Some boys want to fly planes. Some boys want to drive 230 mph. And some boys want to soar above the desert in a custom Mustang hauled by a helicopter.
Let's start with the first, least outlandish scenario. The Wind Rises is the latest — and perhaps last — directorial effort from renowned Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. It's a semifictionalized biography of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that follows the structure of a traditional biopic, with two key exceptions. First, young Jiro's surreal dreams of flight, which mutate in sinister ways as he grows up, are a major part of the narrative. Second, the story is missing its final chapter, in which the real Horikoshi's most famous creation — the Mitsubishi Zero fighter — would wreak havoc in World War II.
A mood of regret permeates The Wind Rises, yet it never directly depicts the wartime horrors that inspire that melancholy. To understand its strange tonal mix, the audience needs to know that the achievement for which its hero strives — a lighter, more efficient bomber — is precisely the cause of his future infamy. Miyazaki is well known as both an airplane enthusiast and a pacifist, and in Jiro's story, his two passions collide.
The tension works itself out incompletely in Jiro's dreams, where he converses with Giovanni Battista Caproni, the great Italian aircraft designer who saw his creations turn deadly in the First World War. "Do you prefer a world with pyramids, or without pyramids?" Caproni asks Jiro, suggesting that great design is its own justification. The lives lost in the Great Pyramids' creation don't negate their achievement.
Viewers may or may not buy this rationalization. But it's hard to deny that The Wind Rises stands like a pyramid in the world of animation. As always, Miyazaki's sweeping, hand-drawn vistas make their digital counterparts look shoddy. Whether the film is recreating the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 or depicting a small, tender moment between Jiro and his future wife (Emily Blunt), its beauty almost suffices to distract you from pesky questions about the consequences of Jiro's driving ambition.
Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) has a driving ambition, too, and it involves driving. Lots of driving. Let's get this straight: Need for Speed is based on Electronic Arts' video-game series of the same name, but it's actually an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Fast and Furious franchise.
All the elements are in place: Our hero is a working-class joe who heads a wise-cracking, multiethnic crew of mechanics and street racers. He weathers melodramatic tribulations — a dead friend, a prison stint — to face off against a slimy, privileged villain (Dominic Cooper). And he stars in CGI-aided automotive stunts as entertaining as they are absurd. If you seek a realistic racing film, this ain't it.
The film's first act — the melodrama — drags on too long, and the members of Marshall's posse aren't as well differentiated as the Fast and Furious ensemble. Once our hero embarks on a high-speed road trip with racing aficionado Julia (Imogen Poots), however, the pace quickens. There's undeniable fun in watching the aforementioned Mustang dodge schoolbuses and soar over highway medians. Never mind that the movie could be subtitled Death Race 2014, given that similar exploits in real life would incur hundreds of innocent casualties.
Paul applies his acting chops (well honed on "Breaking Bad") to the material, but to no real purpose. It's hard to care about Marshall's revenge-and-redemption quest when the characters in Need for Speed are far more cartoonish than Miyazaki's cartoons. The flick makes for a passable high-speed diversion, but expect to forget it as quickly as Marshall zooms into high gear.