Confined to her castle tower, Princess Arete watches the world outside her window. Sometimes she sneaks outside to watch the common people at work. Though still a child, her father the King and his ministers decide Arete must marry and secure the legacy of their great civilization. Across the kingdom, knights compete to win her hand by retrieving mysterious magic objects made by a long dead race of sorcerers. The king’s ministers hoard these treasures, but Arete wants none of this and sees through her scheming suitors’ phoney professions of love. She longs to study magic. To travel to exotic lands she has only seen in books hidden under bed.
A chance encounter with a little witch who lost her magic and the discovery of a powerful spell book, fuels Arete’s desire to “become something more than a princess.” One day the sorcerer Boax arrives in his fantastic flying machine. “Your princess has a wicked mind!” he tells the anxious courtiers. “She will never become the sheath you desire.” His solution? “Make her my wife and I will transform her into a proper princess.” Aided by Grovel the frog boy, Boax spirits Princess Arete away to his decrepit castle, where he casts a spell that turns her into a beautiful woman with an enfeebled mind. While Boax studies the spell book, Arete struggles to break free.
This thoughtful, intelligent anime is worthy of comparison to the films of Studio Ghibli. In fact, writer-director Sunao Katabuchi - who helmed the inferior Black Lagoon (2007) - was an assistant director on Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and scriptwriter on Sherlock Hound (1984). With a source novel (“The Clever Princess” by Diana Coles) drawn from English children’s literature; a bright, independent-minded heroine; lush, evocative animation that merges medieval designs with steampunk fantasy (Boax’s flying machine resembles Leonardo Da Vinci’s helicopter); and a borderline Marxist subtext - the Ghibli influence is heavily apparent. Yet far from mere pastiche, Princess Arete is an enthralling, substantial piece of work.
More a fantasy drama than an adventure romp, the slow pace and unconventional plotting, coupled with a tendency to let viewers figure things out for themselves, may alienate some children and steadfast action fans. Frankly, it’s their loss. Princess Arete examines the dilemmas faced by an intelligent, young girl in medieval Europe with a poet’s hand. Feminism, child exploitation, class conflict and intellectual awakening, all figure in the literate screenplay.
The child bride issue is tackled with wit and insight, as Arete cringes in embarrassment while grown men spout inane love poetry. She beats the boastful Daraboa in a game of chess (in five moves!) and spurns a second knight who tries to fool her with a rose stolen from the royal garden. When Arete speaks of her kingdom’s greatness, Daraboa misunderstands and salivates over its breadth and wealth. Arete points to her subjects. “What is important is each of their minds.” Her cleverness unsettles people including the King who shows not an ounce of fatherly concern throughout the movie. When Boax traps her, it is in the guise of a traditionally passive fairytale heroine who believes she should “sleep and wait for a handsome prince who will save me.” The big set piece is audaciously simple: a young woman sitting in a chair slowly reawakens her mind by the power of a story - one that blossoms into an affecting metaphor for empathic and intellectual growth. Like the best of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, Princess Arete takes a humane view of its characters, with even Boax allotted some sympathy. Scintillating sci-fi twists spin the story in intriguing directions, with a character revealed as the last of an alien race and a mythic golden eagle unmasked as a spaceship.