Little Norse Prince - Released in Japan as The Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun, the Little Norse Prince was Isao Takahata's first film as director in 1968. It was also the first film on which Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, the founders of Studio Ghibli, worked on together as director and animator. Now, I'm not sure exactly where 'Hols' comes from but the nearest I can think is that it's from Horus, the Egyptian god of the sun.
After an encounter with the local wolves and a giant made of rock, Hols returns home with his friend Coro the bear cub to find his father dying. He asks Hols to return to the land that was their home before their village was destroyed and they fled south. No sooner has he reached land after sailing north, Hols is carried off by a crow and dumped on a mountain top to face Grunwalde the Ice Demon, the destroyer of Hols's village. He asks Hols to work for him, but when Hols refuses he casts him off the mountain.
His fall broken by an iceberg, Hols floats unconscious downriver to a village where a blacksmith family nurses him back to health. Hols finds happiness in the village and makes a name for himself after slaying a monster pike that has halted the fishing, but there are those in the village who don't trust him. Wolves attack the village and after Hols sees them off, he gives chase and runs into a girl called Hilda at the flooded ruins of his old home. He takes her back with him, but despite winning over the locals with her music, there's something not quite right about her.
The Little Norse Prince is nearly forty years old but doesn't show its age, looking better than films and cartoons made decades later. Whilst the animation is noticeably less smooth than what we're used to today, it fares well when you look back at other animation dating from the 60s and 70s and even 80s. One scene in particular involves a battle shown in quick, static cuts that could easily have seemed cheap but works very well at portraying the action. The art style is more European with only Hols displaying the traits associated with anime, and this fits with the mythical Norse setting. This setting also echoes in the story, with a glimpse at the hard lives in the lands of snow and ice and incorporating snippets of mythical tales such as taking the thorn from the lion's (in this case a giant of stone) paw, and that of the sword in the stone.
The Little Norse Prince fits firmly in the adventure genre, with a heroic Hols righting wrongs and swashing buckles, featuring the classic good vs. evil theme. However, it manages a little more depth than most with the character of Hilda who experiences a lot of conflict and ambiguity about her future. Hilda is also the first instance of the strong female character that recurs in Ghibli films, which for years have had female leads or strong supporting roles that aren't limited to the girlfriend or woman-in-peril stereotypes.
Alongside the rounded female characters we see the introduction of the animal companion, with both Hols and Hilda followed around by anthropomorphic chums in a way that we see again in Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa to name a few, and this identification with the animals is a part of the recurring theme of respect for nature that crops up in many of the Ghibli pictures. For its time, Little Norse Prince is a fantastic tale, but even up against the more recent hits it manages to carve a little place for itself. Decent characters, colourful backdrops and the odd mammoth made of ice help keep this ticking along nicely.
The picture is great, especially allowing for the age of the source material, and seems as colourful as when it was first released. The audio on offer is limited to the original Japanese, but this is in a clear stereo and it is unlikely that any dub that is available would have aged as well as the film itself has. Extras are limited to trailers for this, Grave of the Fireflies and Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, both pre-Studio Ghibli Miyazaki/Takahata films.
It has to be said that the Little Norse Prince is not the best of Optimum's Ghibli-related releases. Having said that, it's up against stiff competition and is a decent little fantasy/adventure film, think along the lines of Willow. Or something similar if you don't like Willow. All told the release of this film is happily not a cynical Ghibli cash-in and is instead a chance to see an old classic that may have otherwise been left unappreciated.
Well worth a watch.