Taiyô no Ôji Horusu no Daibôken (literally The Sun Prince Hols' Great Adventure) is the earliest Japanese animation to be released here by over a decade, which alone is bound to give it at least some novelty value. Being the very first to curve away from children and towards a young adult audience leaves it with a mixture of action and drama with the big musical numbers and naïve visual humour which we would associate with western cartoons. Quality is assured with the presence of Studio Ghibli founders Takahata Isao and Miyazaki Hayao as director and key animator respectively. The fantastical, myth-like story and setting (a fusion of northern Japan and Scandinavia) are certainly more akin to Miyazaki's films, though here they're treated with Takahata's characteristic objectivity and some political themes, more explicit than in their later work but still not the whole point of it. The nearest to it I could think of at the time I first watched it was Disney's Brother Bear, and there's evidence, even if it's more tenuous, that it could have been influenced by this as The Lion King was by Kimba the White Lion. The ending of Kirikou and the Sorceress also felt strongly reminiscent the dramatic encounters in this. But I prefer Hols over either those for its sense, almost smell, of folklore and "fushigi."
To be honest both the moral ("Co-operation is good!") and treachery-based plot are almost unbearably familiar today but the presentation manages to make it worth watching. Glaciated peaks, powdery snow and in particular the foam of turbulent streams (which I doubt has ever been done as well as it is here) are all lovingly detailed; voice acting is good even by Japanese standards and the music is rarely spectacular, but it's enjoyable and there's plenty of it. Most of all, there's this rare, strange to point of enchanting sense of melancholy permeating throughout much of the film, offset with scenes of scenes of ecstatic jubilation and Unfortunately the character designs are mostly unimaginative and don't go well with each other, but there are a few in the pleasingly simple style which was used in recent Legend of Zelda games. The only real problem is in the DVD treatment - it's sub-only, which is better than dub-only but restricts its appeal to younger viewers, and none of the songs appear in the subtitles. The lyrics aren't essential to the story but they add a beauty and emotion to it which has now been denied from the English-language audience. The also inconsistencies in the translation of honorifics and, as friend more knowledgeable in Japanese than I noticed, at least one outright mistake in the translation. Similarly the only extras are trailers for Hols and two other films (and badly damaged, unrestored transfers of them at that) which is not much but better than nothing. Some will also be put off by two sequences of stills with only sound effects, but there is generally much more background animation than is normally found in anime and this gives it considerable re-watching potential.
If this film had a better transfer, full and accurate subtitles and perhaps a little more in the way of extras, it would have got 5 stars. As it is, the weaknesses of the release bring it down by 2, and while I'd still recommend it for fellow fans of folklore and older animation, I don't consider it "great" enough by objective standards to still be 5-star material despite these significant drawbacks. If you liked this, I'd recommend the films "Fantastic Planet" (French animation) and "Raise the Red Lantern" (Chinese live-action) as well as the more obvious comparisons to Miyazaki's "Laputa" and "Princess Mononoke," with the same applying the other way round if you've seen any of those. Though differing greatly in subject and visual style, there's some feeling which unites them, something like ancient folklore mixing with the real and immediate.