kip, Napoleon’s older brother (played by Aaron Ruell). Before filming, Hess phoned Avery and said, “‘You remember that there were no black people in Preston, Idaho, right? Do you think your family might want to be in the movie?’ And that’s how it happened,” Avery told Los Angeles Weekly. Her actual family shows up at the end when LaFawnduh and Kip get married.

10. A short-lived animated series acted as a sequel.

In 2012, Fox aired six episodes of Napoleon Dynamite the animated series before they canceled it. All of the original actors returned to supply voices to their characters. The only difference between the film and the series is Kip is not married. Heder told Rolling Stone the episodes are as close to a sequel as fans will get. “If you sit down and watch those back to back, you’ve got yourself a sequel,” he said. “Because you’ve got all the same characters and all the same actors.”

This story has been updated for 2019.

Harry Potter Fans Are Waiting 10 Hours or More to Ride Hagrid’s Roller Coaster

Universal Orlando
Universal Orlando

Muggles will do anything to be a part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Universal Orlando opened up its newest ride this week at its version of Hogsmeade, the village that surrounds Hogwarts castle. Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure takes wannabe wizards and witches on a twisting, high-speed flight through the mystical Forbidden Forest.

Diehard fans began waiting overnight outside the park in anticipation of the ride, and it looks like just about everyone had the same idea. At 8:30 a.m. on opening day, the line was already eight hours long, and quickly stretched to 10 hours long by 10:30 a.m., CNN reports.

The line is worth the wait for many fans of the franchise. As Potterheads already know, Rubeus Hagrid, beloved friend of Harry Potter and the gang, has a special affinity for mysterious creatures. So who better to see the beasts of the forest with than the half-giant?

Participants on the ride can choose to sit in Hagrid’s sidecar or in the driver’s seat. The winding track includes appearances by some of our favorite wizards, like Arthur Weasley, and creatures benevolent and otherwise, such as Cornish pixies, massive spiders, and the three-headed dog, Fluffy.

Fans aren’t the only ones wanting to experience the ride. Some of the stars of the film series had a little reunion in Orlando this week to celebrate the opening, including Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) and Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood).

Unlike the fans, however, they have magic (fame) to keep them from having to wait in 10-hour lines.

Happy riding, Potterheads!

[h/t CNN]

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