Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Revisiting "The Adventures of Milo and Otis"

Masanori Hata spent four years making his beloved children's classic, known in Japan as Koneko Monogatori or A Kitten's Story, and released in the United States in 1989, re-edited and with a brand new soundtrack, featuring narration by Dudley Moore and a wide range of classical pieces, as The Adventures of Milo and Otis. The film tells the story of Milo, a mischievous orange kitten, and his best friend, a fawn pug puppy named Otis, who is decidedly more staid and does his best to keep Milo out of scrapes. This friendship is put to the test when Milo hides in a floating box as a prank and ends up floating helplessly down the river. Otis, never swayed by a challenge, pursues the box, running along the shore.

The film is great for many reasons. From a purely visual perspective, this film shows more of the gorgeous natural variety of Japan than any other Japanese film. Milo and Otis travel through farm country reminiscent of New England, to swampy beaches like something out of The Dark Crystal, Grimmsian forests and cliffs with the ocean churning below. The film is beautifully shot, and appears to use natural lighting for many, if not most, of the daytime shots. The choice of using a narrator, rather than giving the characters specific voices, is part of what elevates the film above similar fare. Watching The Adventures of Milo and Otis recaptures the intensity of being read a story as a child, the film's beautiful visuals assisting our too often rusty adult imaginations.

From a narrative perspective, The Adventures of Milo and Otis is a fantasy of friendship, a parable that explores one of the most important bonds in our lives, as well as one of the most cinematically neglected. Friendship has lost a lot of value in popular culture, with cinematic friends more likely to be either sidekicks without personal challenges of their own, accepting of the protagonist as the center of the universe, or a potential love interest. In children's films however, friendship is more likely to be the focus, though even in children's films, the dominating focus of romantic love can be overwhelming. One of the reasons that Hata's film is so wonderful is that it doesn't present a perfect friendship.

Once Otis has been reunited with his trouble-making friend after rescuing him from a pit, his objective is to lead them home to their farm, but Milo has other ideas as soon as he lays eyes on Joyce. Otis feels, justifiably, left out in the cold and is utterly mystified by the silly behavior of the two enamored cats, and decides to strike out on his own. Otis soon understands Milo's behavior though, when he encounters Sandra. During the long winter, both Milo and Otis father families and in the spring, the dogs and the cats reunite to continue the journey home. The friendship between Milo and Otis grows and changes as the two characters grow into adulthood, with romantic love alienating them. Their reunion isn't a return to the all-encompassing loyalty that brought them on their adventure in the first place, but rather a new beginning based on their shared journey into the next stage of their lives. Unlike most children's films, which buy into fairy tale notions of forever, The Adventures of Milo and Otis is about how nothing lasts forever if it doesn't grow and change. Nearly a decade later, The Lion King would explore a similar idea, particularly in Elton John's song, "The Circle of Life," but this film is decidedly more meditative and sensitive.

It is unfortunate, given the film's visual splendor, that The Adventures of Milo and Otis, is not available in the original widescreen format, but the pan-and-scanned DVD at least gives an approximation of what the film looks like. The original Japanese version, which is about twenty minutes longer and has a completely different soundtrack (and presumably an altered story), is not available with English subtitles. One hopes that a special edition DVD with both versions might be released. But, despite these frustrations, The Adventures of Milo and Otis is a joy for both adults and children, gentle, profound, and elegant.

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